by Kelly Phelan Powell
The programs and services offered by Hispanic Catholic Ministry are an integral part of the mission of the Diocese of Shreveport, but many of the faithful are unsure what, exactly, the functions of the office are. Everyone sees the Reflexión del Obispo, the Spanish translation of Bishop Duca’s message, in the Catholic Connection each month, but that is only a tiny fraction of the important responsibilities of Rosalba Quiroz, Marcos Villalba and Jeanne Brown. In fact, Hispanic Catholic Ministry has a social justice aspect that is as crucial to this region as its religious component.
Father Mark Watson, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Oak Grove and St. Patrick Church in Lake Providence, explained, “I go back to the Book of Genesis, that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, and so everyone has a special value.” It’s no revelation that our modern American culture places more value on people of wealth, those who are highly educated and members of certain ethnic or racial groups, but the Catholic Church sees it differently. “Everyone is equal, and everyone has equal dignity,” said Watson.
From a Catholic perspective, we all have equal value in God’s estimation. “The Catholic Church has really been wonderful about standing up for the rights of all immigrants and saying that all migrants deserve the spiritual and material benefits of the Church,” said Watson. A large number of immigrants to this country are Catholic, which, of course, gives them a special relationship with the Church, but the Church sees all migrants as brothers and sisters, regardless of their religion or denomination. Quiroz, who is the director of Hispanic Catholic Ministry and has been working in the office since 2000, pointed out that not all of the people her office assists are Catholic, or even Hispanic, for that matter – they’ve helped people from Laos, Palestine and other countries as well as those from Latin American regions.
People are often tempted to label the Catholic stance on immigration as “liberal,” but the fact is that the Church does not view immigration as a solely political issue; rather, it is also a matter of social justice and human rights. “We believe the person is sacred – the clearest reflection of God among us,” said the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All.” In a publication entitled “Immigration in the United States,” the Most Reverend Thomas Wenski, Bishop of the Diocese of Orlando, says, “The Church has taken a position on immigration because, besides being an economic, social and legal issue, it is also a human one, and thus ultimately has moral implications. Whatever is human, or touches on the human person and his or her dignity, is a concern of the Church.”
The USCCB has long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform. In a statement published in 2011, they called for:
• A path to citizenship for the undocumented population in the country
• Reform of the family-based immigration system to reunite families – husband, wife and children – more expeditiously
• A future flow low-skilled worker program for migrant workers to enter and work in the U.S. safely and legally
• The restoration of due process protections for immigrants
• Policies that address the root causes of migration – poverty and persecution
The last point is particularly important to Watson, who currently celebrates Mass in Spanish at his parish every two weeks (soon to be weekly). “We [as Catholics] would say that all people have certain rights: to have enough to eat, to live in decent housing, to freely practice their religion. And so, in the eyes of the Church, when a person can’t feed their family, can’t find meaningful work, those are reasons that would allow the person to have the right to migrate to another country.”
In the past, a large part of the Hispanic Catholic Ministry’s function was to guide immigrants through the process to achieve resident status, but since Catholic Charities of Shreveport opened in 2010 and established their Immigration and Social Services Department (see pg. 16), Hispanic Catholic Ministry now focuses mainly on the spiritual needs of Hispanic Catholics. However, they do still assist what Quiroz terms “vulnerable” clients – those who cannot afford to pay, people whose cases they started prior to the establishment of Catholic Charities’ office and victims of crimes, such as spousal abuse. In her day-to-day work, she fields questions about everything from public schools to baptism. “It’s a little bit of community service and social work,” she said, “but mostly helping them receive the sacraments.”
Two such vulnerable clients of Quiroz’s were Jose Rodriguez and his mother, Nina Montanez. When they emigrated to the U.S. from Panama in 2001, Nina was a victim of abuse and neither of them could speak English. Being undocumented and unable to speak the language made almost every aspect of daily existence exceedingly difficult for them. Nina couldn’t find work because she didn’t have a green card; she didn’t dare drive for fear of being pulled over and jailed by police. Jose had to take two buses to get to school each morning; the school across the street from his home declined to admit him because he couldn’t speak English, and they had no bilingual administrators or faculty.
In addition to facing poverty and struggling to get an education, Jose and Nina found that they couldn’t even access healthcare without incurring crushing expenses – the clinic at LSU Medical Center, the local public hospital, charges $250 to see patients who cannot provide proof of residency. Quiroz pointed out that living in this country as an undocumented immigrant essentially makes it all but impossible to lead a purposeful life, as it prevents people from engaging in all the daily activities that citizens take for granted, like obtaining employment, driving and securing decent housing.
Thankfully, Quiroz was able to help them navigate the immigration process, and today, both Jose and Nina have achieved legal residency status. Jose looks forward to taking the citizenship test soon. Quiroz explained that citizenship differs from residency in a number of key ways, namely that citizenship will allow them to vote, make them eligible for government jobs, enable them to apply for grants and permit them to travel freely in and out of the country – something that’s important if they want to visit relatives in Panama.
Jose works at a restaurant and began taking classes at Bossier Parish Community College this fall. He hopes to continue to a four-year university and become a children’s therapist. He said that Hispanic Catholic Ministry did much more than help him and his mother navigate the legal system. “They helped us with the paperwork,” he said, “but we also gained a new family.” Nina agreed. “They were a great help.”
This spring, Watson, Quiroz and countless others will be preparing for and looking forward to the annual Migrant Workers Mass, usually held in May, at a packing-shed-turned-dormitory near Delhi, Louisiana. The tradition began in 2005 when a parishioner from Oak Grove Parish took Watson, who was at the time the pastor of Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Monroe, to an abandoned schoolhouse in Pioneer, a small town off Highway 17. There he found migrant workers who were living in the schoolhouse while they were planting and harvesting sweet potatoes at a nearby farm. He asked how he could help; they said they needed clothes, so he organized a clothing drive at his parish. He went back with some parishioners, and they distributed the clothes and celebrated Mass. That first year, he said Mass in Spanish at the schoolhouse five times.
Watson did the same thing for a group of migrant workers living in an abandoned nursing home in Tallulah. For the last three years, they have celebrated Mass for the workers at the converted packing shed, which is blessedly air-conditioned, in Delhi. The Mass now has a choir, and Bishop Duca celebrates Mass while a bi-lingual priest delivers the homily. Quiroz attends, along with many, many others. “They are always surprised to see the Bishop,” Watson said. “It’s a way of showing the workers how important they are.”
And they are, indeed, important. As the U.S. Bishops and the Bishops of Mexico stated in a pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” “We speak as one Church, united in the view that migration is necessary and beneficial…Migrants and immigrants are in our parishes and in our communities. In both our countries, we see much injustice and violence against them and much suffering and despair among them because civil and church structures are still inadequate to accommodate their needs.”
Hispanic Catholic Ministry is one way the Diocese of Shreveport and other dioceses around the country are combating injustice, violence, suffering and despair by offering spiritual support along with information and resources to help immigrants obtain legal residency status.
If you would like to help the Hispanic Catholic Ministry, they are in dire need of bilingual individuals who can help translate. To learn more, contact Director Rosalba Quiroz at (318) 868-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.