Building bridges, people to people

Lindsay Steele
Father Rudolph Juarez, left, translates for Ottumwa Mayor Tom Lazio at the Theological and Pastoral Conference for Spanish-speaking Catholics Aug. 10 in Ottumwa.

Ottumwa Mayor Tom Lazio welcomed a conference of 1,100 Spanish-speaking Catholics to the city of bridges, not just the physical structures, but a mindset connecting people to people. “We want you here in this country. We want you to continue to live here and work here. With all that is going on in this country, it’s important to remember the Gospel message of peace, justice and love,” Mayor Lazio told attendees of the Diocese of Davenport’s theological and pastoral conference held Aug. 10 at the Bridge View Center. The conference focused on Mary, the patroness of all the Americas, who leads people to Christ. She is the bridge which we cross by being Christ-like to one another.
Mayor Lazio, who is Catholic, told The Catholic Messenger that immigrants — Hispanic, Congolese, Sudanese, Burmese and others — make up approximately 12 percent of Ottumwa’s population. Nearly 50 countries are represented in Ottumwa, a city of just 25,000 people. It is incredibly diverse for a community of its size, says Andy Wartenberg, executive director of Greater Ottumwa Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A number of immigrants work at JBS, a pork-processing plant in Ottumwa; others own and operate grocery stores and restaurants. “We’d be in a world of hurt if we didn’t have them,” the mayor said. The immigrant population “has kept our population fairly stable.”
Both men describe relations among immigrants and established residents as good. Wartenberg identified essential ingredients to building bridges, adaptable to all of our communities:
• Opportunities for everyone to get involved in the community, from providing suggestions and ideas for city improvements to participating in events offered by the community college and other organizations.
• International festivals, such as Viva! Ottumwa, which will be celebrated Sept. 21 from 3-10 p.m. at The Jimmy Jones Shelter, 1 Joe Lord Memorial Dr., Ottumwa. The event features food vendors, shopping, professional musical groups and dance troupes representing cultures from Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Contact: Shiloh Seim at (641) 455-8223 or for information.
• Diversity through food. Ottumwa features Mexican, Hawaiian, Ethiopian and Filipino restaurants, among other cultural groups, and ethnic grocery stores. Market on Main features an array of ethnic restaurants in one downtown setting. Greater Ottumwa CVB also promotes different dining opportunities. Visit the website at
• Engage people in as many aspects of the community as possible. The City of Ottumwa launched a public participation survey this year to assess how citizens feel about the community and the direction it is heading.
Ottumwa is not alone in building bridges people to people. IowaWINS, based in Mount Pleasant, created a template that should be replicated on the local and national level to foster understanding among newcomers and long-established residents:
• Identify the issues that newcomers face here, to provide solutions and help integrate them with the community at large.
• Build relationships among the diverse members of our community.
• Build and maintain the infrastructures and sustainable programs that improve opportunity and services now and for future generations of immigrants.
• Provide educational and cultural outlets to the community to learn more about the people (and their needs) who come to the community.
Miguel Moreno, coordinator of Multicultural Ministry for the Diocese of Davenport, was deeply moved by Mayor Lazio’s poignant welcoming address to conference participants in Ottumwa. In a note of gratitude, he wrote: “A city that encompasses a ‘Building Bridges’ philosophy certainly gives hope to a population that often faces the opposite message.”
Our Blessed Mother provides hope for all because of her central role in leading us to Christ. She is the bridge we cross by being Christ-like to one another.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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