I visited my parents this weekend in Marshalltown, IA for the Easter holiday. You probably think you’ve never heard of Marshalltown, but it was in the national news in December of 2006 when the Swift meatpacking plant was raided to deport illegal immigrants found working there. Marshalltown used to be a typical example of what pundits like to call “lily-white” Iowa. I heard that phrase so many times around the Iowa caucuses that I thought it was our official state name. But in recent years Marshalltown has attracted large numbers of Mexican immigrants, drawn mostly to work in the meatpacking industry. Some are here legally; some are not. Reliable statistics are hard to find so I prefer not to speculate on how many of these immigrants are here legally. Besides, I’m more interested in how Marshalltown has been affected by this immigrant community.
My family has always been Catholic and my parents attend church regularly. I don’t get to church quite that often. I have a predictable list of differences with the Catholic church. The worst problem for me was the story in 2004 that a Catholic priest threatened to withhold communion from John Kerry for his pro-choice views. The behavior of that priest was unacceptable to me. I haven’t been to church very many times since 2004 and most of those occasions were visits to my parents, when I go church more out of respect to them than any personal reason.
And so we went to a Saturday evening Easter mass in Marshalltown. If you’re not familiar with the Catholic traditions at Easter, the Saturday mass includes a baptism ceremony for new church members, and several other special readings and prayers to celebrate the holiday. What I’m really saying is that it is a long service. This one lasted about two and a half hours. But there was something else that made this Catholic mass longer than usual. It was bilingual; English and Spanish.
I’d like to tell you this church immediately led Marshalltown to embrace and welcome the Mexican immigrants into the community. But it hasn’t been that easy. The Catholic church is an integral part of Mexican culture, and many of Marshalltown’s immigrants naturally began attending this church as soon as they arrived. At first the church only had English-language services. Eventually (although far too slowly in my opinion) they added some Spanish services. But they were almost exclusively attended by Mexicans while the English services were almost exclusively attended by whites. An awkward segregation had been created, in the absolute worst place for segregation to exist – a place of worship.
The church reflected the unease felt generally throughout the town. Mexicans began buying and renting houses in one area in town, resulting in the creation of a “Mexican district,” and white families began to move elsewhere. Almost immediately there were accusations of illegal status among the Mexican immigrants, and certainly in some cases it later proved to be true. But a broad brush was used to paint the whole Mexican community as suspect. And then the raid at the packing plant in 2006 aggravated the distrust between the separate communities.
But I felt the bilingual mass on Saturday night shows the church is getting it right, albeit slowly. The service was well-attended by whites and Mexicans. The priest spoke Spanish quite well. The music was a mix of English and Spanish hymns. Lots of children attended and they saw a mixture of language and culture – hopefully they will see this is normal and not unusual for their community. I think the church was making a statement that they were one community – not two. And the differences in the communities were not just being acknowledged, but embraced and celebrated in the songs and prayers of Easter.
The church still has an opportunity to set an example for Marshalltown. I liked what they did to celebrate Easter. It’s something they can build on. This isn’t a very dramatic story (and perhaps not very interesting), but might be pretty common in small-town America. I guess it’s just a slice of life in the state formerly known as “lily-white” Iowa.