Seeking productive conversations

Originally Appeared in : 9717-8/17/17

I’ve been buying a lot of produce lately, particularly greens. We all know how expensive produce can be, so to save some money, I recently visited a large Asian market. The prices on produce are the best around. I’ve shopped at this market in the past, and I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed. There are so many products with which I’m unfamiliar. Yet each time I visit, I feel more acclimated. 


The market carries products from China, Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Strolling the aisles, most other shoppers don’t look like me. Numerous nationalities are represented. Many of the store workers are not comfortable with English. In addition to the groceries, the market has an extensive seafood selection (including live fish, crabs, and mollusks in tanks), a bakery and a restaurant. The place is always bustling. 


It occurred to me on this most recent visit how lucky I am to live in an area and a country which offer me an opportunity to experience so many cultures and cuisines and to be surrounded by people of such diverse backgrounds and experiences. 


I felt similarly grateful on the Fourth of July when I accompanied my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren to a festival and parade held annually in Carrboro, North Carolina. Mostly families with children from a wide range of ethnicities gathered in one small town, wearing patriotic gear, waving flags, and marching in a parade to celebrate our country’s independence. My daughter’s high school friend, whose family emigrated from India, and her toddler son, joined us after the festival for a cookout. This is the America I love to celebrate: an America rich in diversity, and united by a common bond. 


My daughter has another high school friend with whom she is still very close. She emigrated from Bosnia as a small child, escaping the war. Muslim refugees, her family found safe haven in our country. In her 30s, she and her husband have now started a family of their own. 


My Catholic parish is 70 percent Latino. As faith formation director, I serve a large number of Hispanic families. Indeed, in every group preparing for sacraments, the vast majority are Latino. I struggle with Spanish, but I have come to understand (and respond to, in broken Spanish) many of the questions I get from parents. I may be lost in Mexico and unable to ask for directions, but if I found a Catholic church, I could “talk Sacraments.”


Interacting with these families at my parish is one of the highlights of my job. I’m also incredibly fortunate that so many bilingual teenagers are eager to volunteer and help me with my duties. Recently, the parish hosted a Back-to-School ice cream party, and six teenagers served ice cream, interpreted, and helped me clean up. When I praised their work ethic, they told me that at home they can be “lazy,” but when they help me at church they take on unpleasant tasks (sweeping, taking out the garbage, doing dishes) without being asked. My job would be so much harder without them, and much less fun. 


When our parish was offering an Immigration Day to help families with some of the challenges they recently face, an African American Protestant pastor contacted me and asked if he could volunteer to help. He said that he feels a bond with these immigrants because, as a black man growing up in the South, he faced similar obstacles. A friend of mine, who’s Quaker and an attorney, also volunteered to help. How lucky I am to live in a community rich in diversity and willing to help one another. 


I hold out hope that my experiences of diversity and inclusiveness are shared by most Americans. Troubled by the rise in white nationalism that is prompting some to want to deny immigrants access to this country or to punish those who are already here, I pray that those who do hold resentment toward immigrants discover what I have: the many contributions they bring.


The typical arguments against immigration – they take our jobs, they don’t speak English, they are supported by our tax money, they don’t assimilate – are not born out by evidence. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, contribute to our economy. And the jobs many take go unfilled by native-born Americans. Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for or accept welfare benefits or Medicaid. Many pay taxes into the system but do not receive any benefits from those contributions. Among the Latino community, assimilation has occurred at the same pace, or more rapidly, than other immigrants. 


Most of us are not Native Americans. Most came from somewhere else, whether generations ago or years ago. We have been called the “melting pot” not because we blend and become a single type of American, but because the pot is full of a variety of cultures and ethnicities which make up one community. 


And the word “community” is related to the word “communion.” We Catholics have a reverence for Communion, the body of Christ in the Eucharist and the body of Christ in the people of God. It is our hope, as it was Jesus’s, that we all become one. Jesus prayed: “… so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.” (John 17:20-21)


We cannot achieve community if we remain alienated from one another, and if we reject those who are different from us. 


If immigration seems threatening to you, take some time to get to know immigrants. You may have that opportunity in your parish, your neighborhood, your town. Attend multicultural festivals, and shop in ethnic markets. Seek communion, and Christ will be present to you in the “other.”


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at

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