Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fr. Reiser Writes in from Worcester, MA

An old industrial town in central Massachusetts, Worcester has long been a city of immigrants—French, Italians, Poles, Irish, and more recently, Albanians, Vietnamese, Haitians, and Latinos . The Latino population represents people largely from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru. There is also a sizeable Portuguese-speaking population. The Diocese is fortunate to have six younger priests from Colombia and Puerto Rico, as well as six seminarians recruited from Colombia; three or four permanent deacons who are Latinos; and a number of other Latinos in the permanent diaconate program.

My involvement with Hispanic ministry dates from around 1988. I had been teaching theology to undergraduates for ten years, and my world of interests after leaving graduate school was pretty much circumscribed by teaching, pastoral ministry, and keeping up with theology. One Saturday morning, however (I think it might have been in the fall of 1987), I was introduced to the social reality of poor families living within a mile of the College’s front gate. That reality was very Latino. The following summer I went to Cuernavaca for a four-week intensive course, sat in on an intermediate-level Spanish class at the College during the next academic year, and then traveled to Maryknoll’s Language Institute in Cochabamba for the six-week summer intensive course.

Sometime in 1988 the Jesuit Community purchased and renovated a house in Worcester’s Main South neighborhoods, and that house—Casa Santa Maria del Camino—was the site of a pastoral outreach into the Hispanic community. From there, I learned a great deal about the background and needs of the Latino community, about doing theology from outside an academic context, and about Jesuit identity. One thing that became very clear was that, for me, teaching, study, and writing –the things academics do—feel a lot more engaged when my feet are planted in the everyday world of struggling families. They often live in a constant state of apprehension since many are immigrants without documents. They left their homes south of the border because they could not survive there, yet once in the U.S. they faced harsh experience of a different sort. It’s the reality painfully familiar to all of us involved in Hispanic ministry.

Of the various activities that took place at Casa Maria, the most effective and personally rewarding was running a nine-month course on Un tal Jesús. In fact, I gave the course twice. The course was not unlike an 19th Annotation group retreat (the first Un tal Jesús folks appear in the accompanying picture). Everyone had the two-volume work, which is essentially the transcript of 144 radio programs—a moving and imaginative re-telling of the gospel story for the people of Latin America. We would listen to several of the radio programs each week, Bibles in hand, and then discuss what we had heard. The Spanish text has since been translated into English under the title Just Jesus, in three volumes. The Spanish edition included a foreword by Ignacio Ellacuría. The English edition contains an additional foreword, a few pages from something I had written. To see myself following Ellacuría in a book which had made such a lasting impression on me left me feeling pretty good.

Hispanic ministry in Worcester is largely parish-based, and as a result I’ve been connected with a parish in the city, going on sixteen years, preaching each week, celebrating sacraments, blessing homes, offering Bible-study courses now and then, teaching occasionally in the permanent diaconate program—things like that. I’ve been involved in a few immigration cases, too: a rewarding experience, but time-consuming. As I reflect on what I’ve seen so far, three challenges emerge. The first is immigration. The pressure, tension, and fear—not to mention the separation from family—take a very heavy toll. The second is cultural dislocation. I was taken by surprise one Sunday when a family said they had decided to return to Ecuador because they had been so alarmed by what their kids were being exposed to. Many parents have shared the same misgivings. Their children are caught between two worlds, two cultures, with very different values. The efforts of parents to improve the quality of life for their families are undermined by the consumerism and individualism around them. The third challenge is catechetical and spiritual. Communities need to learn a version of the gospel story that is more scripturally informed than what they learned as children. Meeting this particular challenge certainly involves Bible study; but it also involves learning how to contemplate the gospels and to know God as adults.

In addition to belonging to Our Lady of Fatima parish, I have also had close contact with several Hispanic communities in nearby parishes. Each community has its own personality. In one, prison ministry and weekly charismatic prayer have been an integral part of their history. In another, immigration issues and finding jobs weigh heavily. Watching these communities and sharing some of their history, I’ve noticed two things. First, the communities are vibrant and life-giving. People support and genuinely care for one another, and their faith is strong. Being church really means something to them. Second, those communities have become so much a part of my inner life that I cannot imagine living and praying without them. They have helped me to hear the opening words of Gaudium et spes with an immediacy I had not experienced before: The joys and hopes and the sorrows and anxieties of people today, especially of those who are poor and afflicted—these are also the joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties of the companions of Jesus.

William Reiser


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