Courtesy to Strangers: Lessons Learned and Now Forgotten?

Last month was definitely not the high water mark for civility in American public culture: coming hot on the heals of cool summer that was punctuated with red hot political rhetoric at the Congressional Town Hall meetings on healthcare reform, September of 2009 may well be remembered as the month that the American public as a whole became aware many figures in the popular culture were in desperate need of a tutorial from Miss Manners. Whether it was Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift to publicly disrespect her during her reception of an MTV music award, to Serena Williams’ very public – and vulgar – dressing down of a referee at the U.S. Open; it seemed that everyone from entertainers to athletes forgot the most basic lessons of civility and sportsmanship that our parents teach us at home and our teachers re-enforce in Kindergarten. It was the actions of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson however – who with a very angry and audible outburst of “You lie!” interrupted a speech President Obama was giving to Congress back on September 9th – that unacceptable behavior by public figures hit a surprising low: given the position that Congressman Wilson holds, the venue and timing of his outburst in the Congressional Chamber, and the intended recipient of his insult (the President) – you would think that a Congressman should know better!

Later on, when I learned that the supposed provocation of Congressman Wilson’s outburst was President Obama’s statement that the new healthcare legislation proposed in Congress would not cover illegal immigrants, I must admit that my initial shock at the Congressman’s comments was replaced by both a profound sadness and an utter lack of surprise that the issue of immigration was the catalyst that launched his outburst. This emotional response on my part is born of the fact that – as regards intolerance and issues of immigration – I have unfortunately been witness to some the more uncharitable exchanges that pass for public discourse these days. What was the cause of this? Well, several months ago a number of pastors asked our Department developed a series of bulletin announcements that call attention to the vulnerable position our immigrant brothers and sisters occupy in society, as well as the profound concern the Church has for them. The entire text of each and every one of these bulletin announcements – which have been running monthly since July of this year – is taken straight out of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s documents: “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope”, published as a pastoral response to the issues of migration back in 2003 (link). The feedback that we have received in response to these bulletin announcements (my telephone number and e-mail are listed for those seeking more information) have been varied: many of the comments are supportive – some who contact us are immigrants who are either seeking assistance or are grateful that the Church stands with them in their struggles, and others are individuals concerned with the plight of immigrants and their families living within their parish communities. Our Department however has also been the recipient of some responses that are the exact opposite of supportive: calling the content of the announcements things such as “ambiguous nonsense”, more then a few of these responses go on to slander today’s immigrants in terms so hurtful and uncharitable they don’t bear repeating here. I have to admit, in all my years of working for the Church and advocating on behalf of Her positions on some very controversial issues, the vitriol I have read and heard expressed in response to these bulletin announcements is astonishing; and the fact that these writers and callers are presumably responding as result of their attendance at Church just adds to my profound sadness at this situation.

Whenever we receive a response to our bulletin announcements our Department always responds back: to those seeking assistance, we try to connect them with the right people here at Catholic Charities who can help them; to those who complain, we try to point out that we are only promulgating the teachings of our Bishops and our Church (you would be surprised how many of those who complain refer to the content of the bulletin announcements as “my” statements!) Because the content of some of these statements are so outrageous I can’t help but believe that they are made more out of ignorance then experience. Instead of just responding back in writing, what I would really love to do for these folks is to have them accompany me to places like St. Mary’s Parish on the Lower East Side, where on September 14th I attended an interfaith prayer service in support of our immigrant brothers and sisters called “One Family Under God”. If those people accompanied me there, they would encounter a multi-hued and multi-lingual community of people standing together as brothers and sisters united in the family of a merciful God; they would hear the testimonies of individuals and families struggling to live in, work for and contribute to a community not of their birth but still grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded them here (See some video of the Prayer Service here). The stories I heard there at that Church reminded me so very much of the stories that I heard growing up about my own family, the struggles my ancestors endured to prosper in a country not of their birth, and the tremendous gratefulness that there was to a nation that welcomed them in and gave them opportunity where before there was none. In fact, one of the testimonies that I heard at St. Mary’s – from a woman extremely proud of her own heritage but additionally grateful to be a resident of this country which has allowed her and her family so much opportunity – reminded me of a story that my mother has told about when she was growing up in St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on University Avenue and Fordham Road in the Fordham section of the Bronx. The child of immigrant parents from Ireland like almost everyone else in that neighborhood at that time, my mother was very proud of her Irish heritage, but even prouder to be an American – the country that had welcomed her parents when their own could no longer support them. So proud was my Mom that when she took her first job at Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse and they asked her what ethnicity she was (you could do that in those days), she replied with the now politically incorrect term, “American Indian”. Well, you could just imagine the ribbing she took when my Grandmother came to visit her one day at work: when she approached the bank manager to asked for my mother, he smiled, went to go find my Mom and told her that her mother was there to see her, and “that for an American Indian, she had a lovely Irish brogue” (to use another now politically incorrect term).

Of course, just about every American family whose ancestors are not Native American could undoubtedly tell the same or a similar story. It doesn’t escape me that I am writing this posting the week of Columbus Day – a holiday that should remind us all that – except for the Native Americans, all of us who call this wonderful continent of North America home are all descended from people from other places. My ancestors arrived here in New York by boat – on my Mom’s side it was by steamship – on my Dad’s (whose family has been here much longer) it was by sailing ship. When they came, they were welcomed by some, and disparaged by others. Often today, when we remember our immigrant ancestors, we sometimes romanticize what they encountered upon their arrival; we sometimes think that those coming today “are just different” from our ancestors. From my own perspective of course, any cursory glance at a description of the Five-Points Slum in lower Manhattan at the times of mass Irish immigration demonstrates that anti-immigrant sentiments and prejudices (link) are not unique to today, but instead sadly have belonged to every period of American history.

Immigration as an issue is about many things, but boiled down – the way I see it – in this nation of immigrants it should really be about primarily three: assimilation, memory and encounter. For the immigrant, the experience is primarily about assimilation and how difficult it is to assimilate into a new culture without loosing your own. For the native born descendent of immigrants, it’s primarily about memory, and remembering that we too are decedents of immigrants who undoubtedly had difficultly assimilating to a culture different then their own – a difficulty that was often exacerbated by prejudice of the then native born against those different from themselves, a memory that should all but eliminate any prejudice to the newcomers among us today. For all of us – immigrants and native born – our experience of one another should be one of encounter – like the one I had at St. Mary’s Parish – where we all treat one another as precious members of the single family of God.


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