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A welcome for refugees of every sort

NCR Staff

At St. Ambrose Cathedral in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, a "God Squad" of teenage Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Hmong, Hispanic, African-American and Anglo boys and girls assist on the altar beside deacons of Irish, Vietnamese, Hmong and Hispanic descent.

This international, multicultural team, rallied by parish pastor and Iowa farm native Fr. Jim Kiernan and associate pastor Fr. Felix Onuora from Nigeria serve a community that -- in the middle of Iowa -- truly embraces the universal church.

In the pews at St. Ambrose, homeless people sit beside young professionals who commute for Mass from the suburbs. Sudanese Christians who fled the repression of a fundamentalist Muslim regime converse with Southeast Asian refugees who endured a similar exodus for different reasons. Elderly people from downtown residences join Hispanic and African-American parishioners to welcome out-of-town business visitors who find the cathedral's central location conveniently close to their convention hotels.

"Our 9:30 a.m. liturgy looks like the United Nations," said Franciscan Sr. Virginia Jennings, who directs the parish's religious education and social service outreach programs.

Dennis Steele, 39, a case manager at a home for children with multiple disabilities, has attended St. Ambrose Parish for 20 years. "We truly represent both the beauty and the brokenness of the People of God that is represented in the universal church and we try to respond as a parish to all," Steele said, in a telephone interview with NCR.

"We have within our parish two of the wealthiest Catholic philanthropists in the city of Des Moines. We also have folks who call homeless shelters their homes. It's a very unique experience of the complexity and richness of God's gift to humanity of itself and of other people. We have people who have literally become best friends who, in other settings, because of economic or cultural or work relationships, would never have known each other," Steele added.

This uniqueness and liturgical richness, Steele said, was especially apparent during a recent Advent celebration of an adult discussion group. The participants chose a Lakota wreath to represent the four directions, and they asked representatives of four cultures to share their faith journeys.

"The common thing in all was an experience of triumph over suffering. The Hispanic gentleman shared about trials his parents went through as immigrants from Mexico. The Asian woman was a Khmer woman who talked about the suffering she and her people experienced under the Khmer Rouge, about her journey into freedom and the presence of God in that. The gentleman from the Caucasian culture talked of the suffering his family had undergone as a family of eight with a couple of special needs children. The man from Sudan talked about the hardships he went through because of his faith during the civil war," Steele said.

The diversity at St. Ambrose Cathedral, parishioners say, has historically been fed by the parish's own openness to human complexity. Originally an Irish-Italian parish that expanded to serve the Hispanic and African-American communities, St. Ambrose, now with 700 registered families, has "had a reputation of welcoming refugees that goes back to the late Bishop Maurice J. Dingman," Jennings said, also speaking by telephone from Des Moines.

"Dingman had that kind of vision and heart," Jennings said. "He told refugees, 'This is always your home.' There's been that welcoming attitude from the beginning. It's their home. It's a family."

At St. Ambrose, Catholics seek comfort not just from difficult conditions in their homelands. Some, without leaving their homeland at all, seek refuge from homelessness, from racial discrimination, from the loneliness older people sometimes face.

Others, like CeCe Ibson, a lawyer and the parish council president, seek a different kind of refuge, one pursued when they realize they need "something else in their lives besides money and work."

Ibson, assistant attorney general for the state of Iowa, said she found her own kind of home at St. Ambrose after her move nine years ago from Washington. "Iowa is fairly white, and all of the people I socialized with were just like me." At St. Ambrose, she found "a faith community of people from all over the world, of every background." This exposure, Ibson said, allows people to "become human because you absorb bits and pieces of other people around you, and this contributes to the individual's humanity."

Ibson said at her age -- she's in her 30s -- "its easy to choose to be among your own, to focus on making money, on having a nice home." While she thinks it is important not to "reject that entirely," she finds something special at St. Ambrose Cathedral. "People are involved in community, not just church," And, Ibson added, parish outreach "is really focused toward the poor, the refugees, the elderly -- that's our parishioner base."

Refugees feel comfortable in this setting where "there are a lot of different faces," said Sr. Pat Scherer, who directs St. Ambrose refugee programs and the multiethnic parish youth group. "We always talk about the universality of the church, about the mystical body of Christ. What in the world does that mean?" she queried. "It just means a body with many different faces, voices and colors of skin."

She said the refugees continually revive the church and the faith of the community. "In some ways, it's easier with refugees than with Americans. Refugees, in all instances, are so happy to practice their faith," Scherer said. A Sudanese man who, like other Christians, had experienced persecution because of his faith, told her he was grateful to be at St. Ambrose, "where he can worship God and not worry about going out on the blacktop and being shot because he went to church."

Scherer said this coming together, the lessons learned at St. Ambrose, "is all God's work. ... It tells us what heaven's going to be like, where all of us will be truly one family." Bringing people together to meet the needs of the different communities is "not all sweetness and light," Scherer warned. "It's hard work, but it's very rewarding. The more people get involved, the greater the blessings on both sides. It's a mystery really."

For example, Scherer said, Hmong, Lao and Cambodian refugees "have been mentors and welcomers to the Sudanese," who arrived more recently in the United States. It is this sense of community, according to Dolores Thomas, 71, that makes things work at St. Ambrose. "Monsignor used to say that at St. Ambrose, we never practice for anything and everything goes right. We just kind of hang in there," she said. "We are not locked into 'you've got to march this way, you've got to do that.' " Thomas said churches can get "too structured. ... You can waste too much time on 'you've got to do this,' and you don't get it done."

Community, Thomas emphasized, is key. "We are not hung up on committees. It's a resource of people, and you just call on them." The result, Thomas said, is that everyone gets involved. "I see the young people, anywhere from 25 to 45, really involved in the [religion] class, teaching the refugees. My friends from other parishes, they seem to have trouble getting people. It seems like we never lack for people. It's amazing."

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997