Advent Evening Prayer REFLECTION, December 11, 2016 by Agnes Foley, CSJ – Director of Learning In Style, a school for adult immigrants and CSJ ministry established in 1994, located in the heart of the immigrant neighborhood in South Minneapolis, at 2200 Nicollet Avenue South.
Our mission at Learning in Style is to empower adult immigrants through education. We also say we walk with immigrants, forming a community of support. At any one time there are between 200 and 230 students, not counting the children in our Children’s Room. They come from approximately 20-25 or so countries – mainly Africa, east and west; another large group comes from Mexico, Central and South America; and a smaller number from Asia. In our 20+ years we have registered nearly 5000 students.
When I go to work each day I enter a different world. I can’t take you there now so here I try to paint a picture through words.
Meet Said - a young man from Somalia. He walks with two mismatched crutches – one shorter than the other. One leg hangs permanently bent, the other is stove-pipe thin – his condition the result of polio in his youth. Said keeps pace with others, often faster than those who don’t have crutches. When he first came as a refugee to the US he stayed in one household - not permanent - since he was soon asked to leave, which left him homeless. Not deterred, with help from a number of persons, he found different housing.
A group of women come in the door, clothed head to toe in flowing garments – hijabs – some colorful - patterned, some plain and austere, some mismatched. Their voices are high pitched and are full of energy – their language - one I do not understand. Often a cell phone is attached to the side of their heads inside the head covering.
José hurries in, coming right from his job as a cook, one of two jobs he has been able to find despite not having proper documents. He has been in the U.S. for 10 years and his family now includes a new baby girl and two school age boys. José’s goal in studying is first of all to be of help to his children and secondly to fit in.
With a child strapped to her back and another, in tow by her side, Sadiya calls out a greeting on her way to the Children’s Room. The small boy, Yusuf, at her side, waves and then, with eyes wide open, listens to the conversation, - his eyes taking in his new world, showing no surprise, no judgment, just total wonder.
These immigrants and many like them are among us – particularly in the Twin Cities – bringing a richness of culture and diversity that can challenge us. They are the “foreigners” – the “strangers” – the new “neighbor” to us. They are those most likely to be on the margins - away from the sources of power. Many are vulnerable, many are fearful, especially these days. Many are hearing messages that they are not wanted. They struggle as adults to create new selves. Despite this reality most are trusting and grateful, courageous and hopeful. Listen to their words – Maria – (Central Am) “I didn’t leave the house much because I couldn’t read the signs that told me where I was, and I couldn’t ask for help. Hafsa - West Africa “During this time I got married and had two boys. I still felt alone and depressed. I couldn’t speak the language and couldn’t go out into the community. I stayed at home afraid to leave my house.” Hassan – Somalia “English is the key in the USA. If you do not speak English you are not successful in America. I stay in America for 15 years but I do not have anything because I do not have the key.Ayan - (Somalia) Of course I am happy. I am working and raising five children by myself. I have a house in Burnsville. I am an independent woman. I have the confidence to try anything. Money doesn’t matter to me. I am a free woman.
Our Christian way of life and our scriptures have much to tell us and guide us in how to live with, as CSJs say, the dear neighbor. The idea of neighbor questions the “we” and the “they” and the “other”.
So what do we hear in our scriptures today? For me, the vision is challenging and at the same time hopeful. Isaiah urges –
“Say to those of a fearful heart – be strong – do not fear! In other words, Maria and Hafsa, come out of your homes – be courageous - you are survivors – you have gifts to share.
And again Isaiah says– “The eyes of the blind will be opened – the ears of the deaf unstopped – weak knees made firm, -the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. If our eyes are open how do we perceive Said?
I didn’t mention that Said’s smile lights up his face whenever he engages in conversation with anyone. A fast and diligent learner, speaking became easy for him and he was soon asked multiple times to serve as a translator. His disability hasn’t handicapped him. - Can we see that? If our eyes are open
in our country does the dress of the Muslim women make them an object of discomfort or discrimination? Can we see the beauty in their colorful patterns? Can we appreciate their courage in wearing clothing that speaks of their religion?Are our eyes open
like Yusuf’s – are we open to the new, the different – not judging –but curious, trusting and learning.If our ears are open
does the language of women we can’t understand form a barrier? Do we speak several languages? There are more ways to communicate than by language – but it takes some effort. Do we try?If our ears are open
can we hear and encourage Ayan in her confidence and in her dreams, raising her children to be positive and to look toward the future with hope .If our tongues are loosened
can we speak the truth in our neighborhoods when discrimination happens? Can we give the Hassans a chance when they struggle to learn English – to find the key? Can we find value in our diversity, learning from someone unlike us?
And what about José? Can we speak for him who is truly voiceless? Why does he have to hide? Why doesn’t he have the advantages the other immigrants have? His reason for being in the U.S. matches most of the others and his desperation is genuine. He and all others like him need a voice.In today’s Gospel we hear from Matthew
about John the Baptist – a man certainly on the fringes of his society. His clothing was different – his way of life was different. He had a powerful message for those whose ears were open. John sent his disciples in search of Jesus with a question – and Jesus used words like those of Isaiah in answering – “the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the poor are the ones to hear good news.”
In praise of John Jesus said there was none like him – he was greater than anyone else. And then the surprise ending – “But the least one in the kin*dom of heaven is greater than John.”
Published in the New York Times some time ago was a statement from an anonymous writer speaking in the voice of the immigrants. We have it inside our door at 2200 Nicollet. I quote it in part:“The voice of the immigrant:
We are here with an open mind and heart
We are here to give
to add value
to be inspired – to inspire.
We are the same as every immigrant who has come before us
filled with dreams
determined to contributeSEE
Can we do that?
That is our gift and challenge in this season of Joy!