From Our Own

May is American Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The initiative was introduced to Congress in 1977 and continued evolving until 2009. The first implementation took place the first week of May in 1979, expanding to a whole month in 1990. Pacific Islanders were added in 2009, becoming “Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.”

The evolution shows our progressive understanding of America’s cultural diversity. Americans who see the US from a homogenous Euro-American angle, feel threatened by such diversity. Some vocally oppose ethnic heritage months, equating diversity with divisiveness. Yet, at the same time, they have no issue promoting European cultural heritage festivals: to name a few, Irish, German, Polish and Italian. Therefore, celebrating cultural heritage month is recognizing diversity from the inception, which the dominant culture overlooked for centuries. African Americas, pioneering heritage month and ethnic studies at U.S. universities, initiated the equal and civil right movements. Highlighting such contributions builds solidarity across cultural communities. Celebrating ethnic heritage months challenges our assumptions and enlightens us, and cures social biases, xenophobia and racism.

Celebrating ethnic heritage is analogous to the Church’s Liturgical Cycle. Each liturgical season prepares us for spiritual renewal, enhancing our knowledge of the scriptures, understanding the sacraments, and inviting us for conversion and piety. Using the liturgical cycle analogy helps us to appreciate each cultural community, enriching our society. For example, American Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month teaches us the history and contributions of our fellow citizens to the world, in general, and to our society, in particular. Cultural heritage months are more stimulants, piquing our curiosity to learn more. This piecemeal approach can help us advocate for inclusive curriculums in our school systems, leveling the playing field.

Asia and the Pacific Islands cover half the globe, stretching from Turkey, including the Holy Land, to the Hawaiian islands, encompassing the world’s largest land mass, body of water and population. Asia is the cradle of various civilizations: Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. All writing systems originated in Asia. For example, the Greek alphabets (roots of the Latin alphabet) are a contribution of the Phoenician civilization located in today’s Palestine, Israel and Lebanon. Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese writing systems belong to Asia. Sumerians and Persians invented cuneiforms, an older writing system. The roots of western civilization were in ancient Asia and Africa. The world’s great religions also originated in Asia. The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are the gifts of Asia. Hinduism and Buddhism derived religious philosophies in the rest of Asia.

Our knowledge of Asia is confined to Southeast Asia and the Far East, which overlooks that Asia starts at the backyard of Europe and Africa. The region holds the most diverse Christian traditions, namely the Armenian, Byzantine (Melkite) Chaldean, Latin, Maronite, Syrian, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara, among others. These Christian traditions link us directly to the Apostles and Jesus’ mother tongue, Aramaic (Syriac). All these Christian traditions are present in North America.

The recent visit of Pope Francis to Iraq is historic and symbolic. For many of us to find out that there are vibrant Christian communities in Iraq was eye opening. Like the first Christians, any Christians in the area are witnessing their faith with their blood, especially with ISIS targeting them directly. Pope Francis’ visit was also symbolic, fostering tolerance and coexistence among various religious traditions in an area where religious radicalism disrupts a centuries-old social and religious equilibrium. The Abrahamic religions and Izadi lived side by side for centuries as neighbors. The rise of fundamentalism disturbed the tolerance and friendship fostered for centuries. The nearby country, Iran, accommodated Zoroastrianism, Islam, Bahaism and Armenian Christianity until the rise of theocratic political hegemony. When one claims to be the spokesperson for God and the only steward of truth, human follies become deadly. People forget history and immerse themselves in radical political and religious ideologies, creating enemies of each other, to which Christianity is not immune.

America’s disease of radical individualism, negating the value of community, mutuality and reciprocity, breeds exceptionalism and absolutism. Ancient Asian religious traditions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Bahaism and Sikhism, teach us tolerance and harmony with each other and the environment. Catholics, who come from such an environment, teach us diversity as socio-cultural norm. Unfortunately, tolerant religious traditions have also succumbed to radicalism, with politicians using religious radicalism as tools to justify their authoritarianism. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter, “Encountering Christ in Harmony: A Pastoral Response to Our Asian and Pacific Island Brothers and Sisters, (2018),” cherishes the tradition of tolerance. The pastoral letter explores the breadth and depth of Asian Pacific Islander contributions to the Church Universal. Celebrating Asian Pacific Island Heritage Month in May highlights the spirit of tolerance and harmony.

In the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic, honoring Asian Pacific Island Heritage Month also compels us to confront racism and xenophobia against Asians. The manufactured fear about the pandemic, and blaming Asians as scapegoats is a classic outcome of ignorance. In 2020, data analysts inform us that abuse against Asians increased by 150 percent. Anti-Asian sentiment escalated to physical harms and the loss of lives. The recent killings of Asian Americans in Atlanta confirms the warning data analysts have been giving us. Asian Pacific Islanders contribute to the U.S. development, leading to the vision of a perfect union. Hawaii and many Pacific Islands are part of the USA. East Asians, especially Chinese and Japanese, were present long before many European immigrants came to the USA. Filipinos celebrating 500 years of Catholicism this year were present in California as early as the 1550s. Celebrating Asian Pacific Island Heritage in the month of May is a step in the right direction to combat racism and xenophobia, fostering harmony through inclusion and equity.

Fessahaye Mebrahtu