Welcoming the stranger
During my second year in seminary in Chicago, my class welcomed two new seminarians who joined us shortly after the academic year began. Their names were Peter and Joseph, and they were among the first seminarians from China to be welcomed to study at a seminary in the United States. This is not as simple as it sounds, since the reality of the Church in China is challenging. Peter and Joseph came to the United States as part of the Catholic Church that is in union with the Church in Rome, rather than the portion of the Church which is essentially overseen by the Chinese government. The Church that Peter and Joseph belong to (and now serve as priests for) still exists as a largely underground Church, meeting quietly in many places.
Although they did not speak much English upon their arrival, they did their best to help us to understand the dangerous path they had to follow in order to make their way to the United States. At the time of their departure, their bishop had been imprisoned for many years in China. He eventually was released, and was able to visit Peter and Joseph and the members of our seminary community in 1996. His story was a harrowing one, and it confirmed all that Joseph and Peter had shared with us upon their arrival several years earlier.
I have a great deal of admiration for people like Peter and Joseph. At great risk to their own safety and that of their families and friends, they made their way to the United States. In a very gracious way, they lived and learned and prayed in a culture that was completely unfamiliar to them. I was amazed at how quickly they were able to learn English and study theology at the graduate level. For those years, Peter and Joseph lived as refugees, cut off from their families and friends in their homeland. As a community, the seminarians, faculty and staff did all we could to help them feel welcome and to provide them with the tools they would need during their time among us. We all knew they would eventually return to China in order to serve the Church there, but we did all we could to make their time here safe, successful and faith-filled.
Most folks in our diocese have no idea that Refugee Services of St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Lansing operates one of the most successful refugee relocation services in the United States. Kinh Nguyen and his family were able to make their way to the Lansing area due to the hard work, dedication and generosity of the Church in our diocese. Kinh and his family came to the United States in 1992 after a harrowing experience in their native Vietnam. They and many others like them have been welcomed into the United States and have been provided with the initial help they would need in order to thrive.
Kinh and his family were welcomed with the support and prayers of Refugee Services and the Vietnamese Catholic Community in Lansing. Their experience should remind each of us that there are times in our lives when all of us are refugees of one sort or another. Our pilgrimage of faith will take us to many places during our lives. The same is true for pilgrims who are brought to our parish and civic communities through the course of the years. Let us welcome them as we ourselves would wish to be welcomed. And so, our journey in FAITH continues.