Meeting People on the Margins

Fr. Tom Glennon
September 11, 2013

I was sixteen when my family moved from Queens, New York, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The 2,300 mile change of location expanded my outlook, introduced me to a Hispanic and Native American world, and allowed me to experience lots of space. Albuquerque was for me such a contrast with the relatively cramped urban development that I had known in New York. It was spread out, and one could see long distances; there were just a few multi-story buildings in the downtown area. The change gave me a feeling of beginning anew.

After one year at university, at age 19, I joined the Columbans. On completing the seminary course I was ordained deacon and worked pastorally in a housing project for the poor in New England. It was my first experience of working with the poor and I had the good fortune to have the support of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) staff for that year. They helped me monitor all I did and felt in the course of my work with residents.

In 1979, I was sent to join the Columban mission in Taiwan. Even though I struggled with the Mandarin language I found it fascinating, particularly the evolution of the Chinese characters from pictograph to modern character.

The Taiwanese were friendly, encouraging and down to earth. However, my limited Chinese seemed to prevent me from developing deep friendships. I felt a little on the outside but maybe I should have expected the locals to relate in this way to a foreigner who was to be with them temporarily.

I worked in a country parish where we had just ten Catholics. Other members of the rural community were friendly but uninterested in Catholicism. Later I worked with another Columban in a city parish where we had three churches and about 50 Catholics. As you might imagine, I never suffered from a feeling of being overworked.

Conscious that I was not in Taiwan simply to maintain what had already been established, I searched for ways of announcing the Good News beyond the boundaries of traditional parish life. In the city I successfully promoted a Bible study group, an initiative that I repeated later with Chinese Catholics in Chicago. I also initiated a parish prison ministry, a venture that seriously challenged my persuasive and pedagogical skills. At first, the parishioners could not see the value of going to visit criminals who were locked up for crimes they had committed. To this day that parish prison ministry continues under the guidance of an ex-parish catechist, who has facilitated it from the beginning. She lost her job as parish catechist once the Columbans left the parish but was subsequently employed by the Columbans as prison chaplain and has trained as a probation and parole officer.

I was also supportively in touch with an ecology group in the city. When they lost their offices, I offered them an office in our parish house as we had lots of unused space. The parish community was not pleased with my unilateral initiative and resisted all attempts on my part to persuade them to accept my guests. As soon as I left the parish the ecology group also moved out of the parish house. On reflection, I realize that I would do things differently now. I did not consult; I informed and reaped what I had sown.

Even though I suffered from constant gastroenteritis the first year I did learn to like the local food, mainly stir friend vegetables, rice and chicken or fish. I went six times to a class on Chinese cooking and was fascinated by the phenomenal variety and detail. Also, friendly and gracious Taiwanese did their best to help me make a home away from home. In 1991 I returned to the U.S. Difficulties with language, culture, loneliness, and other things were weighing heavily on me. I had had enough. Trying to connect to Taiwanese society in some way was always a huge challenge for me. Ninety-eight percent of the population was non-Catholic; very few that I met had ever spoken to a Catholic priest, let alone know what a priest was. The vast majority had no interest whatsoever in Catholicism and were quite happy with their syncretistic approach to life.

The pervasive National Security State draped a blanket of fear and mistrust of the nation. Military and police were looking everywhere for potential threats to the established social order. Ordinary people would be afraid to discuss certain topics. It was difficult, knowing that information was filtered or censored, to find out what was going on. At times, it was like living in the dark.

On arrival in Chicago I was challenged to put into practice something I had learned in Taiwan – remain involved in people’s lives between Sundays. In Chicago I soon became involved with the homeless and have remained in this work for 17 years. I had benefitted personally from being in counseling and was able to use some of the skills of that trade in my work with others. I was also pleased to accept an invitation to join a Chinese Bible study group.

Since returning to the U.S., I have searched for ways of being missionary in this context. That led me to seek forms of solidarity with those on the periphery of our society, and so the involvement with the homeless and prisoners. I moved to Omaha two years ago and have been able to continue down this missionary path and also work part time on Columban mission fundraising.

I am a member of the China Formation Committee, a Columban international initiative, which assists the development of the Chinese Church by providing an opportunity for study and workshops inside and outside China. We have helped students train to be spiritual directors, do a variety of updating courses and retreats; we facilitate ongoing networking with an alumni association for those who have studied under our auspices.

Over the years I have come to appreciate certain Confucian ideals that are very much part of Chinese culture, in particular filial piety and the importance of the many types of relationship between people. Each kind of relationship is important and distinct and each has a name. Also, there is a Chinese social hierarchical order that is quite different from that of the West. The five relationships are traditionally not hierarchically but concentrically based, that is, the first relationships are based on the family, the community and then society as a whole. The emperor based his relationship with his ministers and with his subjects as he would to his family members. The five main relationships are: parents to children, husbands to wives, brothers to brothers, friends to friends, and emperor to ministers. Social hierarchy is based on what is seen to be of greater importance to the survival of social structures: government officials at the top, followed by farmers, educators, craftsmen and artisans, which included business people, at the bottom.

Finally, I must say that I had the support of a great team of Columbans in Taiwan. Being on mission with them leaves me with a profound memory of gratitude for the time I spent striving to live immersed in a Chinese world.

Despite the language and other difficulties that I encountered during my time in Taiwan, I do feel a great satisfaction in having achieved a reasonable level of fluency in Chinese, which I kept up in Chicago and maybe I will find a way of doing something similar in Omaha. I feel that throughout my life as a Columban priest I have constantly sought and found ways of being missionary overseas and at home.