From expats in Europe to refugees in CT, we are ‘one’

In the late 1980s, I was a priest at the “American” Episcopal Church in Waterloo, Belgium, a suburb of Brussels. The congregation was called “American” because in its 10-year history it had always had an American priest, used the American Book of Common Prayer, and had the American bishop in Paris as its “visitor”. Interestingly though, the congregation never had a majority of Americans.

All Saints Church in Waterloo was full of English-speaking expats from all over the world. We had, of course, American and English businessmen and diplomats working in Brussels, but we also had French and Belgian widows from the first and second world wars. We had four African ambassadors to the European Union and Anglicans from across the British Commonwealth. When we celebrated the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmastide, we had a different English accent for each reading.

For the last 15 years of my ministry before retiring in 2019, I served as Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bridgeport. Bridgeport has such a diverse population that none of the neighborhoods or even its constituencies had an ethnic majority, despite being surrounded by 94-99% white suburbs. St. John’s was a parish, but has four congregations and held services every Sunday in English, Spanish, French, and Creole. We had an annual “International Fiesta” where parishioners in native costumes came from all four congregations to share food and drink from their ancestral lands. It was the best party of the year.

So after retiring to our Kent home, I became a part-time priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington. During the pandemic, the seven religious congregations of Washington have come together as the Washington Council of Congregations to meet the urgent needs of our community. We hosted food drives, meal deliveries, volunteered at our Warren/Washington Food Bank, sponsored quarterly blood drives for the American Red Cross, and raised funds to support the Community Culinary School of Northwest Connecticut, located in New Milford. Last fall, in the midst of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we brought together the local community as the Washington Refugee Resettlement Project (WRRP) to organize a resettlement of refugee families, inspired by our experienced neighbors at the New Milford Refugee Project (NMRP), both working through IRIS, Integrated Services for Refugees and Immigrants in New Haven and Hartford. Eventually, both groups received families from the Turquoise Mountain artisan group founded by Prince Charles in 2005, and we both rented houses on the same street, so that our families, who already knew each other, could continue to support each other as they adjusted to life in the United States.

As an American having lived outside the United States for long periods of time in Montreal, Oxford and Brussels, I know the anxiety of unfamiliarity that immediately comes with living in a foreign country, each place having different habits and behaviors. I also know the close bonds forged by expatriates who struggle together to adapt to the expected changes in societal norms. But I also know the fun and sheer joy of meeting new people, discovering new customs and traditions, and acknowledging our common humanity together.

Our two refugee families, each with four children, are settling into their new lives in the United States, with the support of NMRR and WRRP. They all take English lessons, mainly through Literacy Volunteers on the Green. The children began public school in April and attended summer programs at the Pratt Center and the Village Center for the Arts in New Milford. Living downtown, families can walk or bike to grocery stores, the pharmacy, and even doctors’ offices. They often take the bus to get to Danbury for work or to buy meat and halal foods that they miss at home: dates, nuts and mango ice cream. I went there and remember how happy I felt when I found a little store in Oxford that served American student food essentials like Cheerios and Oreo cookies, and even Lone Star beer.

The world is a diverse place, with many nations, tribes and peoples, but we share a common humanity. We are never complete without everyone else. And so: E Pluribus Unum, “Of many, one,” our nation’s motto as it was placed on the Great Seal of the United States by an Act of Congress in 1782, remains as true today as ever. .

Rev. Geoffrey Hahneman is the priest in charge of St. John’s Episcopal Church at 78 Green Hill Road, Washington, CT 06793. He can be reached at the parish office phone, 860-868-2527, or St. John’s Email, stjohnschurch@snet.net

Mary I. Bruner