Newcomers find fear in post-9/11 United States

September 10, 2004|By Michael Olesker

EYES TWINKLING above his puffy white beard, the Rev. Joseph L. Muth Jr. spread his arms and opened a wedding ceremony the other day by declaring it a grand cultural mix, as befitting its delighted celebrants. The service would be part Catholic, part Jewish, part Buddhist, part Christian, he said. In other words, a reflection of the American mosaic. Except that, in the current American mind-set, the mosaic is looking a little nervous.

Tomorrow will be three years since the terrorists struck. Father Muth is pastor of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church, 5401 Loch Raven Blvd., a parish whose congregants, roughly half black and half white, come from 42 countries with at least 40 languages.

The church's school, named for the late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, has 430 students, of whom about 80 percent are not Catholic. Choirs from Kenya and Sudan call St. Matthew's home. Once a month, the Nigerian Igbo Catholic Community of Baltimore meets there for Mass.

So it goes in the modern American mix. Among its amenities, St. Matthew's offers an Immigrant Outreach Service Center. One night, says Father Muth, he held a meeting at the church, attended by about 40 parishioners from 13 nations.

"Tell me," said Father Muth, "what it's like to be an immigrant in Baltimore."

Yesterday morning, sitting in his church rectory, he recalled, "Everyone used one word: fear." Fear of the current political atmosphere, fear that their accents or their skin tone will brand them as potential terrorists, fear that a cautious American government will turn away even those who have come here seeking political asylum.

"People are really scared," Father Muth said. "They're grateful to be here; they're grateful to America. But they're also troubled by the current climate. One day we brought an immigration officer here to talk to some of our new arrivals. He told them, `If we ask you a question and you hesitate answering, we'll know if it's a language problem -- or if you're lying.' We're trying to tell these people, `You're in a safe place now.' This guy was telling them, `Be intimidated.'"

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we are a nation sometimes uncomfortable with our own professed values. We celebrate the melting pot but suspect some of its ingredients. We recall our own forebears' heartwarming journeys across oceans, but wonder if today's immigrants arrive with the same desire to enrich the country -- or to tear it down. It is our traditional Ellis Island nostalgia tempered by edgy wartime calculations.

"I've had parishioners ask me, `If America can invade one country and kill innocent people, what's to keep them from invading my country, and killing my family?'" Father Muth said. "They say, `Where does it stop?'"

Inside St. Matthew's, the walls are decorated by the flags of 42 nations, each a symbolic welcoming. The flags went up in 1999, when the church marked its 50th anniversary.

"We had a storytelling to mark the occasion," Father Muth said. "Some parishioners recalled that 50 years earlier, black families weren't allowed to attend our church school. Some of the older white parishioners remembered, when the neighborhood was changing racially, they'd go out at night and steal the `For Sale' signs off people's lawns, so it wouldn't look like everybody was leaving."

Always, the suspicion of the Others. Father Muth, 56, grew up in Govans, "a white Catholic ghetto. It's the way things were. But my mother and my father always said, `In our house, everyone is always welcome.' I feel like I'm still operating out of that sensibility. It's a simple message, but it fits with the gospel and theology, and it fits with America."

It's supposed to, anyway. It's the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and it's a political season, too. The presidential candidates pepper-spray us with reminders of the war, and the country's vulnerability, and the history of the hijackers who insinuated themselves here before the hour of their attack.

So the St. Matthew's experience strikes at our emotional discord. We want to be charmed by the mix because it's America as we pride ourselves. But Sept. 11 casts a chill -- and sends a shudder through the newest immigrants.

"There are many," said Father Muth, "who say a church like this shouldn't work. Especially now. But it's the very essence of America: refugees, immigrants, people seeking political asylum for a better life. This is what we're about. It's what the country's about. And we can't let ourselves lose sight of that."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.