Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Deacon discovers other cultures, other lives during ‘mini-sabbatical’
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register
(From the Oct. 25, 2001 edition of the Inland Register
Perhaps his time away this past summer could be called a mini-sabbatical. However it’s described, Deacon Gary Cooper of Spokane spent the months of July and August in the northwest-central town of Brewster, living with a Hispanic family there.
Deacon Cooper is pastoral associate at St. Augustine Parish in Spokane, which has a sister relationship with Sacred Heart Parish in Brewster. The Spokane parish offers financial support; the two share religious customs and prayer services, including an exchange of pastors.
The Brewster area has large commercial orchards and Deacon Cooper wanted to become more familiar with the lives of the Mexicans who work there. He thought such an experience would develop a “real relationship between the sister parishes,” and add a new dimension to his social outreach ministry.
His visit was arranged by Father Pat Kerst, then the pastor of Sacred Heart. Amelia Quezada and her family were the deacon’s hosts. “She spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish,” Deacon Cooper said. “We had some interesting ‘nodding’ conversations.” The family included Quezada’s two sons, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Juan, Paco and Gabriella and Sinai.
While the language may have been a barrier, that did not keep Quezada from offering hospitality to the visitor. “The family has little or nothing, but whatever they had was mine,” said the deacon. “The hospitality quotient went way beyond what I would have expected.” Even his offer to wash dishes was rejected. He was their guest, and guests don’t wash dishes.
Deacon Cooper learned that Mexicans working in the United States making $6.72 an hour earn more than workers in their homeland. Even though they might be entitled to higher pay and could organize for it, Deacon Cooper said they are reluctant to take that step, fearful of jeopardizing the lower amount.
Whatever they earn, the people who work in the orchards work hard for their pay. Deacon Cooper worked in the orchards one day, going out to help thin apples with two Mexican brothers in their late 40s. “That was more than this old gringo could handle. I was glad when it was quitting time,” he said.
Much of what Deacon Cooper learned from his stay he called “a poet’s impressions.” One was of his hostess’s house, which, he said, “was full of laughter. They have such enjoyment of each other.” In the Mexican culture, he said, “relationship comes first.”
Another impression was that “their hearts are in Mexico.” The Mexicans, especially those who were born in Mexico, have a deep desire to go home again. “That’s always in the back of their minds,” he said. Many Mexicans save money to send for relatives or to make the costly trip to visit.
He also discovered that whether in the Mexican culture or U.S. culture, “our stories are similar.” He swapped his experiences of living on a dairy ranch with some Mexicans who had also lived on a dairy ranch. In talking about the livestock, “We agreed that it should be just one word: ‘damncow.’”
Deacon Cooper was not in the parish for liturgical functions, and assisted at the Masses only on the last weekend of his visit. He practiced what some call “the ministry of presence,” by sharing the lives of the Mexicans in the parish. If the opportunity presented itself, he talked with his hosts and others about the love of Jesus Christ for all people. “Many of them, especially the men, have issues with the church, usually about marriage,” he said.
Sacred Heart’s new pastor, Father Jose Luis Hernandez, arrived about the same time as the deacon. However, Father Hernan-dez had an advantage over Deacon Cooper; the Spanish language was native to him. That will be an advantage to the Hispanic community since they view Father Hernandez as one of their own.
Deacon Cooper studied Spanish while he was in Brewster, but had to confess his skills had not advanced very far by the time he left. He plans to continue his study of Spanish and “do the memory work.” Some St. Augustine parishioners speak Spanish, and he plans to sit in on a Spanish class taught by a friend.
One of the things that Deacon Cooper looked for when he went to Brewster was a way that St. Augustine Parish might be of greater service in its sister-parish relationship. He found that it might be helpful if the church could offer support when Hispanics need “to re-up” with immigration. Support from someone familiar with U.S. government systems would greatly help the Mexicans, he said. “I’d like to see what our church could do to assist them.”
Would he do it again? There was no hesitation in Deacon Cooper’s answer: “Yes, I would go again. We have so much to learn from other cultures.”
Deacon Cooper wrote a poem during his stay and we reprint it with his permission:
Every morning when I come to pray
he sits the bare branch at the top
of the fir tree behind Amelia’s house.
Elegant in his gray morning coat,
white trimmed black tail, pale shirtfront
and brown cowl, he summons the sun.
The sun is so happy to see him
and together they make morning and prayer
so clean only unborn babies can hear it.
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