San Diego Union Tribune

November 29, 2004

Church in union with migrant community
Catholics pressing immigration reforms

By Jerry Kammer

MORGANTON, N.C. – Hundreds of charismatic Christians filled the wooden pews of a modest church for a recent Saturday night prayer service, lifting their arms and fervently speaking in a tongue alien to most of their Bible Belt neighbors.

Although this community is in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, these Christians aren't your typical Southern Baptists. They're Catholics from Guatemala and Mexico. And they're speaking Spanish or Mayan.

As Latin American immigrants settle in unlikely corners of America, they are helping revive the Catholic Church just as the church is helping them in their new land.

The relationship is part of the increasing mutual dependence between the Latino immigrants and the Catholic Church, which is welcoming them with open arms and roomy pews.

It is partly why the church is pushing for more open immigration laws and plans to mobilize Catholics across the country on behalf of legislation to grant legal status to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.

Through the National Council of Catholic Bishops, the church has become a leader in a lobbying coalition seeking the legalization. The coalition includes Latino groups, immigration lawyers, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The bishops' conference also has called for an end to the Border Patrol's decade-long buildup near urban areas that has pushed the flow of illegal immigrants into remote desert and mountain areas, where about 2,000 people have died in five years.

Shortly after the first of the year, the bishops will launch the "Catholic Campaign for Immigrant Justice," which will urge parishes to push Congress for looser immigration policies. The Bush administration has said it will revive the proposal it presented last year for a guest-worker program. Groups seeking to restrict immigration are lining up to oppose the plan.

"Those groups are well-organized and well-funded, but they don't have the numbers we have," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the bishops' conference. "So we're trying to organize our base, our networks – Catholics in the pews to advocate on behalf of reforming immigration laws that don't work for the country and don't work for the immigrants."

The nation's 28 million Hispanic Catholics account for more than 40 percent of the 65 million Catholics in the United States. The share of Hispanic Catholics continues to grow, as the church's director of migration and refugee services, the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, anticipated in 1992 when he called immigration "the growing edge of Catholicism in the United States."

Latino immigrants, the great majority of whom are Catholic, are "the key to our future and the key to why the church is going to be very healthy in the 21st century," Ryscavage said.
Spiritual symbiosis
Miguel Sebastian fled the brutality of the Guatemalan civil war in 1989, when he was 17. The trauma he carried across the Arizona border sometimes pushed him to alcohol when he wasn't hanging live chickens on hooks at a processing plant here in Morganton.

Now 32, Sebastian is a solid citizen-to-be after obtaining permanent resident status last year. He also has a wife, three children, a job with a company that manufactures medical supplies and a leadership position among his fellow immigrants at St. Charles Borromeo Church.

Sebastian speaks emotionally of the man who guided him through the difficult change, St. Charles' pastor, the Rev. Ken Whittington, who is affectionately known as Padre Ken.

"I could say he's like my own father," said Sebastian, who like nearly all the 5,000 Guatemalans here, is a Maya Indian.

"He helped me a lot," he said in Spanish, his second language. "He encouraged me. He gave me classes in the Bible."

Whittington's parish was smaller and quieter before a local chicken processing plant quietly began sending vans down to Florida in 1990 to recruit foreign workers. Most were Guatemalan.

Since then, the Hispanic population in surrounding Burke County, N.C., has increased from a few hundred in 1990 to more than 5,000.

County economic planner Taylor Dellinger said immigrants are filling low-paying jobs, which has kept the county from losing population in recent years after textile, apparel and furniture factories closed.

With the immigrants, Dellinger said, the county population has grown slightly, to 89,000. Meanwhile, St. Charles Borromeo has boomed. Immigrants now make up half of the 800 people who celebrate Mass at St. Charles each Sunday.

"I think the salvation of the American Catholic Church is in immigrants," Whittington said. He lamented what he sees as the erosion of church attendance among the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of European immigrants who came a century ago.

"That has to do with the loss of faith, with becoming affluent and not needing God, with becoming too comfortable," he said.

Comfort is impossible for many of the recent Latino arrivals for the simple reason that they are here illegally. Nevertheless, they have been able to live here openly. Inside his office, where colorful, hand-woven Guatemalan fabrics adorn the walls, Whittington offered an illustration of why.

Several years ago, he translated a letter informing an immigrant that his petition for legal status had been denied. It ordered the man to appear in Charlotte for deportation, Whittington explained.

"I asked him what he was going to do," the padre recalled. "He just shrugged it off. And he's still here."

While federal authorities may not show much interest in such immigrants, other churches certainly do. About 30 percent of U.S. Hispanics are non-Catholics; many of them are members of Protestant churches that are growing both here and in many parts of Latin America. That competition helps explain not only Pope John Paul II's trips to Latin America, but also the church's decision to send Latin American priests to the United States.

One of them, the Rev. Enrique Gonzalez, works at a parish 20 miles down Interstate 40 in the town of Hickory, N.C. There he teaches a class called "defense of the faith." Gonzalez said the class aims to bolster the immigrants' understanding of Catholicism so they can rebuff recruitment efforts from other churches.
Church and state
The hallway outside Whittington's office was filling with Guatemalans who were coming for the Saturday night service. The enthusiastic singing and praying, arms in the air to praise the Lord, would be led by Rafael Ramirez, whose U.S.-born son is attending Marquette University – a Catholic institution – on a full scholarship.

Ramirez, who worked most of the 1980s in a Los Angeles sewing factory, came here after receiving amnesty through a federal law passed in 1986. He now works as a school custodian.

"When you think of what they have been through," Whittington said of Morganton's growing foreign work force, "to treat them without hospitality would be wrong."

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, one of the nation's most prominent Catholics and former president of the University of Notre Dame, tempered his idealistic view of immigration with the recognition that it poses social, economic and political challenges.

Hesburgh was chairman of a federal commission on immigration that in 1981 called on Congress to control illegal immigration. At the time, he said he was "well aware of the widespread dissatisfaction among U.S. citizens with an immigration policy that seems to be out of control."

But at an October conference on the Catholic Church and immigration at Notre Dame, Bishop Thomas Wenski, one of the church's most outspoken immigrant advocates, sternly warned that undocumented immigrants must not be regarded as a problem.

He drew a straight line between such concerns and the Nazi death camps that Hitler regarded as the "final solution" for those who regarded Jews as an inferior race.

"When we allow any class of human beings to be categorized as a problem, then we give ourselves permission to look for solutions," said Wenski, who is bishop of Orlando. "And as the history of the 20th century has proven, sometimes we look for final solutions."

Wenski said the church has to meet the newcomers' pastoral needs while advocating policy reforms that would legalize those here illegally.

"Ten years ago, there were about six or seven states in the United States that were concerned about migration," Wenski said. But now, "this phenomenon has reached every diocese in the United States and therefore should be a concern for every local church."

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