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OPINION: A Restaurant, a Church and a Sense of Shared Humanity

The Borough of Clayton sits beneath a much better-known municipality that hosts southern New Jersey’s largest university. By contrast, the quieter, lower-income Clayton hosts three national dollar-store chains. It used to have an inn. It used to have a library.

5 Nov 2019 – 04:39 PM EST

Culinarily, Clayton has the expected local fare: three pizzerias, a diner, Chinese take-out, an outdoor ice-cream parlor, and one token franchise of a global brand. It also contains a former breakfast-and-lunch spot that plateaued after the founders retired; that is, until the latest round of proprietors took risks, adding dinner hours and a menu dominated by Mexican dishes. Neri’s Café and Mexican Grill is now a fixture in town.

Up the road – in the more popular Glassboro, containing Rowan University – rests St. Bridget University Parish, a Catholic community founded in the 1880s when mainstream society marginalized European immigrant Catholics. Glassboro has a painful, Ku Klux Klan-scarred history that is, thankfully, far enough into the past that a
modern visitor would have to be explicitly told about it; change can be good.

Change can also be disruptive. The still-growing Rowan University muscles into more of the town each year, persuading longtime residents to move. The parish’s legacy families are fewer and an outreach ministry for the neighboring college (hence, adding “University” to the parish name) hasn’t fully compensated. In fact, St. Bridget Parish was rumored to be closing a decade ago but was initially spared by its blossoming role as a regional hub for Hispanics, including many immigrants and children of immigrants.

But a restaurant’s innovative success and a church’s unlikely survival show more than the statistical presence of Hispanics; they demonstrate real contribution. Neri’s Café is a model, Hispanic-owned business. It attracts a multi-cultural clientele and participates in civic activities and promotions. At St. Bridget Parish, Hispanics influence liturgy – Latin American patronal feasts of Our Lady of Providence and Our Lady of Guadalupe are annual celebrations – and social awareness. Congregants of various ethnicities have traveled to serve at respite centers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the parish sponsored a legal-advocacy day to teach people how to assert their civil rights, especially if government agents might be profiling them.

A pop-culture trope from years ago urged racial/ethnic “color-blindness.” If we’re honest, however, we’re neither “color-blind” nor “language-deaf” nor “flavor-numb.” We notice differences. But distinctions – in physical features, birthplace and forms of expression – need not impede our recognition of each other’s dignity. Our differences don’t have to become prejudiced profiles.

Indeed, to be human is to be limited, but human flourishing is to push against our limits from the inside. We can reveal what is common – dignity – by acknowledging, respecting and inviting each other’s uncommonness, which can then enrich and broaden our experiences. Hispanics from Neri’s Café and Mexican Grill and St. Bridget University Parish contribute to this shared, dignity-affirming, richer, broader space. They offer an overlooked borough something to eat and explore. They remind a reprieved parish of its underdog origins and continuing mission.

Se habla USA. But more vitally, se habla dignity, se habla humanity.