Migrant Brothers and Sisters Following the Same Star
When I was in college, I took a Jazz class that met every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in a concert hall. Every Friday was a live concert. (I am still amazed at the professor for pulling that off!) Aside from listening assignments and writing assignments, we also had adventures. One of these was a requirement to visit a specific AME Zionist Church and to participate in their worship service. (Those who read last week’s blog can contrast my experience of ecumenism with my parents’). When I arrived at the church with a couple of my white buddies, only then did we learn that the community is black. We stood out and immediately sensed what it is like to be the minority. Of course, this made it easy for the pastor to recognize us and to welcome us to the church. What a wonderful feeling to have your anxiety relieved with a warm welcome and an invitation to come in!
Last week, we began a reflection on the unity of all Christians during this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation by taking time to look anew at the Second Vatican Council’s document on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio (1964). Today is both the Feast of the Epiphany and the beginning of Migration Week, each of which, in its own way, is related to the theme of unity—a unity that does not negate diversity. It is expressed well in the Responsorial Psalm: “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace… The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him. For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one to help him. He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor he shall save.”
Our two themes are present. There is unity (the one God over all the kings and kingdoms) with respect for diversity (the kingdoms don’t lose their cultural identities). This is a theme of Epiphany. It is not only the kings that come before the Lord, though; the poor and the afflicted are also there—and are rescued. This is a theme of Migration Week. In our world, as in the world of the Hebrew Bible, some of the poorest and most afflicted people of all, the most vulnerable, are the migrants. The Holy Family itself was forced to migrate due to political oppression. It is, sadly, a familiar story in our world. Our hearts are breaking (or hardened!) and our politics is stressed by the plight of refugees.
As migrants arrive in new places, we are called to learn from the life of the Trinity itself that unity does not mean uniformity. Without losing their unique identities, the three Persons of the Trinity are nonetheless One God. How can we model our societies on this understanding of unity and diversity? What can we do to meet the challenge of ever greater pluralism by nurturing respect for a blend of old identities with new identities? What can we do to lessen the discomfort and fear of those who think migrants pose a threat to our security as a people?
God brings together the different social classes (kings and the poor) and cultures from around the world to form the unity that exists in justice and peace. Thus, the bishops wrote in their document on ecumenism, “the only-begotten Son of God has been sent by the Father into the world, so that, becoming human, he might by his redemption of the entire human race give new life to it and unify it” (UR 2). It seems clear that division among Christians is counter-evangelical. Whereas the Church should be a witness to unity and peace, it is, instead, giving some counter-witness by the scandal of its division.
Back to the AME Zionist Church. Inside, my buddies and I slipped into the last pew—after all, we were just visitors. Soon, the service began; and immediately I could see why we had been sent there. The music, rooted in the jazz we were studying, drove the service. It was high energy! Nobody was sitting. People were singing and praying with arms outstretched. The scene was like something out of the old movie The Blues Brothers. By the second hour, I was into it as well—when the preacher called people to the front, I went right up there and got myself prayed over! It was only after 3 hours that everyone was seated once again. Then, the preacher entered his pulpit and announced, “I would like all the brothers in the church to stand up.” I looked at my white buddies. Were we brothers? We decided to stay seated—he meant the black men in his congregation of course; we were just visitors after all. Then—I’ll never forget this—a heavy-set black woman sitting right in front of us turned around and looked me right in the eye. “Why aren’t you standing?” she asked. I stuttered trying to explain and finally managed to get out, “I-I-I don’t know. Are we brothers?” She let out a belly laugh that could be heard throughout the church! And then, through her laughter, she asked mockingly, “What’d you think you were? Sisters?!”
I’ll never forget that lesson. There are no visitors in the House of God—there are only brothers and sisters. The bishops at Vatican II made this one of their first points on ecumenism: “the Catholic Church accepts them [who are born into these (Protestant) communities and… are brought up in the faith of Christ] with respect and affection as brothers and sisters” (UR 3).
We are a a family—a family of migrants coming from all over the world to be reunited by a newborn King!