By Glenn Leach
Father Dennis Martin, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty, reflected on the vitality of the parish, comprised of approximately 300 immigrant and approximately 200 native-born families. “The immigrant families for the most part have been here for many years and are a solid part of the community as well as parish life,” he said. “Their contributions include a great richness in family life and in their celebrations.
Fr. Martin explained that the immigrant families brought much-needed economic vitality to the area as well as their cultural values, indicating that many small rural towns that lack the infusion of newcomers were struggling economically even before the recession.
“Our parish is very fortunate,” he said. “Although there is always a tendency for different cultures to remain separate even though worshiping in the same church, we have individuals and families in both cultures who are working together to make sure this is referred to by everyone as “our parish.” Fr. Martin went on to say that the parish finance council has representatives of both groups, and the parish council that is being restructured hopefully will be even more representative, not only of cultural groups, but also of men and women, married and single. “Our Knights of Columbus Council is composed of ‘caballeros’ or gentlemen knights from both groups.
“Immigrant families comprise the bulk of our religious education program,” he said, “however most of the catechists are from our native-born or Anglo community. We have bilingual folks in both groups, but all the instruction is conducted in English because English is what the children speak; so language is not an issue.”
Fr. Martin indicated special needs exist. A “Know Your Rights” session was held last month to help immigrants understand that the U.S. Constitution provides rights even for non-citizens. The session was part of a larger effort to facilitate integration into the community.
The town itself is growing, not only in population, but in its celebration of diversity. “For example, the musical events for later this year will include music and participation from both cultures,” he said. Fr. Martin said he understands those native-born citizens who fear a change in the way of life they have always experienced. That is a common reaction to change. “In West Liberty,” he said, “I believe most of us see that while change does occur, it is a comfortable change.”
(Leach is a volunteer in the Davenport Diocese’s social action department.)