Refugees receive hope, hospitality at Thanksgiving feast

November 25, 2014

SPRING — The glittering pumpkin centerpieces were in place on all the tables. The room was filled with jazz against a backdrop of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” The roasted turkey, piping hot potatoes, casseroles and homemade pumpkin pies were proudly on display.

Culminating weeks of excited preparation, parishioners of St. Ignatius Catholic Church finally flung open the doors of their church and of their hearts to welcome more than 50 refugees from Cuba and African countries for their first Thanksgiving in America. 

In a celebration of blessings that bridged religious and cultural differences, parish and refugee families mingled over traditional Thanksgiving fare, sharing stories and getting to know each other via interpreters. 

“We made a friend today,” said St. Ignatius parishioner Ruth Kleeman, referring to a Cuban refugee named Henry with whom she and her husband, Bob, shared a table. “He said he’d like to come to Mass.”

Catholic Charities’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and St. Ignatius’ Outreach Ministry to Refugees collaborated in planning the luncheon, though ministries from the entire parish took part in the cooking, serving, decorating, gift drives and hospitality. Staff from Catholic Charities sent the invitations and provided transportation to the event which took place Nov. 15. 

The guests, who learned about the quintessential American tradition from a high school youth presentation, are recent arrivals to the U.S., with some having resettled as little as two months ago. 

The refugees currently live in an apartment complex not far from the Spring-area parish and receive services from Catholic Charities. 

“Whether you are Catholic or not, you are most welcome here, to join our community, our youth programs, our ministries and, most importantly, you are welcome here to worship,” Father Joseph Dang, St. Ignatius’ parochial vicar, said in opening comments. 

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston administers one of the busiest refugee resettlement offices in the country with a small but high-energy staff that attends to some 50 new refugees per week. 

Margaret Ayot, a refugee program supervisor, said the event was emblematic of the kinds of parish partnerships that help Catholic Charities and the local Church carry out its mission to serve the least among the people. 

Father Norbert Maduzia, pastor of St. Ignatius, said he hoped the luncheon was something the parish could do annually as it drew on the gifts and talents of so many different ministries and individuals. 

He praised the high school and junior high youth ministries especially for serving food and also coordinating an enormous toiletry drive that provided everyone “with enough toilet paper to last them a year.”

Father Dang later pointed out the luncheon was a wonderful opportunity for parishioners from all walks to welcome “the stranger” to our homeland and to the parish home, particularly at a time when the status of refugees and immigrants is so controversial. 

He pointed out that the first Thanksgiving was a feast of thanks to God offered by the Pilgrims, who were themselves refugees fleeing political and religious persecution. As a refugee who narrowly escaped Communist Vietnam with his family, he also identified with the many guests who at great peril had also recently fled Communist oppression in Cuba. 

Guests also shared with the group their experiences of seeking safe harbor in America and how grateful they were to be in the country. 

The project represented the best of a parish coming together to serve. The Knights of Columbus provided the turkeys. The St. Joseph’s Altar Guild, Christmas Angels and dozens of parishioners brought traditional sides and desserts and also served as table hosts. 

The stewardship committee decked the halls with fall décor. The Ministry of Moms donated home furnishings and household appliances for a door prize drawing in which every family left with a gift. 

“The refugee luncheon was a great example of faith being lived out by our youth and our adults. It was a distinct honor and privilege to be able to serve and have a meal with our guests,” said Marlon Barao, who leads the junior high youth ministry at St. Ignatius. “We saw Christ in each other,” he said.