Faith helps parish unite as migrant issues arise
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 12, 2006
Longtime members often at odds with newcomers
A small plaster statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, her brown face cloaked in a
green scarf, sits on a shelf in a back room of a Catholic church in Mesa.
For certain weddings, religious celebrations and other special occasions, the
statue is brought out of hiding and to the front altar for all to see.
Most Sundays, however, it remains in the back, a symbol of an inner struggle at
Christ the King Church over how to accommodate a swell of Spanish-speaking
immigrants that is rejuvenating the aging parish and still meet the needs and
concerns of its mostly Anglo congregation. But Christ the King forges ahead,
despite losing some unhappy worshippers, to get past the tensions and focus on
faith and devotion.
In pews and under steeples across the Valley and the Southwest, the Catholic
Church is coping with the stresses of an unprecedented wave of immigration, both
legal and illegal, from Mexico and Central America. Latino immigrants
overwhelmingly tend to be Catholic. The state gained more than 500,000 Latino
immigrants in the 1990s, the census said, and more keep coming.
Just a few years ago, fewer than 50 Spanish-speaking immigrants regularly
attended the sprawling modern church east of downtown Mesa in an older
neighborhood of tidy ranch homes.
As the influx at Christ the King sparked hostility and charges of pulpit
politics, the church struggled to strike a balance between the needs of mostly
poor, Spanish-speaking immigrants, and the wishes of longtime parishioners,
Hispanics and Anglos alike.
Arizona Catholic bishops, aware of parish tensions in the region, took the
unusual step of writing a pastoral letter late last year reminding the state's
800,000 Catholics that welcoming immigrants is part of church teachings.
"Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, constitute a growing percentage
of Arizona Catholics," the bishops wrote in the letter, released Dec. 12 to
coincide with the Catholic celebration in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"Finding new ways to welcome and integrate immigrants can only make us a
stronger and more united Church in Arizona."
In Mesa, the surge inspired one parishioner to donate a statute of La Virgen,
the patron saint adored by many Latino Catholics. Like the immigrant population
itself, however, no one's been sure what to do with the statue.
A new congregation
At Christ the King, finding ways to welcome Latino immigrants has been
It started in 1999 when the church introduced a bilingual Spanish-English Mass,
in addition to three Sunday morning English Masses.
Christ the King always has prided itself on being hospitable, and in general the
congregation supported the bilingual Mass, said the Rev. Christopher Carpenter,
the former pastor. But the bilingual Mass didn't sit well with many longtime
parishioners, said Carpenter, who took a leave of absence in January, citing
health and personal reasons.
Dozens wrote letters and e-mails or voiced objections in person, Carpenter said.
The protests came from Anglos and English-speaking Latinos, Carpenter noted.
Some complained the bilingual Mass divided the parish into two congregations.
Others thought it discouraged immigrants from learning English or that it
encouraged illegal immigration.
"I heard things like, 'These people coming here, they might be here illegally.
They might be taking our jobs so why should we be helping them?'
" Carpenter said.
But more so, Carpenter sensed a growing uneasiness over the changing
"Whenever you are introducing a significant number of newcomers into a parish,
there is naturally going to be some tensions and fear on the part of the people
who have been longtime members and when people speak another language, that
raises the fears," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said parishioners weren't the only ones unsettled by the changes.
"I have to admit, I had some of those thoughts myself," said the pastor, who
speaks little Spanish.
The creation of a bilingual Mass accelerated growth at Christ the King, drawing
Latino immigrants who had been attending the Spanish Masses farther away at
Queen of Peace Church in downtown Mesa.
Antonio Herrera came to Christ the King from Queen of Peace five years ago,
along with his wife, Maria, 38, and their two children, Marco, 11, and Carina,
"I felt comfortable here," said Herrera, 38, a Mexican immigrant from the state
of Durango. "I was looking for a place where you could hear the word of God, a
place to worship and feel comfortable. That's all (that) all of us are looking
In addition to the bilingual Mass, newcomers began requesting other sacraments
in Spanish. They also wanted religious education classes in Spanish, and
Quinceañeras, the rite-of-passage ceremonies popular in Latin America for
Rapidly, the church complied, creating more immigrant growth, and more tensions.
The church also became more active in political issues, joining the East Valley
Interfaith Network to fight anti- immigrant proposals in the state Legislature
and push for immigration reform that would benefit undocumented immigrants.
Those actions inflamed tensions. Some longtime members were so upset, they left,
accusing the church of promoting illegal immigration.
"I always responded, 'That's not the point,' " Carpenter said. "Church teaching
is very clear. Church teaching and the Bible is that we have to welcome the
stranger and meet them where they are at."
Longtime parishioner Jim Rael recalled some of the grumblings.
"Some of the old guard, they were not too keen on the Hispanic population coming
in . . . and availing themselves of the services there," said Rael, 68, a member
of Christ the King since 1969. "I would hear it at meetings, or when I would be
counting money from the collection plate after church. They would say, 'It seems
like we are being overrun by Mexican people.' Or they would say, 'Did you see
that one Mexican family? They didn't look like they were dressed for church.' "
Another parishioner, Yazmin Cordoba, 46, heard other grumblings from
parishioners who felt immigrants didn't contribute their fair share. Some griped
that immigrants didn't register with the church or make pledge donations, or
complained that when collection baskets passed through the pews, immigrants
often just tossed in a few coins, Cordoba said.
To Cordoba, an immigrant from Mexico City, the complaints illustrated a growing
rift between newcomers and longtime parishioners. They also showed a lack of
understanding on both sides.
Many longtime parishioners don't understand that immigrants from Mexico and
Latin America are typically poor and don't have good-paying, steady jobs, though
some are professionals. So donating to the church is often hard for most,
Or they may not realize that many immigrants are unfamiliar with the concept of
tithing in this country because in Mexico the practice of pledging a percentage
of your income each week to the church is left to the rich. On the other hand,
immigrants may not always realize they can give in other ways, said Cordoba, who
serves on the parish hospitality commission.
"They can commit with their time and talents," she said.
Over time, the tensions caused by immigration at Christ the King have
dissipated, though not completely, said Carpenter, who still has not been
replaced as pastor.
Fewer parishioners complained in 2004 when the church made the bilingual Mass
totally Spanish, Carpenter said. The Spanish Mass is now one of the most
well-attended services on Sunday, and the devotion immigrants often bring has
been an inspiration to the rest of the church.
"Initially, when we said we were starting a (bilingual) Mass, there was more
objection. But once it started people saw immigrants bring something good - real
devotion to the faith and family," Carpenter said.
That devotion was on display one recent Sunday afternoon during the 1 p.m.
Spanish Mass. The church was so full, it was nearly impossible to find an empty
seat. Strollers blocked the aisles and during his homily Rev. Thomas Hallsten
struggled to be heard above the din of crying babies and fussing children.
During the Mass alone, Hallsten baptized four babies.
Juan Rodriguez Cornejo, 34, and his wife, Guillermina Rodriguez Romero, 28, sat
near the rear among the families. They pulled down the padded bar behind the pew
in front of them and knelt following communion, while their children
- Juan, 11, Jesus, 9, and Erick, 5 - sat quietly.
Like many of the men, Juan Rodriguez, a construction worker, was dressed in
jeans and work boots. He said that his family, originally from Michoacan,
Mexico, had just moved into the neighborhood. They were attending Christ the
King for the first time.
"I asked one of our neighbors if he knew where there was a Catholic church, and
he gave me directions how to get here," Rodriguez said.
A home for 'La Virgen'
To help bring new immigrant families and longtime parishioners together, the
church has organized several activities, including a bilingual retreat for men
and a camping trip.
The Spanish-speaking congregation at Christ the King also makes an effort every
year to invite everyone from the parish to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
celebration on Dec. 12, when mariachis sing traditional Mexican songs and
parishioners serve tamales, sweet bread and other traditional food in honor of
Mexico's patron saint.
For years, only Latinos showed up. But last year, for the first time, several
Anglos joined the celebration, said Rafael Diaz, 52, one of the Spanish-speaking
In the meantime, the congregation has started to look for a permanent place of
honor for the statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe donated by a parishioner three
The statue is only brought out for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe or other
special occasions. Some, however, would like to see the statue placed in the new
chapel the church is building this year, instead of in a back room.
"I can foresee in the future Our Lady in a more prominent place," parishioner
Catholic leaders reaching out to migrants
A couple of years ago, Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas wandered into the church in
Altar, Sonora, looking for the parish priest.
He was startled by what he found instead: 18 young men in worn sweatshirts and
work pants, kneeling or sitting by themselves in the pews, heads bowed. The
migrants were about to set out on foot across the desert toward Arizona.
"We think of young people as not at all religious, " Kicanas said, "and here
were young men, they were probably between 17 and 22, just fervent in prayer,
putting their lives in the hands of God."
And, as far he was concerned, in the hands of the Catholic Church.
In the five years Kicanas has been in Arizona, he has made the plight of
immigrants his battle cry. And he's hardly alone.
Catholic leaders here and across the Southwest are showing a growing willingness
to weigh in on the side of immigrants in the acrimonious political debate over
solving illegal immigration and securing the nation's borders.
In New Mexico, for example, Archbishop Michael Sheehan recently attacked a U.S.
House proposal to build 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, calling
it "a very hostile act."
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he would instruct his priests to defy
a federal proposal to require churches to check the legal status of parishioners
before helping them. The Bishop of San Bernardino, which oversees a swath of
metro LA and the desert around Palm Springs, reminded parishioners that
immigrants have traditionally been welcomed in this country and asked for
"solidarity" on the issue.
And here in Arizona, Kicanas and Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted were so
alarmed by the growing hostility toward undocumented immigrants that they wrote
a pastoral letter to parishes throughout the state in December reminding
Catholics that welcoming immigrants is part of what it means to be a good
But as Catholic leaders grow increasingly more outspoken on behalf of
immigrants, they are running into resistance from a surprising source:
Catholics. Parishes are proving to be just as divided on immigration as most of
the country, and at least some members are letting their priests and bishops
know they're opposed to the church's stance.
For the Catholic Church, however, immigration means gaining large numbers of
Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented, from Mexico and Latin
America, and many parishes have blossomed because of the contributions of new
immigrants and their families.
Also, bishops have been emboldened by a national campaign called "Justice for
Immigrants" organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Pews and policy
The campaign is aimed at pushing Congress to pass comprehensive immigration
reform that would legalize many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the
United States and create more legal channels for immigrants to come to this
country to work.
Targeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and the nation's 65 million Catholics,
including more than 800,000 in Arizona, the drive has gained momentum at a time
when Congress is taking a hard look at immigration. The Senate Judiciary
Committee began debating sweeping immigration and border security legislation
this month. And in December, the House passed a proposal that emphasizes greater
enforcement of immigration laws and fortification of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The right of migrants to improve their economic status, through illegal entry
into another country, cannot be found in Catholic moral teaching," said retired
business planner George Garbell, 70, a parishioner at St. Joan of Arc Church in
Phoenix. "The church does teach that persons have the right to survival, even if
it means stealing to do so. However, there is no justification for violating the
laws to improve one's standard of living."
Retired IBM manager Rob Haney, a parishioner at St. Thomas Catholic Church in
Phoenix, also is strongly opposed to the bishops' stance on immigration. He
feels the bishops are supporting "open borders" that would turn the United
States into a "Third World country."
"They (bishops) have no respect for the sovereignty of the country," Haney said.
"They want more welfare from the federal government to aid illegal immigration."
By supporting immigration reform that would legalize millions of Latino
immigrants, the bishops are undercutting their own stance against abortion,
because Latinos tend to vote Democratic, Haney added.
"It makes no sense, " Haney said.
Other Catholics privately hold similar views, expressing them in e-mails and
letters to the bishop, or to the Catholic Sun, the diocesan newspaper, said Jose
Robles, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Phoenix Diocese.
Church leaders say they realize their stance on immigration is controversial,
and that not all Catholics agree.
"The church is not a majority rules society," Kicanas said. "The church tries to
live out a tradition entrusted to it by Christ and sometimes what the church
teaches is not popular. Sometimes what the church teaches is not what the people
would vote for."
Church leaders don't condone illegal immigration and agree the nation's borders
must be secured, said Bishop Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese. But the current
immigration system is broken, and out of sync with the nation's labor needs, he
said. It forces immigrants to sneak into the country illegally, and results in
hundreds of migrant deaths each year, Olmsted said.
"We aren't promoting illegal immigration," Olmsted said. "What we want to have
is an immigration policy in this country that meets the real needs and it's not
The Catholic Church in the United States has a long history of welcoming
immigrants from all over the world, he noted.
The Catholic dioceses in San Bernardino, Calif., Tucson, Phoenix and El Paso are
among 70 of the country's 197 that have joined the Justice for Immigrants
campaign, said Leo Anchondo, the national manager.
The campaign's goal is to build political will for immigration reform primarily
by "changing the minds and hearts" of Catholics, Anchondo said.
The campaign relies on church social teachings in hopes of swaying Catholics.
"It is part of our Catholic faith to welcome strangers and our faith calls upon
us to welcome the stranger who came into our country to seek a better life
for themselves and their family," Anchondo said.
Maybe so. But not all Catholics see it that way.
"On one hand you feel compassionate for these people," said retired
businessman Dick Bauer, a parishioner at St. Mary's Basilica in Phoenix. "On
the other hand, we are a nation of laws."