Every time I read this Gospel I think of a gathering I attended several years ago when I had the good fortune to speak to some 300 Secular Franciscans in La Habra, Calif. The group included people who had recently arrived from Vietnam, Korea and Mexico, as well as native Californians. The organizers had even arranged to have my talk translated beforehand so that non-English speakers could also participate. Participants had been asked to bring their own lunches. We ate at outdoor tables, where some of the Koreans invited me to sit and share what they had brought. “What’s this?” I kept asking, finding each new item more delicious than the last.
But exciting as it was to see my words translated into various languages and to eat dishes I had never tried before, it was the Mass that brought me to tears. Our opening song was in Vietnamese, the preparation of gifts in Korean, the Communion song in Spanish and the song of sending in English. I didn’t understand the words of the first three but the final hymn, the words with which we were sent out on mission, was “Let There Be Peace on Earth …”
These people were not Americans of various ancestries; these were recent immigrants — people so recently arrived that many of them spoke little or no English, depending upon the younger among them to translate. These were people from countries with which we have been at war within my lifetime, people from Korea and Vietnam. These were people from Mexico, a country bordered by walls and barbed wire fences in an effort to keep others like them away.
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In another place the question is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” I’ve never had lunch with a Samaritan, and I doubt that I would know one if he or she sat down next to me, but I do know that on that day I had lunch with my neighbor — “… and let it begin with me.”
Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister, retreat leader, spiritual director and published writer and poet.