I grew up in small town Wisconsin USA surrounded by Catholics of German ancestry. While I moved when I was eleven, I remember the town as having a wonderful community spirit—a volunteer ambulance way back before small US towns had such things. I remember a town that was lily white, the men barrel-chested; hard-working people who weren’t very emotionally expressive. The biggest cultural differences, and they were huge, were between town folk and farmers.
Today I have tears in my eyes as I have witnessed a most beautiful blessing. I heard there would be an outdoor Mass in my hometown, Burlington, in the park where I ice skated as a kid. I love outdoor spiritual celebrations. It’s a beautiful day, and I was excited to attend.
When I showed up at Echo Park there were several large tents set up and an altar ready in the pergola. Parking was at a premium. This was to be a tri-parish Mass: St. Mary’s and St. Charles from Burlinton, and St. Joseph’s from Lyons. There were three choirs and three priests.
As I walked into the celebration space, much to my surprise, the choir was singing a song in Spanish! I got out my cell phone to record a snippet. How very cool. I knew there is a Spanish language Mass each Sunday at St. Charles; I’ve attended it several times. Would this outdoor Mass be in Spanish? That would be cool and unexpected.
I love that my birthplace, founded by immigrants, once again has such a large immigrant community. When we are up here visiting family in the summer, I travel to nearby Burlington to buy jamaica (hibiscus) leaves for tea, Mexican cuts of meat for cooking, and a few other Latino savories. There seems to be a strong local Latino community. Last weekend we attended a very popular new Mole Fest in Elkhorn.
But when I attend Spanish-language Mass I see mainly Latinos there; the larger parish doesn’t seem very involved. There seems a definite segregation or separateness, though Mole Fest did have lots of every sort of people. I know that over one out of every five rural priests in small town USA are foreign-born, as there is a shortage of priests in the USA. Thankfully, many of them receive training using Cultural Detective materials.
The opening prayer celebrated diversity and unity. I beamed. The next song was in English. I noticed people around me, hundreds of them, and mostly the blonde-haired, blue-eyed variety that live in these parts, were reading along as they sung. I went over to grab the bulletin for today’s service. It was written in both English and Spanish! Not just one or the other, but an integrated, bilingual bulletin!
Really? In my small, what I perceive as insular town? I know and love these local Catholics. They send out mission trips every year to help the needy in the USA and abroad. They pray for peace and harmony, the cessation of war and violence, that the homeless, immigrants and refugees can find home. But, I also believe that some if not many of these parishioners have a hard time praying this latter petition. Many of them voted for Trump, after all.
This morning’s miracle got better and better. The second reading was in Spanish, by a native-speaking man. It felt so good. The response to the reading was in Spanish, and that response didn’t just come from the Spanish-speaking choir, but from voices here and there, scattered among the hundreds of people gathered in the shade of the tents. Wow! How cool!
The sermon was in English, given by the priest who was not the main celebrant. That was nice; they wanted to include the priests from all three parishes in the celebration. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but, the Colombian priest giving a sermon, too! And he gave it in Spanish! He said the same things the first priest had said, but in Latino style, with much more passion. And of course with more references to the Virgin. I looked around. These German-Americans that I’d grown up with listened politely. I assume most of them didn’t understand. But I heard them join in the Latin-sounding “Ah-men,” vs. their normal “Ey-men.” Things have obviously been changing around here while I’ve been gone. And, then again, they haven’t. I heard the ladies behind me remark after the Colombian’s sermon, “He sure gave a short homily. Maybe we should check out his Mass.” 😉
The songs during Mass rotated between Spanish and English, with a few of them bilingual: one verse English, one Spanish. I was thrilled to hear that those around me singing along to the Spanish lyrics. The accent wasn’t pretty, but they were trying! This was, truly, an inclusive, integrated service.
Time for Prayers of the People. A gringa lady got up, and she read the prayers in both languages. She struggled with the Spanish, but she read it respectfully. We responded first in English, and to the Spanish ones in Spanish. I couldn’t imagine this Mass getting much better. Today encouraged me so much about my birth town’s people and community.
Communion was interesting. Most of the US Americans took the host in their hands, as is the custom here, while most of the Latinos received communion on their tongues, as is the custom for them. It was nice to see both.
At the conclusion of Mass, I thanked the celebrant, telling him I’d been born in Burlington and never would have dreamed that we’d be celebrating a bilingual Mass; that it was such a blessing. He thanked me for letting him know; I had the feeling he was happy to hear it, as perhaps he hears the opposite as well. I then thanked the Colombian priest. He gave me a big abrazo/hug, and thanked me also. Then a large portion of those attending, rather than hurry home as I’m so used to up here, wandered up to the picnic area to share coffee, orange juice, lemonade, and the always-present Wisconsin milk and kringle.
Viva diversity and integration on a clear sunny day in the Heartland of America! Today my stereotypes of my beloved birth town were updated, and for that I am eternally grateful.