The Rev. Geraldo Romo Garcia prepares to baptize new members into faith at the Church of the Redeemer Photo: Celia Marszul-Iannelli

Have you ever felt like a stranger? Perhaps a vacation brought you to a country where you didn’t speak the language or understand the customs. Perhaps you felt like a stranger when invited to a family gathering where you were the only one who was not family.

The Oxford dictionary defines “stranger” as a person who is unacquainted with, or unaccustomed to something. A person who is not a member of the family, group or community.

And here is where my story begins.

I belong to a lovely church where I am honored to serve as a lay eucharist minister. My duties are to assist the priest in administering the sacraments of Holy Communion, the consecrated bread and wine.

Last month, the Hispanic Vicar of the North Fork, requested that I assist him at our weekly Spanish Eucharist. It was a special Sunday: The Padre was going to baptize four young people into our faith community.

When I arrived at church, I went straight into the parish hall to put on my vestments. While vesting, trays of food began arriving, families in their Sunday best were milling around and children were running about, carefree. The four young people slated to be baptized were resplendent in their white attire. The atmosphere was one of celebration — and why not? This was a big day in the lives of these families.

At the appointed hour, the congregation gathered inside the church and, soon more families from the community arrived. Along with the Padre and two young acolytes, I processed down the center aisle of the church — something I do regularly. I took my place on the altar, and then, the Eucharist began — in Spanish!

Although I was familiar with the cadence, I didn’t understand much. I heard the words “Dios” which I knew meant God; “Gracias a Dios,” which translated to “Thanks Be to God.” (I figured that one out myself.) I looked out over the congregation and saw upturned faces listening to the Padre in rapt attention.

I’ve been serving on this altar for many years, and yet, the Padre had to prompt me. I felt off-kilter in a place and situation that under different circumstances I was comfortable and familiar with. I felt like a stranger — that is until the Padre asked me to take some pictures.

A smile is a universal language and I had lots of takers. I was invited to stay and share in their celebratory meal. Although I wasn’t accustomed to their cuisine (we think tacos), I enjoyed every morsel. Surprisingly, our language difference was no big deal: We connected with smiles, broken English and my two words of Spanish. By the end of the meal, we were friends — and more than that, I felt like family.

That evening, I thought of the controversy over DACA. I recalled the racist remarks in the comment sections of our local publications when a Hispanic name is mentioned. The term “illegal alien” is thrown around like a foul-smelling football — whether we know the legal status or not.

I thought of Dad, who came from Italy through Ellis Island as a boy; Mom was first-generation Italian. When we moved to Staten Island in a predominately Scandinavian neighborhood, our family was not made to feel welcome. When my sister and I went out to play, the kids across the street would taunt: “Guinea, Wop, Wop.” I didn’t know what that meant; but, know it was not good.

In tears, I finally told Dad. He talked to the neighbors and discovered that they were afraid we were part of the Italian Mafia, or worse yet, we would eat spaghetti on the front porch! We were different; our customs were different. Way back then, I knew what it felt like to be a stranger — and I never forgot it.

Preparing for bed, I relived the beautiful afternoon I spent with my new friends. I put myself in their place. They’ve come here to find a better life. Obviously, language is an issue — but from my vantage point, these folks are trying. They work from dawn to dusk for minimum wage to make ends meet.

Would you? Would I?

Many heart-wrenching stories about families being ripped apart by deportation are making it to prime time. Here’s the kicker: Some of those who are threatened with deportation have been in the United States for 30 years. Now as adults, they live in fear in the only country they have ever known.

A path to citizenship should not be a partisan issue — something to use as leverage — it’s a humanitarian issue. Ignorance and bigotry are dangerous forces. They fester and cause widespread rabid unrest, dividing the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

The Statue of Liberty has this inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

Have we forgotten?

Let us collectively look into the mirror of truth to see what we have become. Instead of building a wall, we need to build a bridge to citizenship.

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Celia Marszal-Iannelli
Celia Iannelli is a native New Yorker enjoying a second career — in 'retirement' — as a freelance writer. She lives in Jamesport.