Labor Day weekend was thought provoking and emotional for me on several levels. My father’s family, the Zierlers, held their annual family reunion at the homestead of my grandparents in Forest County. Dad was a second generation German-Austrian American and he grew up on this homestead, which is the same “almost heaven” piece of land — except the house and barn have been razed.
I am grateful to my uncle and cousins for being such wonderful stewards of this gift and the memories that come with it.
Today there are great-great grandchildren sharing this reunion and connected to this incredible heritage and story. Like many family histories, there were times of extreme hardships and sadness, but there are also pictures that express togetherness and joy. Raising nine children in primitive circumstances during WWI and the Depression had to be an ongoing adventure. God did bless them with each other and the other families which settled in the area. I remember what Pope Francis tweeted on June 18: “Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families.”
A little over a year ago, I decided that I wanted to be able to tell the story of my father’s family, so I spent some time investigating my great-grandparents’ lives as immigrants to this country in the late 1800s. I learned so much about their faith, the difficulties with language (they never learned English) and the hopes and dreams they had to educate their children.
I was actually able to stand on my great-grandparents’ homesteads in Shawano County and look upon the land they once farmed and called home. Not much has changed there in 135 years, so I enjoyed imagining my grandparents’ everyday lives as children of immigrants. Though homesteading was difficult, they must have enjoyed a hope for a brighter future that helped them endure and remain faithful.
As I am in the midst of this grateful look at my heritage, our world seems to be in crisis as families flee lives of death, abuse and extreme poverty. Just as my ancestors traveled to this country in unhealthy and dangerous ways, so are others taking high-stake risks for just the chance to live and have a better future. Perhaps like you, my heart was broken at the many images of refugees.
Amazingly, Pope Francis stepped forward and became the steward of Christ’s mercy and hope through his global voice and advocacy. His fearlessness and boldness in teaching us about true lived-out discipleship never ceases to inspire me. In regard to the Syrian refugees, Pope Francis has stated over and over again in the past few days: “May every parish and religious community in Europe host a refugee family.” It seems so simple.
In case you did not see it, Pope Francis also recently made a surprise Skype visit to a parish on the Texas-Mexico border. This “Body of Christ” blesses immigrants with the hospitality of Jesus by supplying a safe place and other basic needs. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the fleeing mothers with their young children. I was impressed by members of this parish community whose mission is so closely tied to their relationship with Jesus that they are able to live out their discipleship as Christian stewards.
It made me wonder if my ancestors encountered such love when they arrived, tired and a stranger in a foreign land. Did anyone respond to them? I hope so.
As we grow in knowledge and wisdom, our hearts are more sensitive to the suffering and pain of others. I consider it both a hardship and a gift. Even as I pieced together the story of my family, there were times when I wanted to reach into history and comfort my grandparents, my dad, and aunts and uncles.
My life seems so blessed. I believe gratitude and learning to see more clearly through the lenses of the Gospel are the mechanisms of mercy and love. I believe a benchmark for assessing our lives as disciples of Jesus and Christian stewards is our response and response time when God identifies a need and places it upon our hearts.
Maybe someday a great-grandchild of a current immigrant to this country will tell their family story of settling in the United States and they will wonder who it was who offered mercy and love. As Christian stewards, wouldn’t we want that to be part of our legacy?
Otto is Stewardship and Special Projects director for the diocesan Stewardship and Pastoral Services Department.