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My New Home… A Stranger In A Strange Land

January 16, 2020 Frontpage No Comments

By REY FLORES

I recently moved to Omaha, Neb., to be near my family. At this point, it isn’t exactly my favorite place in the world, but my much-loved wife and children are here, and I would follow them to the ends of the Earth.
I must admit it has been somewhat of a rough ride the past few years, and now I’m living in a town that I’d only visited twice before. I challenge anyone to just drop everything for the love of marriage and family.
Like anywhere else, Omaha has its interesting parts, neighborhoods, and attractions. The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is supposed to be second in the nation only to the San Diego Zoo, though I’ve yet to visit it with my sons. The zoo was founded at the end of the nineteenth century, and now features thousands of animals from around the globe, 160 acres of exhibits and gardens, which include seven acres of indoor exhibits, so there should be plenty to interest anybody.
The Old Market area, along with nightlife in the Dundee neighborhood, seems like a fun place for twenty-somethings, but as a family man my age, that’s no longer the kind of scene for me. There are, however, a few gift stores featuring every kind of kitschy pop culture antique and collectible one could ever imagine.
There is one great place I’ve visited a few times with my four sons called Hollywood Candy, a place that would give Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory a run for its money.
As happened historically with most Midwestern urban areas, there took place the great migration to the north when slaves were freed. Many neighborhoods like Chicago’s Hyde Park and Bronzeville thrived, and continue to thrive today with black Americans who pursued higher education and economic opportunities. I don’t know whether or not Omaha ever had a black community like these, however.
The North Omaha area reminds of the generational blighted areas like Chicago’s west side, where less educated impoverished people tended to flock to, often lacking economic and employment opportunities. The blight, homelessness, and despair are truly a sad thing to witness.
In my many years of working in communities in many cities across America, I’ve never seen as many homeless drug addicts as I see in the North Omaha area. At winter, I’m told, the violence decreases because of Nebraska’s brutal cold weather, but I also hear that come summer, bullets will be flying from all directions.
I thought Chicago had way too many liquor stores, but in all of Omaha, liquor stores, and gas stations that sell liquor, abound all around. Many of these establishment also sell popular marijuana-based oils and other products to the many addicts out there. It seems like at least twice a day, one will unavoidably drive down the street or visit a gas station and smell the pungent stench of marijuana, which overwhelms you.
Many of these poor neighborhoods were once economically viable places, often built by pioneers to the west, some settling in the Midwest instead of traveling further.
Like Chicago, many were ethnic enclaves where many Catholic faithful of mostly European backgrounds settled and built their communities around a Catholic parish.
Settlement houses which taught immigrants English, basic trade skills, and home economics were also a beehive of activity. Many immigrants went on to thrive and become self-sustaining for themselves and the families many chose to raise.
The sad thing today about many of these neighborhoods is that they have only gotten worse. Years back, while still living in Chicago, it used to break my heart every time another Catholic church was closed and shuttered. Many of these once-glorious palaces built for the King of Kings became hollow shells, echoing with the choirs and prayers of yesteryear’s fervent and devout faithful.
The white flight that started in the late fifties and has decimated neighborhoods came about in part because we Catholics failed to evangelize and convert our new black neighbors, many of whom were brought up on the Bible, but had no idea about the supernatural wonders of the Catholic Church.
Catholic and non-Catholic whites, who simply did not want to interact or live with blacks, fled to the outskirts and suburban areas which today to me look like either generic, cookie-cutter clusters of homes, or the commercial retail sprawl which has no character whatsoever.
You can, however, find a Walmart and any kind of imaginable fast junk food in any of these busy intersections located in America today.
These commercial strips, in my opinion, are nothing but commercial retail ghettos of sprawling suburban blight, offering up empty calories, minimum wage jobs, and commercial greed.
It also isn’t unusual to find many establishments catering to people with little or no credit, where they can get cash loans, appliances, electronics, and furniture, at the highest interest rates imaginable, basically renting merchandise they will eventually have repossessed anyway.
Yet another predatory merry-go-round for the poor, often poor because of poor choices some us made earlier in life.
So, in essence, the points I wanted to share with you in this column are my observations and experiences so far in a town of which I know very little of, but have obviously got to get to know to be near my family. I gave up everything to be here for them and always close to them.
I saved the best for last. I’ve written about this already, but I must say that despite the usual bureaucracies and challenges most dioceses and archdioceses face in a modern world, I’ve met some very strong Catholics here in Omaha.
From parishes altogether, very holy priests, Catholic doctors, strong Catholic schools, a strong pro-life activist community, and very beautiful church edifices, I have never felt a stronger presence of our Lord and the Holy Family than I have experienced here.
The website of the Archdiocese of Omaha gives this fascinating history of how Catholicism began in the area:
“A parish is first and foremost a community of Catholic Christians — a place where we gather to celebrate the sacraments, volunteer our time, and share life with one another.
“Together, our parishes form a large Catholic family that goes back generations in Nebraska. As early as 1838 when the Jesuit missionary Peter De Smet celebrated Mass in what is now Bellevue, to later in 1856 when Fr. Edmonds celebrated Mass at St. Mary in downtown Omaha — the first established Catholic church in the Nebraska territory — our parishes all share a common history.”
The kindnesses of the few friends I’ve made so far have made me feel welcome and at home.
Given that I came here alone with only a hope and a prayer, and a few dollars in my pocket, and all of the love in my heart for my family, I know that with God’s grace and help, and my hard work and sacrifices, one day I may grow to love this place almost as much as my sweet home Chicago.
And as always, I look forward to hearing from Wanderer readers. Feel free to contact me by email at the address below.

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(Rey Flores writes opinion and whimsy pieces and book and movie reviews for The Wanderer. Contact Rey at reyfloresusa@gmail.com.)

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