By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 19, 2006
Native African, Latin American, Asian and European heritage parishioners processed down the church aisle as choristers sang “We Are Marching” in Ibo, Polish, Tagalog, Spanish and English, enlivening the congregation as the celebration began.
During the Mass, Filipino, Spanish and African choirs sang praise to God in their native tongues, and parishioners prayed for peace among nations and an end to racism.
Afterward a father and son of Slovak descent cheerfully spooned out the Slovakian national dish of “halusky” made from potatoes, sour cream, bacon, sauerkraut and feta cheese, while Puerto Ricans sliced and served 12 pork roasts. Antsy children waited to perform an Ibo tribal dance, holding fans and wearing yellow and red dresses, ankle bracelets with bells and feathered headdresses.
The rich textures, many languages, and universal themes came together Sept. 30 as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory presided at the eighth annual St. Philip Benizi Church Multicultural Mass. This year—with special emphasis on the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Atlanta—it celebrated the growth of the Catholic Church in North Georgia in those 50 years into a microcosm of the universal church with its mosaic of immigrant communities from around the world and Masses regularly prayed in languages ranging from Chinese to Portuguese.
The archbishop called the Mass—which was followed by an international feast for over 1,500 people—a taste of the heavenly banquet in which all of God’s children will gather together in harmony.
During the standing-room-only Mass, parishioners displayed their heritages with colorful dress. Some African women wore long green, yellow and black outfits with gold accents and matching headscarves. Filipino women wore sequined tops, while those of European descent wore ruffled white dresses with red and green embroidery and fringed red shawls. Latin Americans’ garb included sombreros and fitted mariachi-style suits. Colored flags representing different continents were carried forward. The Italian parish committee adorned the altar with red roses and white lilies, traditional flowers of Italy.
The archbishop in his homily compared their diversity to United Nations’ gatherings. There, people gather to fight world hunger, poverty and conflicts, to calm the disharmony of the human family, he said. But “we here gather around the table where we know the giving of peace is to be found and where food we serve here nourishes not only the body but our heart. We gather in knowing there is a Balm in Gilead that will, if we but accept it, heal the sin-sick soul. What a wonderful sight it is to see so many people of this parish and the archdiocese gather in harmony and peace to rejoice in our diversity, and to do so because Christ is one and He belongs equally to all of us.”
He spoke of the day’s Gospel that it is better to pluck out one’s eye than to let it cause one to sin, as it’s better to enter the kingdom of God blind or crippled or maimed than to be excluded.
“God’s kingdom is such an event of life that we are all invited to prepare for that kingdom by the way we live together right now,” he said. After Mass “you will get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom will be like. In God’s kingdom we will be able to eat without fear of waistline…We will all be welcome. We will be able to dance with joy at God’s goodness. When we share food and music and dancing of many different communities that make up the church in North Georgia, you will have a glimpse of what that kingdom will be like in its perfection.”
He affirmed God’s presence among them.
“Even as we pray and sing and worship and dance and dine together, in one sense that is why the archbishop ought to be present, to encourage you, to pray with you, present to prepare your hearts for that day God’s kingdom will be made perfect,” he concluded. “The kingdom is now being born and it will be made perfect when the Father gathers all God’s children around the table together…The kingdom of God is being born, and I think the first echoes are being heard in Jonesboro, Ga.”
Julio and Minnie Martinez, who planned the liturgy, thanked the over 200 volunteers who contributed to the festive affair, representing over 24 countries, and presented Archbishop Gregory with plaques of Christ and Mary surrounded by children from around the world.
“We are fulfilling what God wants us to do, to love thy neighbor and live in harmony with one another. This is what God wants—to see all his children united,” said Julio Martinez.
Following the Mass people quickly queued up before outdoor tables where parishioners dished out traditional foods from their or their ancestors’ homelands and enjoyed entertainment, including dances from Nigeria, singing from El Salvador and the United States, and a mariachi band.
Tom Nemchik stood at the table for Slovakia as his son Andrew dished out the halusky. The elder Nemchik explained that a persecution of Slovaks by Hungary beginning in the late 1800s led many, including his grandfather, to flee. Some 200,000 Slovaks settled in Pennsylvania, where Slovak-language Masses are still celebrated.
Slovakia became an independent country in 1993 when it separated from the Czech Republic. He’s grateful that Slovakia, along with Ireland, Poland and Portugal, has maintained traditional Christian values on social issues such as marriage and abortion compared with other countries in the European Union.
He reflected how true it is to speak of “the faith of our fathers.”
“My grandparents are the ones who really gave me my faith, and it is really neat to see where they came from,” he said.
Sporting white baggy pants with green and red tassels and piping, black high boots and a ruffled white shirt and a bolero vest, he pointed to their poster displaying a list of famous Americans with Slovak roots, including Andy Warhol, and a map of the region, noting that Pope John Paul II used to ski its Carpathian Mountains. The national flag has a Cyrillic cross, honoring St. Cyril of Greece who along with St. Methodius spread Christianity there and first translated the Bible to their language.
The Mass “allows me to appreciate that we are one body in Christ. You can go to any Mass in any language and still be able to participate,” Nemchik said. “It allows me to offer my Catholicism as a Slovak to others who might be interested.”
Renee Volcy of Fayetteville, who came to the United States in 1975 from Haiti, was busy serving Haitian cuisine.
“I’m trying to get involved (at church) to keep the kids in the faith. I have two girls,” she said. With the deep poverty and seemingly deteriorating conditions of Haiti “I haven’t been back since 1987 so I’m trying to keep the kids in the culture.”
Miriam Awachie, wearing a traditional long, royal blue dress from her native Nigeria, described the popular “chin chin” fried dough snack that she made for the Nigerian food table.
Awachie loves St. Philip Benizi Church, with its staff of Conventual Franciscan friars and its multicultural spirit embracing nearly 30 nationalities. She is involved in the church’s Africans in Christ Society that meets monthly and outside the parish with the Focolare Movement, focused on authentic Gospel living and solidarity among believers worldwide.
“This is a beautiful parish,” she said. She appreciates the friars’ consistency and “the way we’re fed spiritually. There’s such a diversity of people and gifts, so many different ministries.”
Awachie said that she strives to carry on Nigerian traditions in her home, such as teaching her five children to show respect for the elders, including older siblings. She explained that in Nigeria Catholics, largely in southern Nigeria, no longer practice arranged marriages, but they typically do wait to get their parents’ approval through a traditional process also involving extended family, which in her and her husband’s case involved waiting eight years before tying the knot. “It took a long time and lots of family discussions.”
As the sun set and the half moon and stars glimmered in the evening sky, in the Latin American enclave a “New York-Rican” dished out green plantains, red beans and potatoes, coconut rice with raisins and “chicken fricassee.” A Mexican woman stirred the rich Mexican sauce for meats called mole, which contained chocolate, four types of peppers, garlic, peanuts, cumin and other spices. The German table offered German potato salad and sauerkraut and bratwurst, while the Irish table had Irish soda bread and scones.
Marie-Louis Laville, one of about 50 parishioners from the predominantly Catholic island of Dominica in the Caribbean, explained one featured dish had fried dumplings stuffed with codfish and cashews, and another was a chicken stew with carrots, onions, tomatoes and spices.
“We enjoy everything about (the event). This is like home for us. … In our country we cook food in a snap. You don’t have to have an (invitation)” to visit people, she said. “They say it’s one of the most hospitable islands in the Caribbean.”
Jamaica native Elliot Thompson, a Presbyterian, came to help friends with the island’s spread of foods, including jerk chicken, curried goat, rice and peas, and beef patties. A member of the Atlanta Jamaican Association, which raises money for his homeland, Thompson enjoyed watching children perform a traditional Nigerian Ibo dance.
“It’s excellent,” he said. “I’ll be here next year. More churches should do this. Most importantly, it offers the wider community the chance to look at other cultures in a positive light.”
Parish activities coordinator Kathy Cirincione said that planning began in May and that parishioners from each country are asked to make enough native food to serve at least 50. Nationalities more heavily represented at the parish, such as Nigerians, Americans, Italians, Germans and Mexicans, made dishes to serve about 300.
“They are so proud of their culture and heritage, and they just want to share it with everybody,” she said. “All the food is authentic, and everyone cooks homemade.”
The pastor, Father Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., recalled that as the 2,600-family parish began becoming more international about a decade ago, the church decided to switch its fall festival to this event to celebrate its evolving identity. The largest groups are Hispanics from across Latin America, Filipinos, and more recently immigrants from the Republic of Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo and other African countries, as well as African-Americans.
“We are very proud of it. It’s very difficult to orchestrate and coordinate all the different ethnic groups because they come with their own experience of the liturgy and church. It’s a bit of a juggling act as pastor to orchestrate this beautiful symphony of cultures at the parish, and we have to strive to stress the unity in diversity so that we don’t become a parish of little parishes,” he said in an interview later. “So it’s a challenge, but one that’s been very rewarding. … (It’s) a lot of work, and a lot of people are very committed to it.”
The Eucharist is a unifying force for his Jonesboro flock.
“It’s the Eucharist we have that is common ground, that brings us together as a unified parish. It does not mean we don’t have struggle and compete for space and attention. We have to share and compromise and give and take. That’s all part of the American experience, at least of the American church,” said the priest of German and Irish heritage. “It’s all done in a spirit of hospitality and welcome. We want everybody to feel welcome here in the church. It’s not always that easy to bring different cultures together, but it is the mission of the church.”