My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Part II: Bridging Cultural Divides Can Be Inspiring

Happy Columbus Day!
What do we love most 
about America? 
Hopefully, her people...

America is a melting pot and we should enjoy that reality.
Photo by Bartholomew Family
Attending a Catholic conference alone near Chicago one year, I sat amidst a sea of Filipinos. Some people understandably hate ice-breakers, but I figured I'd might as well be a good sport. Before the conference officially opened, I joined in singing a jaunty little tune that had everyone nodding and greeting each other: "Roll over the ocean, roll over the sea, open up your hearts and build community." 

It sounds corny, and it was. We rolled our arms 1970's disco fashion to represent the ocean. (I hesitate admitting this, since such activities get some people skittling for the door!) During the refrain, "It's you, it's you, it's you who build community," we all nodded, grinned and pointed to each other.  

Sounds like the stuff of nightmares? It was a bit surreal! But then I got over myself. Here I was on a Saturday morning, singing to a little, elderly Filipino man, who had this mischievous expression in his eyes as he belted out the song in heavily-accented English. I learned you absolutely cannot sing a bouncy song and point your finger at someone, while keeping a straight face. All the work-week cares, family conflicts, traffic aggravations seemed to lift off that crowd and fly out the window. Along with cultural divides, of course. By God's grace, we were building community. All ages, all ethnic groups were one in that moment, simply giving in to the goofiness and amiability of it all. Afterwards, we sat predisposed to glean good out of the talks and prayer, the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. Was that song dignified? No, it was childlike. It gave me a kick to see adults lightening up in that moment. Something important clicked inside me, or I wouldn't remember the scene so clearly after all these years. I can sing that tune even today.

Why should we try bridging cultural divides? 

Father Augustine Tolton, the first
African-American priest, fervently
bridged cultural divides. 
"When we look beneath the surface of our national life, we see that the septic undercurrent of racism flows largely unabated," writes Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers in the forward of the 2006 edition of From Slave to Priest (by sister Caroline Hemesath, SSF), about the first African-American Catholic priest, Father Augustine Tolton. "Racism is alive and well, and is intricately woven into the fabric of American culture. But unlike the 1950's and 60's, where racism was overt, extreme...racism today is more subtle and covert." Racism today, writes the deacon, is characterized by a "now unconscious and tacit philosophy of dehumanization." Whether it's antagonism toward African-Americans, Anglos, Hispanics or Laotians, that "septic undercurrent" is one of the fallen characteristics of human nature. 

But who wants to live in a sewer?

We're all God's children and created equal. The Apostles reached out to different peoples, and so should we. We're surrounded by a wide variety of ethnic groups and cultures, and should make extra effort to be neighborly. After all, America is a melting pot. We should enjoy it. What's the alternative? Isolationism. Misunderstandings. Even terrorism. Ultimately, if we're willing to embrace the beauty of other heritages and step out of our comfort zone, real living awaits.  We have to be prudent. Not everyone can be a friend, and obviously, some will mean us harm. But often, it's all so simple. What a pity we don't approach friendship like little children. I remember clasping hands with my friends as we ran off to play. We didn't need many words to have a fabulous time. 

In Part I of this series, I wrote about how food can help bridge cultural divides. But faith is the most powerful unifier. Attending Mass delves us into worship on a global scale. I've felt just at home at Mass in Chicago as I have in Italy, Canada or Austria. I always marvel at all the different cultures mixing with the Holy Father at World Youth Days. 

Dehumanizing the "other" leads to 
tragedy. Above are survivors of the
Wounded Knee Massacre. We should 
continue to pray for healing for a 
troubled America, with its often
sorrowful history. May all life be 
respected. http://www.
A couple weeks ago, a Maryknoll priest spoke at Mass about his 30-plus years serving in China. He told how people had kept the Faith for decades, praying the Rosary, baptizing their children and teaching them the Faith, after Communists murdered clergy and religious, and forced the Catholic Church underground. When September 11th occurred, these Chinese people grieved with America. The missionary ended his homily with a Chinese blessing, exotic in the confines of our suburban church. Missionaries' tales are always such a great wake up call. We're in a universal Church. The first step in spreading the light of faith is befriending people. To do that, we have to allow God to change our "hearts of stone" into "hearts of flesh," scripturally speaking. God thought "outside the box" in forming so many diverse types of people, and  so should we, in opening our hearts and minds to enjoy His creativity -- a creativity visible through each other's very existence.

Back to that song mentioned at the beginning...."Roll over the ocean, roll over the sea, open up your hearts and build community." Columbus "rolled over the ocean," and I'm grateful. We should pray for healing for this troubled land with its complex and often sorrowful history (genocide of native peoples and the pre-born, slavery, corporate and individual greed, dishonest politics, etc.) But how I love this nation with all its diverse peoples! As for getting along, it's like any family -- not easy, although eminently worth the effort. Listening respectfully to others, then standing up for our beliefs, is always in season, if done with genuine warm-heartedness and appreciation of the other. If we fall flat on our face, we can always remind ourselves how drab it would be if all our friends looked, acted, thought and ate, just like us. Having just commemorated the 10-year-anniversary of September 11th, let's pray the world learns to seek the face of God in all its varied beauty. Different cultures are a gift. May we all enrich each other. 
Photo by Marianna Bartholomew