Embracing Differences

June 24-July 7, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 25
Embracing Differences
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Throughout the Diocese of Syracuse, people are coming together to celebrate not only their faith but also their culture, customs and traditions. On June 18 and 19, African-Americans commemorated Juneteenth with an African-American cultural festival, parade and ancestor service. Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery, is a way for African-Americans to honor their history and culture. The annual festival held in downtown Syracuse, has been growing steadily since it began in 1988 and now draws more than 15,000 people. It is a time to honor African-American ancestors who survived bondage as well as a means to demonstrate pride in their perseverance. At the ancestral ceremonies held at the Southwest Community Center, elder black community leaders and volunteers were recognized for their contribution to the community. As the elders came forward to receive their awards, the presenters thanked them and said, “We respect you, we appreciate you and honor you.” Throughout slavery and beyond, the black church has always played a crucial role in the lives of African-Americans. During the days of slavery, it provided relief and nourishment for the soul with its promise of a better life after death. The church gave slaves dignity and assured them that all people are equal in the eyes of God. Religious faith is what sustained slaves and enabled them to endure bondage. Because of the importance of religion among African-Americans, Juneteenth celebrations are deeply rooted in faith.

Father John Schopfer, director of the Brady Faith Center, said that the Catholic Church, unlike many other faiths, is a melting pot of different cultures. “This is a church that talks about culture,” he said. “Where did it come from? What are your traditions?” While many of the people who participate in programs at the Brady Faith Center may not be Catholic, Father Schopfer said that there are ample opportunities for all people of faiths to come together. The Brady Faith Center was named in memory of Msgr. Charles Brady –– an evangelizer, missionary and advocate for human rights and a pioneer of social justice in the Syracuse Diocese. “We try to carry on in much the same way Msgr. Brady did,” said Father Schopfer. “If you look back at what he was a part of, you will see we do much the same thing. We talk to the kids, celebrate Mass in the neighborhood and help people with their spiritual and material needs.” Father Schopfer, like Msgr. Brady, knows the value of getting out into the neighborhoods to get to know as many people as possible. “You have to hit the streets,” he said. “First you have to circulate and get to know them. Then you can respond to their pastoral needs.” Father Schopfer said that he does most of his counseling and evangelizing on the front porches of the homes of the people in the neighborhood or right out on the street. “It takes a long time to get to know them and a lifetime to gain their trust. You have to be a consistent presence,” he explained. “I’ve been here since 1980 and am now talking to second and third generations.” Father Schopfer said that since April, he has met more than 40 new neighborhood people in his work at the Brady Faith Center.

When talking about cultural diversity, Father Schopfer said that the most important thing is acceptance. “There must be respect for other faiths, traditions, cultures and religions,” he said. “It should be a true respect for people who might be different.” Deacon David Sweenie, pastoral coordinator for the Spanish Apostolate in the Northern Region, expanded on that. Deacon Sweenie attended the official week-long millennium celebration of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles in 2000 and said the experience was mind-boggling. “There were 138 different ethnic groups represented,” he said. “It was a rainbow of colors and countries. Each day the liturgy was proclaimed in four different languages.” What Deacon Sweenie remembers the most was the discussion of tolerance among people of different cultures. “Who of us as a race just wants to be tolerated?” he said. “What we would like is to be valued and treated with respect and dignity. Diversity of faith is much more than tolerance.” While Ralph Jones, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the diocese, agrees wholeheartedly with Father Schopfer’s and Deacon Sweenie’s beliefs, he hasn’t witnessed that acceptance of black Catholics at the parishes in the diocese that he has attended. When asked if the Catholic Church speaks to the needs of the African culture, Jones responded, “There is still a sense of marginalization among many Catholics. Cultural existence is denied.” Jones said that Africans, Asians and Hispanics tend to be lumped together into one culture, when in fact they are separate and distinct. He used the examples of the cultures of the people of Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria and how their customs and cultures vary. While Jones said that black Catholics are loyal to their faith and church traditions, those traditions are not reflective of the black culture. He explained that in other black faiths, the religious services are more of a celebration that includes song, dance and expression.

Jones hopes to see the Catholic Church move toward affirmation of cultural differences and achieve a greater unity within the Body of Christ despite those differences. “We cannot be lazy and must accept each other in our oneness in the Body of Christ,” he said. “Black Catholics have learned to trust in their faith, in God and in Christ and in the Holy Spirit.” Currently, however, Jones sees many black Catholics leaving the church because they don’t feel a sense of belonging. “Blacks are exiting the Catholic Church,” he said. “Our absence is conspicuous but no one asks us to stay. You have to have a strong sense of loyalty to your faith to remain in a church where blacks are a minority.” Deacon Sweenie said that in terms of Hispanic Catholics, his experience has been that some have felt welcomed and accepted as part of the Catholic Church while others have not. “Some have not felt welcomed at all and have felt the rejection,” he said. “And I say, ‘Shame on us. We have a long way to go.’” Jones believes that being black and being Catholic is a calling. “It’s our ministry in the world. It’s not easy. Choosing the hardest path is not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. This is what the Catholic Church teaches and these teachings are a great solace,” he said. “Each person and each ethnic group have gifts that the Lord has given them to help serve and build up the church,” said Deacon Sweenie. “We need to create an environment of acceptance that allows that to happen. I think what cultural diversity does is it gives all of us a challenge. How can we fashion a church that is more personal, caring and communitarian, and a church, where regardless of race or ethic background, people can feel needed, wanted and at home?” asked Deacon Sweenie.

The Brady Faith Center continues to look for ways to strengthen respect and acceptance of people of diverse cultures and faiths and offers a variety of programs and activities for the betterment of the community. In addition to city-wide events such as the Juneteenth celebration, the Brady Faith Center offers summer programs, vacation Bible school, an after-school homework club, a girls teen group and men’s and women’s Bible study. The girls teen group, which meets once a week during the school year, offers arts and crafts and cooking classes to young females in addition to teaching them about family values and their culture. Jackie Rowser, center coordinator, said that the Brady Faith Center offers a safe, secure environment to neighborhood children of all faiths. “It’s not just about Catholicism, it’s about life,” she said.

Jeannette Griffin, a parishioner of St. Lucy’s Parish, has been actively involved at the Brady Faith Center since the days of Msgr. Brady. While the community gathered on South Avenue to listen to exceptional entertainment of Gospel music and choirs, she reflected on her faith and the black culture of which she is a part. “What it’s about is not what faith you are, but the fact that you believe in God,” she said. “You have to be open-minded about God and accept that He is your salvation.” Griffin believes that the changes brought about by Vatican II have made the church more welcoming of all faiths. “The benefit of diversity offered here at this event goes much further than people realize,” she said. “People feel comfortable coming here. That’s the most important thing.” Sister Judith Howley, CSJ, director of the Asian Apostolate for the diocese, serves the Asian Community at St. John the Evangelist Parish –– Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The parishioners at St. John’s have not only accepted the Asian culture into their parish, they have embraced it. After some celebrations of Mass, the parishioners gather for covered dish suppers in the church basement. “Americans really enjoy Vietnamese food,” said Sister Judith. “And it helps bring the two communities together.”

The customs of the Vietnamese, Laos, Hmongs, and Burmese who make up a large part of St. John’s Parish are celebrated throughout the year. The Southeast Asian Festival will take place on Aug. 7 at Grant Middle School and McChesney Park in Syracuse and will offer cultural performances, ethnic dances, a fashion show, a dragon dance and Asian music. Sporting events such as volleyball, basketball and soccer will also take place as well as exhibition games in Kato ––a game like volleyball but that is played with the feet. “It’s a popular game in Laotia, Hmong and Burma, Thailand,” explained Anh Nguyen, a member of St. John’s Parish and a senior at Cornell University. “We also have four different food vendors representing each ethnic group serving food as well as continuous entertainment,” he said. Nguyen said he enjoys returning to Syracuse each summer to help with the summer programs and festival.

“St. John’s is definitely a multi-cultural parish,” said Sister Judith. “A lot of cultural learning takes place during the afternoon summer programs as the youth prepare for the cultural festival in August.” St. John’s offers three summer programs –– a morning program for kindergarten through grade eight which includes breakfast, computer training, reading, gym, arts and crafts and special classes such as cooking; an afternoon program for older children which is mostly educational and includes English as a Second Language tutoring, math classes and English classes; and an evening program which is very similar to the afternoon program.

During the rest of the year, St. John’s parishioners assemble to celebrate Mass and their different cultures. First Communion and Confirmation Masses and some holy days are celebrated multi-culturally. “This allows both choirs to sing together in both languages,” said Sister Judith. On Sunday mornings during the school year, Vietnamese language and cultural classes are offered. The children read passages from Vietnamese history books, written in their own language in order to better understand their ancestral country. Folk poetry that talks about family values is also taught in Vietnamese. “We end the Sunday program with a traditional commencement ceremony,” said Sister Judith. “Now that’s really traditional. The only one speaking English is me.”

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