Father Joe is among those who understand the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Father Joe was a priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church just three doors down from my boyhood home in Lincoln, Placer County. The original implication of Thanksgiving for having the freedom to worship as freemen in a land of plenty was never lost on Father Joe.
He was raised a Catholic in South Vietnam. It is where he went to seminary. It is where his parents were killed by the Viet Cong because of their religion. It is also where he was put into a re-education camp due to his religious beliefs after Saigon fell.
Father Joe knew firsthand of his family, friends, and countrymen who were killed simply because they were Catholics. As we feast today, there are dozens of people around the globe who are being killed because of their religion. Hundreds more are being tortured because they don’t practice the same religion as their tormentors. Thousands more are in jail for the same reason while millions of others suffer economic hardships and are forced to live in the underbelly of their homeland’s civilization because they dare be of another faith. It’s a pretty strong indictment of those who are self-righteous enough to believe their deity is the right one. To kill in the name of Allah, Buddha, God or whatever supreme being one might worship is frightening at best. Father Joe was rarely without a smile.
He relished the freedom to go where he pleased, to worship in the traditions of his religion and to live in the land of plenty. One of Father Joe’s parishioners was an elderly lady, perhaps in her 80s, who had limited English skills. She had immigrated to California from near Jalisco in Mexico with her husband. When our one and only one-on-one meeting took place, she was widowed and living by herself in a stone building that once was part of a train roundhouse for locomotives that was built in Lincoln in 1872.
It was Thanksgiving Day and I had volunteered to deliver turkey meals to shut-ins. My instructions simply said “Carmelita, speaks little English, 505-A H St.” I knocked on the door. Seconds later an elderly, bent woman gestured me into her home. It was a tidy two-room apartment with stark stone walls. A light bulb hung from a socket attached to a cord hanging above the kitchen sink in front of a window that had a view of the railroad tracks.
The apartment was Spartan but neat. With a smile, she gestured for me to sit down. As I sat down, I was stunned to realize that someone lived in such a manner in my hometown. The apartment had a draft and it was chilly. Heating costs money and Carmelita was bundled out of necessity. The conversation was awkward for I knew as many words in Spanish as she knew in English. I stayed for perhaps 15 minutes. Before I left, she touched my hands and then quickly removed her fingers to offer a prayer. I followed suit, not wanting to show disrespect. She gave her blessing for the food and for “America.” I thought it was a tad strange that one would thank God for “America” when she lived in such a place that was better suited to house locomotives than humans.
A few days later, I happened to mention Carmelita to Father Joe. Father Joe said he knew her. He told me her husband had died several years ago. She had two children, both of who had passed on. She hadn’t had contact with her grandchildren for months.
I asked Father Joe how she could be so happy. It was a lame question to ask a priest since as soon as I asked the question, I realized the answer had to be her faith. But Father Joe didn’t stop at just mentioning her strong faith. He talked about how life in this country is so much better than in other parts of the globe even when one lives in poverty. I couldn’t see how, but I didn’t question him.
Several years later, the newspaper in Roseville that I worked for sent me for 17 days on a sister city trip to Chinaghpaun about 100 miles southeast of Mexico City. The trip took us far away from the glitter of modern Mexico City. We passed miles upon miles of shanties on the edge of the metro area where people had to use precious money to buy potable water.
In Chinaghpaun, I learned from our hosts there is a small middle class. The powerful and rich few hold most of the resources and the bulk of the population are working poor, if they are lucky, unemployed poor if they are not.
It was a land of school houses with huge gaps in the wooden floor, where most youths stopped going to school after the fifth grade because their parents couldn’t afford to purchase paper or pencils (fourth graders and younger used small, hand-held chalk boards for their lessons) or not have them work to help support the family. It was a land where two suitcases of No. 2 pencils and three cartoons of paper donated to the local school that we carried with us from the United States was treated like a gift of gold.
This is the land that Carmelita had left for the United States. It made me realize just how lucky I am by chance of birth to be a United States citizen.
Unlike Father Joe my chances of being killed or persecuted for practicing my chosen faith in my native country is virtually zilch. And, unlike Carmelita, I have never known real poverty nor have many of this nation’s poor. It’s a lot to be thankful for.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.