Called to Mission as African and Caribbean People in the U.S.A.
By Rev. Michael Montoya, MJ, DMin
Executive Director, United States Catholic Mission Association
USCCB African and Caribbean Colloquium
March 26, 2011
As I was preparing my talk for today, 3 biblical passages keep coming to mind: First, was last Sunday’s first reading from the book of Genesis (12:1-4a)
The LORD said to Abram:
“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”
Abram went as the LORD directed him.
The second is from the Prophet Isaiah (43:1)
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name and you are mine.
And third is from 1 Chronicles 29:14: where the people were delighted of the gifts offered to the Lord and King David in his prayer to the Lord said:
But why should we be happy that we have given you these gifts? They belong to you, and we have only given back what is already yours.
These biblical passages are very special to me as an immigrant and a missionary. The passage from Genesis reminds us that God calls us to be blessings for all, and like Abram, we go as the Lord directs us. In succeeding chapters we read how Abram’s commitment to God’s call transforms – from Abram to Abraham. Isaiah’s passage gives assurance of God’s faithfulness to whoever God calls. “Be not afraid,” words that Jesus has also spoken several times. The quote from Chronicles reminds us that as we share our gifts, we are actually simply giving them back to God. Later in the scriptures we read from 1 Peter 4: 7-11:“As each onehas received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians reminds us that gifts received are for the good of the community (1Cor 12). Our call, our gifts, our response is towards building a transformative global community.
So I ask, “What can we contribute to the building up of a transformative global community?”“Where is God calling the African and Caribbean people in the United States?”“What is your mission?”“What is your response?” I know that these are big questions, and for most parts, require longer discussion and discernment. We may not have the magic formula or the magic response to these questions. But these are important questions nonetheless that I would like us to ask. They will help us set a frame in looking at the role of Africans and Caribbean people in the US Church.
But before I continue, let me ask you, how many of you know of a missionary? The missionary you know of, is he or she European? How many of you thought of an American? Latin American?Asian? Caribbean? African?
How many of you thought of yourself immediately as the missionary? Yes, you… in fact, all of us, by virtue of our baptism are missionaries; for don’t we claim that the Church, by its very nature is missionary? - A clear statement of identity pronounced by the Second Vatican Council in the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes.That means that we, who belong to this Church and are baptized in this Church, share this very missionary identity. A missionary identity that flows from the very life of the sending community of the Trinity “since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father” (AG2).
I am glad that mission is one of the main frames with which the organizers of this colloquium want to look into the African and Caribbean presence in the US Church. Not only is it appropriate, but it is exigent! Mission, in fact, must always be our frame of reference as Christians if mission truly is at the very essence of our identities as Catholics. Our baptism has given us this identity. And we, who are members of this Church, have in our very DNA,as Catholic Christians, mission running in our blood.
Often times, when we think of mission, we think of the men and women – usually foreigners - who have dedicated their entire lives in the remote regions of the world, spreading God’s Good News. We have been recipients of such faithful generosity. I, for one, grew up in a parish run by a Spanish priest. Often times, we also associate mission with doing something for the other – help paint a church, send medical teams in remote areas, or collect money and goods to be sent in devastated parts of the world. While all of these are within the umbrella of what mission is about, I would like us to look at another aspect – often neglected - our very identity as missionaries! And you and me, immigrants to the US, coming from different cultures and places and traditions have special responsibilities and privileges to live up to our baptismal call to mission, in the very distinctness of the identity that God has created us, and in this new territory where we live.
For some, the response may also be like the ones I mentioned above (full time dedication to spreading the Good News, or joining small mission immersion teams, etc.) but I would like to submit that the challenge of our baptismal call to mission summonsALL of us to be bridge and builders of a transformative global community. “Bridge” by the very transnational, transcultural, and multilingual character of our people; and “builders” of a transformative global community by the very spirit of our people colored by our experiences, traditions, and culture.
Mission demands that we bring all the richness of who we are in the one family of Godand to use these God-given blessings to bring about transformation in the global community we create - a global community where solidarity is alive. This global solidarity is a theme that the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI keeps reminding us about. In his historic visit here in the U.S. he said, “The need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity – as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God’s bounty has set for all his children.” And again in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth), he reminds us that “there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized” (CV #49). A recognition he said “that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side” (CV 53). This call to solidarity is nothing new. It is the same call as when Jesus tells us “Whatever you do to the least one of these, you do unto me” (Mt 25:45); It is the same one that the Law, the prophets and wisdom writers of old proclaimed (Ps 103:6; Ps 9:9; Ps 41; Prov 22:22-23; Is 61: 1-2; Is 32: 16 Zech 7: 9; Micah 6:8; Ex 22:24; etc).
Recently, this is once again very evident in the address of the Holy Father on the occasion of the 97th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2011) “One Human Family” where he invites us to not lose hope and to pray “to be men and women capable of brotherly relationships and, at social, political and institutional levels, so that understanding and reciprocal esteem among peoples and cultures may increase.”
BUILDING RIGHT RELATIONSHIPS
Our contribution towards the progress in building right relationships and the growth of “understanding and reciprocal esteem among peoples and cultures” (as Pope Benedict puts it) is vital in building up a transformative global community. It is at the core of our call to mission.
This building right relationship with understanding and reciprocity is at the heart of mission. The Holy Father in his address points to two important dynamics that can help to bring this about – understanding and reciprocal esteem. And I believe that within our very characters as transnational, transcultural and multilingual are the very characters that can help facilitate these dynamics. And again, I would submit that it is by the very nature of our identities that our baptismal call to mission embraces the whole of us and calls the whole of us to help bring about a transformative global community starting here, starting now.
As immigrants to this country, we do not need to look far to see what is in our cultural identities can help bridge and build this transformative global community. I believe that one of the main keys that may unlock for us the secret passage towards this vision is community. Based on what I have observed, read, and experienced about the African and Caribbean cultures, I think it is not wrong to assume that like my culture, COMMUNITY plays a central role in decision making processes, in the way we approach reality and in the way we view ourselves. Community is the lens with which we view our social, political, and faith life.
Community becomes the standard with which we view reality. Anthropologists call our particular culture “high context cultures” where the community is the starting point rather than the individual. It is fair to say that for us, it comes naturally to be in community, act as a community and engage our community.
But what happens then, when a high context culture people move to a low-context culture setting like the United States?Must we simply abandon the very characteristic of our identity? You and I know that the answer is not a simple yes or no. Our experience tells us that we need to learn to navigate the challenges of living in a new setting while being true to values of our cultures. It is not always easy, but a necessary stance. We have learned to live in between and in betwixt. This particular stance gives us a different view of reality, a privileged position to be bridge and builders of a transformative global community. We are neither here nor there but at the same time here and there. We are both insiders and outsiders of our countries of origin and the United States. We speak the languages of both sides and see reality in a different way – a vision only given to us who live in between and in betwixt. Using St. Paul’s analogy of the community as the body, I can say that we are not the hands or feet or head. As an immigrant, I have always said that we are the skin – warts and all - that is able to connect one part of the body to the other. We are not the left hand, nor the right hand, we are in both – either or, neither nor. We know that we do not have to choose one over the other but that somehow the one and the other can coexist in a healthy symbiotic way – a sense of unity and harmony that we have been privileged to see and experience. It is this very nature of our identities as immigrants that I believe we are called out of the waters of our baptism to participate in God’s mission. Yes, we are called to mission as immigrants!
IMMIGRANTS AS MISSIONARIES
In one of his visits to the Philippines, the late Pope John Paul II has called the migrant Filipinos as the new missionaries from Asia.The Filipino migrant workers bring with them the Christian faith as they go to the different parts of the world. They fill the Churches in Japan; they actively participate in the life of the parishes in Europe; they teach the Irish children the hymns and prayers; they bring up the children of Chinese, Koreans, MiddleEastern people in the values of the faith with which they have grown up. Most of the times, this is not a planned and intentional decision to teach the values of the faith. Simply, it becomes so much part of their identity that informs their habitus. This is what I mean by mission at the core of our very identity as Catholics – out of our identity flow naturally the actions, the decisions, the commitments that promote the values of the Good News. The migrant Filipino workersare missionaries in areas where they work and live – not because they were told to do so, but because it is very much part of their identity.
I would like to propose that this reference to the migrant Filipinos as missionaries is not only for the Filipino migrants but for all the Catholic migrants all over the world – and that includes the African and Caribbean immigrants to the US. And as your fellow immigrant and missionary to the US, you too, out of the richness of your cultures and traditions and out of the deep and rich experience of faith you had in your homeland, which you all carry with you to this your new homeland – you have a lot to offer. It is a sin not to share the richness of who we are, especially because we know fully well that we can trulybe bridges toward promoting and building a true global solidarity, towards the “brotherly relationships” referred to by Pope Benedict XVI, and towards true “understanding and reciprocal esteem among peoples and cultures” (Pope Benedict XVI, One Human Family, loc. sit.).
Our being different – in looks, languages, and ways of doing things cannot be our excuse to not participate actively in the life of our communities. It is precisely this God-given uniqueness and this privileged stance as immigrants that call us towards active participation in the community. When we do that, we too are addressed by St. Paul when he said, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household” (Eph 2:19).
The immigrant as missionary finds its roots in the Scriptures as well – from Abraham, to Moses, to Ruth, the disciples, and to Jesus himself. The Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops in Latin America and the Caribbean in their meeting at Santo Domingo articulated this very well. They said,
Thus God’s son becomes a pilgrim and undergoes the experience of the displaced (cf Mt 2:13-23) as a migrant living in an insignificant village (cfJn 1:46). He trains his disciples to be missionaries by having them undergo the experience of migrants so that they will put their trust only in the love of God whose Good News they bear (cf Mk 6:6-12).
Ultimately, we look up to Jesus as our model - Jesus who literally and figuratively crossed borders; Jesus who told Simon and the other apostles to push out into the deep waters after a night with no catch (Lk 5:4); Jesus who continues to call disciples out of their comfort zones and invites them to share in his mission to gather us all as one – as the Father and him are one (Jn 10:30), to go out to the whole world and preach the Good News (Mk 16:15).
As your fellow immigrant and missionary to the US, I speak to encourage you to embrace your missionary call. The U.S. Church needs you. Let us get involved in our community not only because we are welcomed but because it is our baptismal call to participate in God’s mission here and now. We all know about what the Church in the US is doing for us immigrants. I think we can rightfully say that the Church has been the voice of the immigrant population in the US. The question I pose is not so much, what the Church does or does not do on our behalf, but what we can do for the US Church as an immigrant population.
Let me repeat it in a different way. My message is to you my fellow immigrants and missionaries to the US.We have a moral responsibility and a faith based mandate to share the richness of who we are. This is our God-given mandate by virtue of our baptism to be true bridges and builders of a transformative global community where the values of the Kingdom of God are not only recognized but lived. We need the community, and our community needs us.
There are signs of this happening among the Caribbean communities in Florida or the African communities in the Washington DC area. I am sure there is a lot more out there that we are not aware of. We need to encourage them, speak about them, celebrate them, and be inspired by them.
CALLED TO MISSION AS COMMUNITY
The Lineamenta for the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith which is scheduled to take place in 2012 states, “The transmission of the faith is never an individual, isolated undertaking, but a communal, ecclesial event” (#2). Again, pointing to the importance of the community as a whole in proclaiming the Good News – not simply as recipient of the Good News, but as proclaimer of the Good News. The Lineamentawould later say that our capacity “to become a real community” determines the success of evangelization.
This is one of the areas where I think you have a lot to offer. As Africans and Caribbean people in the US, you have a unique perspective on how this community can look like. This is not just something you read. You know it, breathe it, and live it. It is what the South Africans call Ubuntu (a sense of community and well-being that is communal) or what the Akan people of Ghana call Ahoto(a communal sense that is holistic).
TheLineamenta, for me, is a clear directive to you (and to all of us)to bringthis richness in the dialogue.Our privileged position as immigrants, who bring a rich sense of community that is central to who we are individually, is a perspective we definitely need to engage. This is a gift we bring at table as a community. This is not just a theoretical discourse for us. We were born out of it, we experienced it, and we grew in it.
Together with the perspectives that come from our cultures is the perspective we bring as a community of immigrants – an experience that allows us to be both/and, to be in between and in betwixt, a stance that allows us to be true bridges and builders of a transformative global community. I am not saying that ours is the only sense of community that needs to be engaged. But it is the community perspective that we bring. A unique perspective thatis by no means perfect, but precisely our stance of being both here and there, either-or, neither-nor that can allow us to challenge the negatives and enhance the positives in both-and.
When I went to Liberia to participate in the summit to consolidate the peace process in the Mano River Basin, the whole of West Africa was represented by their religious leaders -Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’i, all eager to work together… a sense of community I never saw elsewhere, an acceptance not unlike in other regions of the world. Where else can you find Muslim religious leaders singing “Singspiration” praising Jesus with their Christian brothers?It reminded me of Paul telling the Ephesians “We are all members of one body” (Eph 4:25) or in Romans “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him” (Rom 10:12). We know this can work… that the world is not as black and white as people tend to present it, that we can live in harmony, if we choose to. In the midst of a polarized world, this to me seems to be an urgent message that you and I can bring at table.
So what is the mission of a community of immigrants/foreigners/aliens like us? A Cuban American friend of mine puts it this way,
The very act of being “dispersed” is being propelled to mission in a very physical tangible way. As a migrant people, we should be aware of this physical reality. It gives us a unique capacity to understand uprooting and to understand what is meant by the “Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” This is a unique gift to a “settled” society that can be complacent with its structures. This dynamic that characterizes the life of migrants is key to pushing us in the US into motion too, forcing our churches out of complacency and transforming them intorenewedand improved type of community. We should be bearers of a truth that is always new, always joyful, always offering more to learn.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu was quoted as saying to his people “Be nice to whites, they need you to discover their humanity.” I think the message is for all of us, we need each other – blacks, whites, and all colors in between, to discover the best in us, the humanity, the Ubuntu, the Ahoto in all of us. The theme for today’s colloquium captures that - “One with the family.” We all belong to the one family of God and together called to participate in building up this family.
I have always been amazed by the amount of talent among the African and Caribbean immigrants in the US. Many of you are highly educated. And many of you come with rich experiences of the Church. Many of you sharewith me how you have been actively involved in parishes in your countries of origin. Many are trained catechists and leaders – with much more responsibilities in the growth of the faith community than catechists or leaders we see in the US Church. What bothers me is how passive some of us have become the moment we move to the US. Why? What happened? Where did that all go? Your joy in celebrating, your rituals, songs and dances, your stories, your values, your spirit… I am sure that we can cite many reasons for not getting involved. Some of the reasons are beyond our control. But almost always, the reasons I hear are dependent on how “other” people react to our presence. They do not understand us. And instead of engaging, we disengage. Instead of challenging the barriers that exists, we simply allow them to be there; until the disengagement becomes our mode of acting and the barriers as acceptable parts of reality.
If we are to be true to our baptismal call to mission as a community of immigrant believers, Africans and Caribbean people or any other immigrant population for that matter, we need to engage our rich background as we integrate ourselves in our faith communities.In the words of Jesus to his disciples in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, “Get up, do not be afraid” (Mt 17:7)! We need to challenge the barriers that do not seem to allow our full participation in the community. Wanting to be left alone and not be bothered is not a trait we want to embrace – individualism has its merits, but this is not one of them. This is where we can bring the richness of who we are. As people of both worlds – here and there – we can navigate the troubled waters of communal living and hopefully respond to what the Synod on New Evangelization asks of us, “to help in the development of new forms of solidarity and new ways to share the development of everything for the greater good of all” (#6).
Community is at the heart of who we are… and community is at the heart of mission…. Out of this heart of who we are is where the blood of mission pumped to the different parts of our body… to the different parts of the community. We are, after all, as St Paul reminds us, ONE body.
There is one story that Cardinal Rodriguez from Tegucigalpa likes to share. It is a story that talks about the difference between St. Paul and us. He said, when we go to a cardiologist and the Doctor listens to our heart, all he hears is dub dubdubdubdubdub… but when a cardiologist listens to the heart of St. Paul he hears,“Woe to me if I don’t preach the good news, woe to me if I don’t preach the good news. Woe to me if I don’t preach the good news….” That my brothers and sisters should be the beat of the community of African and Caribbean people in the US, the beat of the heart of each of us – immigrants or not!