Encountering Mercy: Welcoming the Stranger
“Encountering Mercy” is a series that explores the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the people whose lives exemplify them. The first is “Welcome the Stranger” and features profiles of refugees living in the Diocese of Camden, bringing to light their stories of suffering and resilience and their contributions to their new communities.
At a typical 9:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Lindenwold, the pews look a little like a world map. That’s a point of pride for pastor Father Joseph Capella and, he says, for his parishioners.
“A number of parishioners have come and told me that’s one of the things they like about the parish, that it’s so diverse,” Father Capella says.
The community comprises a large Latino population, as well as a number of parishioners from countries in the African continent. It’s also home to South Jersey’s largest Burmese Catholic community, made up of refugees from Myanmar (Burma).
One of these is Nga Reh, who goes to Mass every Sunday with his three teenage children (his wife works on Sundays). The family arrived in the U.S. in January 2014 and almost immediately began attending Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Reh is from a persecuted ethnic minority in Myanmar called the Karen and speaks one of the group’s many dialects. His family fled horrific violence, carried out by Myanmar’s military dictatorship, and civil war in 1998. They lived in a refugee camp along the Myanmar-Thailand border for 16 years. Two of his children were born there.
The refugee camps have existed for 30 years and yet the Thai government considers them temporary settlements. The only permissible building materials are wood so fires are common. Higher education is unattainable. The refugees have no pathway to permanent status in Thailand and no right to work there, but political instability and the threat of persecution mean that a return to their home country is still impossible.
The U.S. has taken in 70,000 refugees from the Thailand camps since 2005, but there are still an estimated 140,000 refugees from Myanmar living in the nine refugee camps along the Thai border. Refugees from Myanmar have made up one of the largest groups of refugees to come to the U.S. in recent years.
Reh’s family received resettlement services from Catholic Charities and moved into an apartment in Somerdale where almost all of his neighbors are also refugees from Myanmar. On Sundays, a van provided by Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish picks up many of them and brings them to Mass. For Reh, who doesn’t yet own a car, the service is indispensable.
The parish purchased the van about three years ago. Now emblazoned with “Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish,” it provides transportation for the refugee families and serves various other roles in the parish’s social ministries. Although it began with the Burmese refugees in mind, it now also serves other parish families who don’t have a means of transportation. The service is operated by parish volunteers.
The shuttle service to Mass isn’t the only way the parish reaches out to the Burmese community. Several of the refugee families participate in a community garden program that the parish hosts on the grounds of the rectory and another parish property. The families use the gardens to plant traditional produce. In the summer, Father Capella says he often finds a basket of fresh vegetables on his back steps.
He incorporates historical information about the different cultural groups that make up his parish — for example, the Salvadoran civil war that prompted the mass migration of Salvadoran immigrants, many of whom now make up the parish, or the situations in Myanmar or African countries that have caused people to leave their homelands — into homilies, bulletin messages, and meetings of the parish council, the Knights of Columbus, and lay ministers.
“We made a real effort to try and educate our wider community, not just about the Burmese, but about all the different people who make up our faith community,” Father Capella said. “With each group we try to be specific and explain why they are here.”
During the Christmas season, parishioners adopt several of the refugee families for Christmas gifts and other items. Children from Myanmar make up the majority of the parish’s summer School of Peace camp. The parish school has developed a scholarship fund that has helped several Latino and Burmese children enroll. Father Capella says he hears parishioners compliment the traditional, vibrant fabrics Burmese women wear to church or speak to the group of families as they wait for the shuttle.
“Our parishioners have had the ability to meet these people face to face; they’ve had an opportunity not just to read about them in the newspaper or hear about them on television but to really have an encounter with them, meet with them, worship in the same community as them. That makes a whole different impact on a person,” Father Capella said.
“This Jubilee year has given us the opportunity to connect those dots for people, to help them see that what they’re doing is not just something academic. It’s really living out their faith. The vast majority of people are just good, caring people, so we have to make that connection for them — that this is what we’re about as Catholic Christians, this is taking the faith and incarnating it, bringing it to life.”
Reh speaks little English and attends daily language classes at Catholic Charities. Through a Karenni interpreter, he says that his fellow parishioners will often come up and speak to him. Even though he doesn’t understand what they say, he says he feels welcome.
“I go to church because I want to worship, even though I don’t understand,” he says through the interpreter. “The language doesn’t matter, because we believe in God.”
The mercy of embracing refugees
In 2000, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral statement on immigration and cultural diversity, Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity, provided guidance for Catholic communities on embracing ever increasing cultural diversity in parishes brought about by immigration.
“Unity in diversity is the vision that we bishops, as pastors of the Church in the United States, offer to our people as they welcome the new immigrants and refugees who come to our shores … This diversity of ethnicity, education and social class challenges us as pastors to welcome these new immigrants and help them join our communities in ways that are respectful of their cultures and in ways that mutually enrich the immigrants and the receiving church. …
“The call to communion goes out to all members of the church — bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders and parishioners — to prepare themselves to receive the newcomers with a genuine spirit of welcome. Simple, grace-filled kindness and concern on the part of all parishioners to newcomers are the first steps. This can be accompanied by language and culture study as well as constant and patient efforts at intercultural communication. …
“We call upon all people of good will, but Catholics especially, to welcome the newcomers in their neighborhoods and schools, in their places of work and worship, with heartfelt hospitality, openness, and eagerness both to help and to learn from our brothers and sisters, of whatever race, religion, ethnicity, or background.”