There is a phrase we use in card games: “to follow suit.” It simply means that you must play the same kind of card that the player who leads off has played. Here at St. Alphonsus parish, Brooklyn Center, that is a good way to describe how we became the multi-cultural parish that we are proud to be.
Priests of the Redemptorist order founded the parish in 1959. For the first 25 years it was a predominantly white, middle-class parish. In the mid-1980s, we had our first wave of immigrants enter the parish — displaced Vietnamese who were forced out of their country after the war and who were looking to make a new life in this country. In the 1990s we had another influx, this time immigrants from more than eight different countries in Africa fleeing the unrest and violence on that continent. Finally, during the past decade, an increasing number of Latino immigrants made their homes in the neighborhood. In other words, they each “followed suit” and found a new and welcoming home at St. Alphonsus.
But the phrase equally applies to parish staff and parishioners. Since the Redemptorist order is a missionary order (and card players), the Redemptorist priests naturally led with hearts — their hearts — by making sure that anyone and everyone, no matter their language or country of origin, was welcome in the parish. The parishioners themselves naturally “followed suit” by opening their hearts to the newcomers and welcoming them with open arms. Who are the winners in this hand that God has dealt us? Everybody, of course! God never deals a bad hand.
We at St. Al’s are proud that we reveal so many different faces and races of Jesus in his One Body. It’s not easy. We have different cultures, different languages and different ways of doing things. Yet we are determined that everybody who sees us will recognize the One Body of Christ in us — precisely in our unity, which shines with the richness of our diversity.
We celebrate our multicultural identity with a variety of events throughout the year. But the highlight is our annual multicultural Mass. It is a truly magnificent worship experience, where parish members from many different countries plan together how to combine the distinctive gifts that they are able to bring forth from the storehouse of their unique cultural heritage. The result? A living mosaic of Christ — more beautiful than the famous masterpieces adorning the walls and ceilings of churches throughout the world.
The liturgy lends itself to a variety of cultural expressions. This year, our all-parish Mass featured a veritable kaleidoscope of cultural expressions knit together into a beautiful seamless garment. Words cannot capture the magnificence of this feast for the senses. But I will try to give you an idea with bold brush-strokes using the five senses.
A feast for the eyes: Most eye-catching were the variety of bright, joyful colors and styles in the native dress of those who come from other countries: Africa — bright yellows, greens and purples with ornate headdresses for both men and women; Asia — soft whites and pastels, pink, blue and yellow floor-length dresses with intricate embroidery; Latin America — the women with flowery white blouses and flowing red, blue and green skirts, the men in dress jeans, big belt buckles and ten-gallon hats; and the U.S. with the usual variety of more muted colors and styles.
A feast for the ears: Language and music from around the world. Music seems to have the capacity to bridge cultures and nations. Our music that day had an international flavor in both style and language. The special choir included members of many different nationalities. As you would expect in any family celebration, the St. Al’s family sang with joyful exuberance and in a number of different languages: English, French, Spanish, Tagalog and Swahili. The word of God was proclaimed in English and Spanish. The Prayer of the Faithful included petitions in six different languages. And the entire Mass alternated between English and Spanish, since the normal Sunday Mass schedule includes five Masses in English and one in Spanish at 12:30 p.m.
A feast for the palate: Other parts of the liturgy had a distinctive international flavor. In the entrance procession, the Knights of St. John (a Pan-African group) lent an air of solemnity as they preceded the priests down the aisle. The procession with the Gospel book celebrated a beautiful and striking African tradition. A parishioner from Togo, Philomena Attipou, carried (danced!) the book down the middle aisle in a type of cloth-sling arranged on her back. It gave this “alleluia moment” a very distinctive solemnity. The offertory gifts were brought forward in a graceful manner by Vietnamese parishioners dressed in native garb. And the spectacular finish was provided by a group of Aztec dancers in traditional garb (including the noisy leg rattles) who led the celebrants and congregation out of church and over to the festival area in the church parking lot.
A feast of fragrance and flavor for the sense of smell and taste: Since food, like music, seems to be able to bridge the cultural and ethnic gap, the parish festival itself featured a taste from around the world at the various international food booths. Our parishioners prepared savory dishes from their own countries. The festival-goers could mix and match and try them all: Asian egg rolls and wontons; African grilled chicken and meat pies; French crepes, Latin American chicharrones, mangos on a stick and raspados (fruit slushes); the U.S. pizza, grilled brats, hamburgers and pulled pork sandwiches; and, of course, the international favorite — ice cream. This was all washed down with plenty of beer, soda and water during the heat of the day.
A feast for the touch: Everyone was touched by the joy and friendliness that characterized every part of the celebration. You could actually feel the camaraderie and family joy as the children tried to win prizes at the games and the adults mingled and chatted while they ate their meal or enjoyed the entertainment in the shade of the tent.
The people of St. Al’s can honestly boast: “We did it! Another fantastic multicultural celebration of who we are. We are St. Al’s and we are the many beautiful faces of Christ in his One Body.”
Come and join us next year at our cultural extravaganza. You will be welcomed with warm hearts and open arms — no matter what country you come from or what language you speak. You, too, can follow suit!
Father William Bueche, C.Ss.R., is associate pastor and director of Latino ministry at St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center.
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