Father Geoff Gray
Across all corners of the globe, religion plays a significant role in culture and identity – including right here in the Ashburton district.
Father Geoff Gray of Holy Name Catholic Church said religious faith is a factor people had in common regardless of what country they were from. A church was often one of the first places newcomers of any religious denomination would seek out in their new home.
Father Gray himself is bilingual. He speaks Spanish and English and spent about 13 years working in Bolivia. He acknowledged that for some newcomers in the district, language could be a significant barrier to integrating into the community. But like anything, it was a process which took time and effort. Part of making newcomers feel welcome was to give recognition to their culture, even in small ways such as learning how to say hello to them in their native language.
“If people feel welcomed they feel comfortable. They feel a part of what’s going on,” Father Gray says. “You make the effort to learn a few simple words of welcome, you greet people and it gives them a bit of a boost. It’s recognising they have their own language, culture and identity but they are part of the wider community.”
To ensure people of all cultures feel welcome, he encourages newcomers to participate in different church activities, from reading scripture at Mass through to performing other roles. The church also has Samoan and Filipino choirs which reflect the number of people from those cultures in the congregation. A multi-cultural Mass held last year was a great success, Father Gray said. It saw people from all over the world taking on the various roles for the service and it was followed by a shared meal, dancing and songs.
“It highlighted the fact the church is a multi-cultural church. [Newcomers] might have come from any place. The thing they have in common, apart from culture, is their faith. When they come to the church they find a place where they are comfortable, familiar and are welcome.”
Father Gray has spent more than 40 years as a priest, both in Ashburton and overseas. He said his church community had seen its cultural makeup diversify significantly over the years which was something he embraced. Assistant priests have also recently come from the Philippines and India.
“We’re more aware that the face of New Zealand has changed. We’re a multi-cultural society, a multi-cultural church, and you’ve got to recognise people’s diversity as part of their identity and their dignity. It makes for a richer experience of life.”