One of the things that I have noticed here in our parish is the great pride people take in tracing their the lineage of their ancestors. Many of you have traced the journey of your ancestors to their homelands in Germany and other countries of Europe and can show the route they took to get to this area. In fact it has been said that the reason so many of our German immigrants came to this area is that it looked very much like the land of their birth. They came here seeking a new start and, for many of the people who first came to our country, they were coming to escape persecution, especially in the practice of their religion.
I remember that Ken McCutchan, a noted historian of Evansville once gave a talk to the Evansville Council of Churches in which he maintained that if there was any religious community that was persecuted in our area it was the Catholic Community. Much of that was documented in the life of Fr. Roman Weinzapfel who was one of the very first priests to serve our community here in the 1840’s.
Many of our ancestors faced learning a new language and some of them never did learn English preferring instead to speak in their native German tongue. Several of my dad’s brothers and sisters only learned English when they started school. In this area, there is evidence that people of German ancestry were looked upon with great suspicion with the outbreak of World War I. We speak with great pride of our German heritage and celebrate it with festivals and many local restaurants, but that was not always the case. Even as late as the 1960’s many people in the United States looked with suspicion upon Catholic politicians and wondered whether they were truly “American.” A lot has changed in the ensuing years when many congressman and women and senators are Catholic and a majority of Supreme Court Justices are Catholic.
You would think that such a history would make us particularly sensitive to the plight of immigrants who still come to the United States and even sensitive to the millions of people who are displaced throughout the world because of war and violence. Sadly that is not always the case. We have a history in our country of often being driven by fear when it comes to welcoming the newest immigrants. That fear comes most often from the very people who, just a few years before, were immigrants themselves. Fear of losing their jobs, fear of people who are new and live different ways and have different customs. It’s not that these people are bad, it’s just that fear causes many ugly things to come to the surface. In our brighter moments we proclaim, as we do on the Statue of Liberty, “send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” But then it’s a great challenge to be this beacon of light. The devil is in the details, as they say. And it is there that fear resides and flourishes. And so the great challenge is to choose not to be guided by fear but rather by the words of Jesus who said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This week, as we celebration National Migration Week, these are words we need to hear again. We live in a world in which over 50 million people have been uprooted from their homes because of war, famine and violence. Leaning into the journey of life, Fr. Gene Schroeder