Remembering When We Were Outsiders

July 28th, 2016

The recent murder of a Catholic priest in France by ISIS terrorists once again brings up a number of pressing questions. Why do these attacks keep happening? What can be done to prevent them? Can Muslims ever assimilate into a secular, democratic society?


I think that the last question is especially pertinent to the situation of Muslim immigrants in the United States. Many people in the U.S., including the Republican presidential nominee, do not believe that Muslims in this country can be trusted. There is a great deal of skepticism as to whether Muslims in the U.S. can ever be real Americans. There is a feeling that Muslims do not share American values, and that they, because of their faith tradition, are incapable of being completely loyal citizens of this country. There is an assumption among some that Muslims do not belong in America, and that they will never belong here.


It may be useful, at this point, to look at our own history, as Catholics, in the United States. Our history is very tightly woven into the immigrant experience. Our history involves prejudice and persecution. Our history involves clannishness and tribalism. Our history, in many ways, is a precursor of the Muslim experience in America.


I am old enough to remember the intense ethnicity of Catholic parishes in the Milwaukee area. When I was growing up, our family went to St. Augustine Catholic Church on 67th and Rogers in West Allis. St. Augustine was a parish that often seemed more Croatian than Catholic. There was always at least one Mass celebrated in Croatian. At least one of the Franciscan priests serving the parish was from the old country. Many of the parishioners had been refugees who had fled Yugoslavia after Tito took power there. The annual church festival always had tamburitza music and a lamb roast. St. Augustine was a parish that served what was then primarily an immigrant community. It as a place where people found comfort in their faith and in the culture of their old homeland.


Decades ago, many  parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee used to be like St. Augustine. Milwaukee was full of parishes that were ethnic oases. Catholics who had immigrated to Milwaukee from all over Europe found safety and solace in these various church communities. They were strangers in a strange land, and the parishes gave them a chance to be with people from their home countries, and to practice their Catholic faith in a familiar and comforting way. At the same time, Catholics also tried to show their new loyalty to America. I can clearly remember seeing both the U.S. flag and the Vatican flag in the church sanctuary at St. Augustine.


At the same time, the general population of the United States was hostile to immigrant Catholics. To many native-born Americans, the Catholics represented all that was foreign and strange and un-American. Our grandparents allegedly obeyed a foreign potentate, the Pope. Most people in the U.S. at the time believed that Catholics had divided loyalties. How could Catholics ever become real Americans?


Now look at today’s Muslims. I sometimes go to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. A friend of mine, Mohamed, is an immigrant from Tunisia. He invited me to “iftar”, the breaking of the fast in the evening during the month of Ramadan. I sat with Mohamed at a table surrounded by Muslim immigrants. There were refugees at the table from Burma, immigrants from Pakistan, and other people from the world over. When it came time to pray, the mosque was full of people who had come to America from many different countries. They too are strangers in a strange land. These people also seek comfort in the food and faith of their old lands. The Islamic Society provides that comfort, that sense of being at home.


The Muslim immigrants cling to things that remind them of their previous lives. They take refuge in their faith tradition, in their languages, and their customs. However, they also actively reach out, and try to be part of the greater community. A local Muslim group, Ma’ruf, does what it can to help the homeless and the elderly in the Milwaukee area. The people in Ma’ruf help everyone in need, not just other Muslims. The Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield offers many educational programs to the public. It also houses the largest library of books on Islam in the state.


Like our Catholics forebears, Muslims living now in our country live surrounded by prejudice and fear. We eventually convinced the natives that we were like them. The Muslims are trying to prove the same thing to us.


Our previous immigrant experience as Catholics is very similar to the experience of Muslims in our community now. If we take time to remember how difficult it was for our ancestors to assimilate into American society, we should be able to empathize with the current struggles of our Muslim neighbors. We should remember how long it took us to become accepted as Americans. We integrated into the American culture, although it may have cost us part of our soul. The Muslims will integrate too. It will just take time.



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