Pentecost: Unity in diversity

|| By Kathy McNeely

The third in our series of spirituality columns for 2014 reflecting on events of the liturgical year.

When I arrived in Nimlaha, an isolated village almost 50 miles and an entire day’s journey from San Luis, the municipality in Petén, Guatemala, where I was stationed as a Maryknoll lay missioner, I stuck out.

Even at 5-feet-4, I towered over the men and women who helped me carry my backpack to the chapel where I would be talking with the women about an upcoming leadership workshop.

The women assembled and I launched into my spiel about the benefits of the women’s leadership workshop that my translator, who spoke their indigenous Qeq’chi’ language, and I would offer the following month. I paused to ask if they had any questions.

A woman in the front row asked if I ate greens like she did; I said I did. Another woman’s hand shot up and she asked if I ate beans; again, I said ‘yes.’ Immediately a third asked if I drank cacao, an indigenous chocolate drink. I must have looked confused as I patiently answered ‘yes’ because my translator asked the women why they had so many questions about what I ate. The woman in the front row explained that she wondered if I ate something different from what they ate because my skin and hair were so light in comparison to theirs.

Frequently when I went to a new village, children would find a way to sit close to me and touch my skin, count the freckles on my arm or stroke my hair. But after a while, the novelty wore off and they saw me as they saw others in the village. I ate and drank the same things they enjoyed, bathed in the river and slept in a hammock, like they did. Like most humans, they were good at distinguishing differences. It takes people everywhere a lot longer to note the ways we are all the same.

I imagine that after Jesus’ death his followers were very aware of the ways they stuck out. Jesus was different and taught them to act differently from others in their society and faith tradition. They believed the Holy Spirit Jesus promised would help them live that difference without him in their midst. It must have been shocking for them to receive the Spirit only to discover not how different they were from others but how unified they were with all creation. They could relate to other people as if they had all come from the same culture and spoke the same language.

Diversity is good and necessary. It contains the ingredients of beauty and new, creative possibilities. While I did not enjoy feeling so different from the people in Guatemala, I learned a great deal from them as I was immersed in their culture, and my presence challenged them to see the world from a different perspective.

The diversity represented by my presence planted seeds. My being a single woman on the parish team that visited villages and offered classes for women inspired some women to learn to read and write.
They became motivated to send their daughters to high school rather than marry them off at age 14.

Today we celebrate this diversity but, more importantly, we recognize the gift of unity that is the Spirit of God. At Pentecost, Jesus’ followers were filled with divine inspiration. Race, experience, social status and language were no longer barriers because they “were all baptized into one body.” Though they brought a diversity of gifts, they were united in one Spirit.

Let us pray on this feast of Pentecost that the gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to embrace the global community, allowing us to cherish diversity while holding close to our hearts the ways we are alike and interdependent.

Kathy McNeely, from Cleveland, Ohio, served with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Guatemala from 1992 to 1996. This reflection is condensed from the Orbis book A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the Readings for Year A.

Featured Image: Physically towering over the women of Guatemala, Kathy McNeely (c.) became one with them as she learned from them and encouraged them to learn from each other. (D. Dunleavy/Guatemala)

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