When I came to this lovely area of Central New York many years ago to teach in high school I was introduced to a wonderful community whose Eastern European parents and grandparents had come here to work in the shoe factories of the Endicott-Johnson Company. The Johnson brothers were benevolent visionaries who cared about their people, built houses for their employees to buy at reasonable cost and kept everyone on the payroll even after the stock market crash of 1929 and during the Great Depression. Polish and Slovak influence was felt everywhere, from the arches on east and west ends of Johnson City proclaiming it the “Home of the Square Deal” to the churches and grocery stores that carried pierogies, homemade sausage and kolaczki that would melt in your mouth. Having been raised in an Irish ghetto, I was grateful to be welcomed into this very different yet similarly loving culture that even added a smattering of Polish vocabulary to my education.
One gap in that education, however, concerned the patron saint of Poland, St. Stanislaus Kostka, bishop of Krakow. I knew his name, of course, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Today, his feast day, I finally learned that his life was rather brief (1030-1079) because of his outspokenness about the unjust wars and immoral actions of King Boleslaus II. It is a testament to the integrity and beloved status of Stanislaus that when the king ordered his soldiers to kill the bishop they refused. Thus, the king killed him with his own hands. As a result of this outrage, the king was forced to flee to Hungary and spent the rest of his life as a penitent in a Benedictine abbey. The commentary about St. Stanislaus puts him in the category of John the Baptist, Thomas Becket, Thomas More and even Jesus himself who pointed out the moral corruption in the religious and political leadership of their day. “It is a risky business,” the commentary proclaims, and calls us to examine our willingness to speak out in our own time as the need arises.
Today is a day for me to touch back into those early experiences of my adulthood and be grateful for the influence of strong, steady, devoted people who built into this community the values of hard work, family and speaking truth to power. In addition to this experience of welcome into a heritage different from mine, I realize the necessity now of openness to a broader world where the immigrants come from more distant lands, seeking the same goal – a better life, yet perhaps as an escape from danger. Am I ready to open my heart to them? Do I welcome their stories, their cultural difference? Will I defend their right to the freedom I have always enjoyed? Ponderous questions, these. I had better get about my day…