Welcoming "the other" in our midst

Welcoming "the other" in our midst

By Fr. Virgilio Elizondo

Let’s begin by looking at our own Christian identity. At its core is the mandate of Jesus, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations.” In the past, the glory of the church has been missionaries going out to strange lands, to learn foreign languages, get adjusted to new foods and customs and to bring the Word of God. Our mission magazines feature people going out into the jungles or slums of Africa or South America. And that has been very appealing to people; people are happy to give to the mission in far away places. And there is a great deal of good in that.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that if Jesus was here today, he probably would have said not only to go out and make disciples of nations, he probably would say, “Welcome all the people who come into your midst. That is not as exciting or as exotic. You might be very excited about funding your mission to go “out there,” but it might be very scary when people who are different want to play with your children or worship at your church or live in your convent. I think our challenge today is the welcome challenge. The welcome challenge is to embrace the diversity in our midst, to welcome those who are rejected because of color, economic class, sexual orientation, or criminal record. These people are not out there; they are in our midst.

Cultural diversity is a reality; it’s become a reality in Europe, and it’s even more so here in the United States. It’s a reality throughout the Western world. According to the last count I heard, Mass is celebrated in 72 different languages on any given Sunday in the Los Angeles area. The diversity is here. What are our choices? Are we going to have ghettos? Separate parishes, separate provinces? That approach served a purpose at a certain moment in American history, but I believe we need to recognize a new moment. The moment we are in right now calls for a welcome approach, welcoming the stranger in our midst.

Look at the model of Jesus. He was noted for breaking the rules in favor of people. He was noted for transgressing the most sacred taboos in favor of including the excluded. And not only including them but bringing something forth from that inclusion. At the core of Jesus’s ministry was the joy of fellowship. He had such a good time with people that his enemies said he was a drunk and a glutton and a friend of public sinners. He was willing to break taboos, not just to break them but in favor of people. He ferreted out the truth of Scripture that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and if we don’t see the beauty and divinity in a person, it’s not because they’re not there. It’s because the world has been too blinded by sin to be able to see the truth of God. The truth of God is the dignity and worth, not only of each individual, but of human groups. We also believe that every human group is both contaminated with sin and blessed with grace.

God is calling the disadvantaged

And within that state of sin and grace, we must welcome others. We must go and seek them out, not just wait for them. Let’s go out and invite people by name like Jesus did. There are people who feel they are unworthy, that they are undignified, they cannot make it. The call today is still for everyone, but especially for those whom Jesus called—the most disadvantaged of society. That is who Jesus drew from, and that is where we need to draw from today. So let’s bring others within our midst and see them not as problems but as blessings.

Within the Latino tradition, we have a custom that illuminates this notion of the “problem” that becomes a blessing. The Posadas are a ritual game that takes place before Christmas. We go from house to house asking for shelter just as Joseph and Mary did. At each house we are rejected, we’re told to get out of there, we’ll beat you up, we’ll call the cops on you. Finally a house receives Jesus and Mary, and the whole atmosphere changes. There’s great festivity, great singing and fiesta. But the marvelous thing about the Posadas is not the homeless who rejoice when they find shelter, but the joy in the home that receives the homeless. In receiving the two wanderers, this home receives the very self of God. This home dwells in the joy of receiving God into its midst. So let’s take the Posadas message to heart and see the people society sees as a problem and view them as vessels of God.

If our communities are going to receive the people on the margins, people who are different from us, how will we do that? There is no exact answer. We begin in prayer, profound prayer, for the Spirit to lead us toward creativity and boldness. Second is conversion. Each one of us needs to undergo a conversion of the heart and mind. All of us are so used to thinking that our ways are the correct ways. For me, I presuppose that the abrazo (hug) is natural for everyone. But when I was in Asia, I really had to learn to keep my distance and to know that I must bow differently according to the dignity of the person I was greeting. I had to undergo a conversion of heart of learn this new way of being.

So first is conversion of the heart and mind. We must take on an attitude of neutrality about difference, not seeing it as a threat or something to fear. We must see otherness as a gift of God. I’m going to be excited about discovering the beauty of an-other. Father John Linskens worked in many parts of the world. When he left Holland and went to the Philippines, he was extremely judgmental. He constantly kept judging, “Why do the Filipinos have to be so backward? Why do they have to do things this way or that way?” Gradually, he started to see the wisdom in what they were doing. He discovered that they weren’t really so backward; it wasn’t really so bad to live in the Philippines. The same thing happened in the next country and the next. He said, “Each time I looked back, I realized that I had to die a little to my Dutch-ness, but each time I did, I became no less of a Dutchman, but I became much more of a human being.” That, my friends, is the paschal mystery. We learn to die a little to the idols within us, even though we might not recognize them as idols. We become no less who we are, but we do become more human.

Enter into their stories

I have some practical pointers on how we do this welcoming of others. First, give yourself time to enter into the stories of others. Nothing helps us appreciate others more than to enter into their stories. We learn so much from the stories people tell; they put us in communion with them. So take the time to listen to the stories of others. Reclaim your own stories. This kind of sharing teaches us so much.

Pay attention to language

Secondly, be mindful of how very, very emotionally deep language is. When you make an effort to learn my language, that tells me how really important I am to you. One of the things that has fascinated the world about Pope John Paul II is his ability to address people in their language. They say he is the first foreign dignitary that ever addressed the Japanese people in Japanese. He doesn’t know Japanese, but he learned how to read it. They write it for him in Latin letters, and he reads aloud in Japanese.

Let me tell you a story about the power of language. In San Antonio we’re a tri-ethnic town–Polish, Mexican and German. I decided to learn some Polish, and I mastered a few phrases, including the Hail Mary. I was making hospital visits one day, and I stopped to visit this gentleman. I remember him perfectly; he had white hair, very white skin, deep blue eyes. I talked with him and got nothing back. No response. No response whatsoever. He was alive and awake, but no response. His blue eyes were like two daggers ready to kill me. So I left the room frustrated and ran into his daughter. “Oh Father,” she says, “I’m so glad you’re visiting my father.”

“It didn’t do much good,” I told her. “He wouldn’t say a word.” “Well, Father,” she says, “there are two reasons. First, my father became very angry at the Catholic Church because the only time they would send a Polish-speaking priest was when they needed to get money from us. Otherwise the Polish were not served in this area. The second reason my father wouldn’t speak to you is that because of that, he hates priests.”

Well, that’s actually a good reason for not speaking. So I said, “Let’s try again.” I went in and I used my couple of phrases in Polish, spoken of course with a Mexican accent. He started talking and smiling and I would shake my head, “Dopsha” or nod my head, “Dopsha,” and at the end I said the Hail Mary and made the sign of the cross, said, “God bless you” and left.

The next morning I was visiting some friends and they told me, “The doctors are amazed at the recovery of Mr. Nowak. He was so excited about having a Polish speaking priest here that he’s recovering his health.” Well, the recovery was brief, as he had terminal cancer, but from then on when I went in, it was the same thing every day, “How are you?” Yes, no, yes, no, Hail Mary, God bless you. At the end of his life, his daughter told me he wanted to make a confession in the church. It was beautiful. Of course since the whole thing was in Polish, it’s surely a confession that I can never reveal! This man understood the effort. It wasn’t just talk going on between us. There is an emotional power to language.

So use language in the songs, include it in the greetings, recognize that language is important to others, and make it important to you.

Decorations count

Another aspect of creating a welcoming atmosphere is to be mindful of decorations. These can create an atmosphere that will make people feel welcome and at home. At the cathedral in San Antonio where I’m pastor, we have a lot of Mexicans. I wanted them to really feel at home, so I asked them what would make them feel that way. They told me their favorite devotion was to the Black Christ of Esquipulas. So we arranged to have a Black Christ of Esquipulas crucifix made, and immediately the Mexican people loved it. You can go by and see hundreds of pictures and notes around it.

The people have a deep devotion to it. Tourists come by and ask, can I leave a picture of my son here? Sure, absolutely—anybody can. It’s amazing the power of that. So people are at home now.

It didn’t matter that the new crucifix was crucifix number five in the church. We already had a crucifix over here, and another one there, and liturgists might get a headache over adding this one, but the church is not for liturgists. It’s for the people. The Black Christ of Esquipulas is what brought them in and spoke to them and made them feel comfortable. It’s very important.

Music for the soul

How else do we make people feel welcome? Music. It’s the language of the heart. We enrich each other with our music. Some of the songs of the liturgy incorporate different languages for one song. We have some beautiful songs in English and Spanish, but why not push it and use Vietnamese or Korean? This is especially good with little children. They love to learn a couple of languages, as it comes to them easily. But use music of other cultures because it makes people of those cultures feel at home.

Multicultural feast days

Another way of welcoming people is celebrating feast days by incorporating their traditions. For instance, Latinos celebrate the feast of the Presentation by offering their babies during the Mass. There’s a special ritual whereby we bring our children to the altar to offer them to God; it’s a beautiful tradition. Pentecost is the perfect feast day to be inclusive in your liturgies. Maybe you have the Irish bring the linen, the French bring the wine, the Italians the bread, and another group sings. Then you have one liturgy because we’re all united in Christ.

Invite people on the margins

I want to return again to our great challenge today, which is to invite at-risk people, people who are suffering. A great strength of the Evangelicals is that they invite people who are suffering. I know a man who used to be a male prostitute selling crack to support his habit. One day his mother had a powerful experience of the Lord in an Evangelical church. So she dragged him along with her one Sunday. He did not want to go, and he didn’t go willingly. But when he got there this Evangelical preacher looked at him and said, “The Lord is calling you to preach the Word of God.” Well, that young man went from selling his body one Sunday to selling the Word of God the next Sunday. Because he was invited. Today he has a doctorate in theology from a famous theologate; he has a thriving congregation, and he’s an incredible preacher. He preaches about what the Lord did for him.

Are we willing to take a chance on at-risk people? People with profound scars? Are we willing to reach people who have been hurt by society and healed in the Lord? Maybe that’s one of the things that’s missing in our church. Maybe we’re taking people who haven’t suffered that much. Christian mission comes out of suffering. We commit ourselves to work so that others don’t have to suffer what we’ve endured. Can we take a look at people who don’t have a proper education? Who don’t come from a good background? Can we make a special effort to take them in? I think that’s one of the great challenges we have.

We are in a privileged moment. At no time in history have so many diverse people dwelled together in the same space as in the U.S. today. This is an incredible phenomenon. God, who has brought us together, can take what could be the most awful chaos and turn it into a marvelous breakthrough. I’m convinced that your vocation as religious, your willingness to be daring and creative and Spirit-filled, can make you a great source of world peace. If you can bring diverse people together in your congregations, you can share that with American society, and you can share it with the world. Dare to dream the dreams that haven’t yet been dreamt. Dare to imagine that which has never been imagined, and believe me, you’ll be a great instrument in bringing forth the Kingdom of God.

Rev. Virgilio Elizondo is founder and first president of the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) in San Antonio. He is currently the director of programming at Catholic Television of San Antonio and a professor at MACC and at University of Notre Dame. In addition, he is the author of many books and articles and lectures nationally and internationally.




Loving Creator God,

you call into life everything

beautiful and everything good.

Out of chaos and diversity,

you create harmony and community.

Out of many colors and hues, you bring forth rainbows.

Out of earth, wind, fire and water,

you call us into being.

We pray that you continue

to call forth ministers and disciples

from the many cultures

and communities that comprise

our Church today.

May our future religious sisters, brothers and priests

reflect the rich diversity

revealed in the Trinity

and present in our universe,

now and forever. Amen.

From NRVC Convocation 2002

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