Here is a chance to get to know some of your neighbors. These lovely folks are working in and around the community to make it a place they love.
Who We're Meeting: Father Michal Gitner
Father Michal Gitner was assigned as pastor of , 1300 Stratford Road, Lordship, in October of 2010. Originally from Rybnik, Poland, Fr. Michal spent the majority of his ordained years in Western Australia. He worked in Singapore for two years, where he met his wife, Geraldine. He is the proud father of 3-month-old Claire.
EH: You say your first love was always Asia. What do you love about the Eastern culture?
FR: I can't give a straightforward answer. It's like asking me: Why did you become a priest? Quite frankly, I don't know why.
For someone like myself who believes in a vocational life, I believe in someone in the higher power who said, "OK. That is what I want you to do."
God put those pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in my way and said, You are free to figure it out. Hopefully, I did it in accordance with the way God intended for me. In the same way, I can't explain why it's me. Sure there are other people out there, who are smarter or better than me to be preachers!
So, the same goes for Asia. While I lived in Australia, I traveled everywhere: South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, even Burma (now called Myanmar). Part of it is very westernized. But there is a feeling. There is something spiritual about Asia.
I am not saying that we don't find it here, but we as Westerners we try to find a rational answer to everything and anything. In Asia, people are not afraid to use the word "mystery." We can discuss something and know we will never know it to the core. We can just accept it as a mystery.
That is why the churches and the mosques there are all packed. They look beyond the here. Asian people by nature, they would believe in something. Even if they just called themselves "free thinkers," they wouldn't call themselves an atheist.
EH: You are still new to the area. Do you feel you've gotten your feet under you?
FR: I've been here about 16 months, so, well... I don't get lost on the roads as easily as I did in the first few months! I have been to the States before, but there is huge difference when you start to live in a country.
There's something within the U.S. – I don't know -- it carries the notion of "land of the free," but it's something… philosophical. (He laughs).
I mean, I am all for freedom, but is it without ANY boundaries? Hey! Do you have to drive and throw a beer bottle out the window? There are trash cans! You don't have to throw trash on the street. I am not obsessed! I don't have OCD, but it is this kind of question: Why do I have to destroy the natural beauty?
I also learned very quickly here that red lights and stop signs are just suggestions. (Laughs).
EH: How would you characterize St. Joseph's parish?
FR: They are extremely loyal people to St. Joseph's, which was established in challenging circumstance over 100 years ago. And thank goodness things have changed since then. Extremely hard working and dedicated. And I would say they are open to learn.
I am an outsider. I have been many places. My experiences are complex in terms of different ethnic groups and culture. And, whenever I bring different examples or situations that relates to our faith and circumstance, it has been always accepted.
So, in terms of social issues, I introduced my parish through my experiences with orphans in Burma, to a project called the Smile Train. It is helping children with the cleft lip and palate.
Also, there is the Lord's Kitchen, which the Stratford Clergy Association organizes at Christ Episcopal Church. We have committed to offer a hot meal to the homeless.
Jesus' life was an example, and His mission was about bringing out human dignity to a level it was supposed to be. I see that as a huge part of his mission: To show us we all have dignity, the need to be respected, and nourished.
EH: You lived and worked in Australia for 18 years. How similar and different is that culture to our American culture?
FR: Well, contrary to what is believed, it is not full of nothingness. The outback is full of God. It has a tough, hard beauty. It is incredible.
The Aussies, they have a strong British influence, but they are their own people. They work hard, but they know how to enjoy life. It does change you, when you spend most of your life outdoors. It creates different attitude. Australians are very straight shooters. They say things looking right in your eyes.
For example, I got excited during a service and I preached longer than usual, and after one guy comes up to me: "Father Michal! It was great sermon, but come on! 12 minutes!" It was too long. Yes, the church was air conditioned, but it was 85 degrees outside and they were dying to go to the beach.
I value that about them. They say what they think and I think that is important.
The socio-economic difference -- in terms of the homeless and poor population -- is striking. It is so much worse here, so many more homeless and poor people. And the contrast from Australia's middle and lower classes is not so obvious.
One thing that was a real rude awakening is the American health system! In Australia, I had two medical coverages -- public health and private coverage -- for about $3,000 a year total! Here I go to the dentist for something minor and he says: It won't cost too much, just about $1,600. WHAT?!
EH: There is a lot of moral and religious "conversation" in our American political arena. As a person, and also a church leader, how do you handle these kinds of questions?
FR: I have seen more elections in Australia and the UK, and here the religion part plays much stronger element than anywhere else.
I think it boils down to one's conscience, what you truly believe in. Of course, as a Catholic Christian, I have clear stands on certain issues. But bearing that in mind, I have to accept the fact that not everyone in elected government is promoting a certain religion's viewpoint, but is supposed to govern for everyone. But will we please everyone? Impossible.
How do you maintain the distinction of church and state? How do you maintain that and also maintain certain ethical and moral values? I have myself a set of values, which I will share with anyone. So we subscribe to certain values, but how does that transfer into voting a representative who then has to make their own choices?
EH: Stratford has a huge array of people practicing many different faiths. How do you help your parishioners understand the message they receive in your church, in the context of this multiplicity that they live in?
FR: From the outside I think it is simpler than you we think.
I have no problem with it. It is just pure respect. We have to give each other space. It was not Jesus' way to point fingers. Just to say you worship differently and have different core values.
While in London, I studied "Christianity and Interreligious Dialogue." And I came to this: Everyone is of a space. And, having said that, the different denominations and religions have to remember we have no right to impose or demand special concessions for ourselves.
With every religion that I have studied -- Judaism, Hinduism, Islam -- we all have this issue of killing in the name of God in common. But these are extremists. We Christians had the Crusades. We killed in the name of God. There are always extremists that pollute the original idea.
It happens when we think we are greater than God, that we know better than God. When our ego comes into play. Even as a priest, I am on a pedestal in the lectern. The bottom line goes to my conscience: Is it truly for the glory of God? Do I help God's love to be spread around? Or am I an obstacle?
EH: Being a priest, it does make you a leader of your community and someone your parishioners look up to or "see" perhaps in a certain kind of way, different than an average neighbor. So how do you create a "normal" life for yourself?
FR: When I preach, I preach first of all to myself. Because I need to remind myself, over and over again, it is for Jesus Christ. That is the focus.
My spiritual guru, Franciscan Richard Rohr, says: "We are just a finger pointing at the moon."
We are not to claim to be the moon. That only happens when someone leads an honest spiritual life. And no one is perfect. We all make mistakes. But a little humility takes you a long way.
I think we all need our outlets from the professional perspective. I believe in meditation and prayer. I practice both on daily basis and were I to miss my meditation, I feel like I miss breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But it is not always easy task.
Secondly, I have the same frustrations as anyone. So I have outlets. I love physical activity, so when I get too excited about things or even upset, instead of killing anyone, I put on my running shoes on and go for a jog.
(I ask these same questions to .)
EH: If you could be or do anything else, what would it be?
FR: I think, a medical doctor. But only for Doctors Without Borders.
EH: What three words would your friends use to describe you?
FR: Crazy, unpredictable, and spontaneous.
EH: If you could change one thing about Stratford, what would it be?
FR: Right now, my answer is influenced by our work with the Lord's Kitchen. I would create jobs for people. I drive here and see the old factory buildings that are empty and I think: the jobs were there and now they are all gone. And we see people struggling to pay their heating bills and so on.
And I would really push, push for education. Not just to get better jobs or chances in life, but to broaden our horizons. Education of the whole person: head, heart, and hands.
Fr. Michal Gitner preaches every . He is also a member of the Stratford Clergy Association. If you have any further questions for him, feel free to contact him at the church.
Is there someone you think your Stratford neighbors should meet? We'd like to meet them too. We are open to suggestions! Drop me a comment here!