Disrupters and Rebuilders

What a Meeting in Modesto Says about the Francis Church
CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, second from left, links arms with other participants on stage after a panel discussion on migration issues Feb. 17 during the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)


Modesto, Calif. — When hundreds of community organizers, clergy, immigrants, Black Lives Matter activists, and more than a dozen bishops packed into Central Catholic High School here for a three-day meeting in February, the eclectic gathering offered a window into the opportunities and tensions roiling the U.S. church four years after the election of Pope Francis. Young progressive activists unafraid to challenge church leaders mingled with tattooed men who spent years in jail, while the Catholic priests and bishops who brought them together were both intrigued and cautious about the mix of such varied and volatile voices. For three days, all this made the Central Valley the epicenter of a unique exercise in movement building inspired by a pope using his global pulpit to light a holy fire under grassroots organizing.

For a pope challenging cautious clerics to leave the comfort of the cathedral and get their shoes dirty organizing with the poor, Francis’s most tangible expression of his emphasis on bringing the peripheries to the center is the World Meeting of Popular Movements. The Modesto meeting was the first of its kind ever held in the United States. This city is not a high-profile spot on the media, financial, or political maps. The lead organizers of the gathering—PICO National Network, the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Vatican’s department for Integral Human Development—chose the location because Modesto brings into sharp focus core themes on the meeting’s agenda: economic inequality, high rates of incarceration for young people of color, the disproportionate impact environmental degradation has on the poor, and the myriad challenges faced by a large population of undocumented immigrants.

Once known as “the bishop of the slums,” Pope Francis was shaped by learning from and mobilizing with the poor in the villas miserias (“misery villages”) of Buenos Aires. His vision for these popular movements meetings is rooted in what defines his ministry: a gritty theology of the streets, a bottom-up perspective befitting his role as the first pope from the global South. The pope called the first popular movements meeting in 2014. Held in Rome, the gathering included social justice activists from five continents, migrants, landless peasants, indigenous leaders and representatives from trade unions and human rights organizations. Tierra, trabajo, and techo (land, labor, and housing) served as the thematic focus, and has remained so for every subsequent meeting. When Pope Francis addressed the second popular movements event in Bolivia in 2015, he sounded like an activist ready to lead a rally. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” he told those gathered in the poorest country in South America. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and in their ability to organize.”

It’s hard to know what the Modesto meeting portends for the future of the U.S. church. The pope’s clear desire to recalibrate Catholic identity away from the culture wars—part of his distaste for a hunkered down, fortress Catholicism—still leaves some vocal American church leaders and lay faithful more jittery than energized. Many wealthy Catholic donors who wield clout in dioceses, universities, and political circles are wary of how the pope has made climate change and inequality central issues. Some of them seem quite willing to give Donald Trump a pass on his administration’s assaults on undocumented immigrants and proposals that would eviscerate critical social safety nets in the hopes that he will help overturn Roe v. Wade and champion religious liberty. At the same time, a network of Catholic activists on the right that has attacked the church’s commitment to community organizing for decades remains well-mobilized and relentless.

The center of gravity in the U.S. church is clearly shifting as Pope Francis appoints bishops that reflect his pastoral style and priorities. But institutional change is always an uneven, plodding process, and entrenched resistance should not be underestimated. Whether the social-justice energy and sense of purpose found at this gathering in Modesto can be a catalyst for broader scale religious activism depends on whether skeptical priests, bishops, and parish leaders start to buy into the idea of a “poor church for the poor,” organizing from below. Converting those naysayers may be the biggest organizing challenge of all.

The center of gravity in the U.S. church is clearly shifting as Pope Francis appoints bishops that reflect his pastoral style and priorities

Twenty-five chairs in front of the gym stage sit conspicuously empty, t-shirts draped over them with “Presente!” written on each. The seats should be filled by participants, all undocumented immigrants, who decided the travel risk was too great. Planning for the Modesto gathering began long before Donald Trump entered the White House. But the fear and anxiety his administration have provoked are palpable during the meeting’s three days of panel discussions, raw personal testimonies, and small break-out sessions in classrooms spread across the school’s campus.

Cardinal Joe Tobin, appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Newark archdiocese last November, doesn’t tip-toe around the charged political backdrop during a video message he sends to the meeting. “As we look around our beloved country we can see dark clouds gathering,” Tobin says. “Your work of building community and calling all of us to truly ‘see’ one another is needed now more than ever.” The powerful, Tobin continues, “demonize excluded groups—people who look, sound, or believe differently from the dominant group. This act of misdirection—channeling the anger of anxious people toward ‘the other’ rather than toward the architects of the economy of exclusion—is a classic tactic of a populist leader.” What the cardinal described as “the sins of racism and xenophobia” animated many of the discussions in Modesto.

Shelton Fabre, the Catholic bishop of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, addresses this head-on during one session. “Racism is evil,” he says. “The church, in certain ways, has accepted racism.” When the church should have spoken boldly and prophetically it “merely whispered in private,” Fabre adds, and “fell horribly and sinfully short.” While acknowledging “the deep wounds racism in the church has caused in the lives of her own children,” Fabre still sees a vital role for congregations and religious leaders. “The task of the church is to work on the conversion of human hearts, which the church is uniquely positioned to do,” he tells the group. “The church can provide that place of encounter and hear the stories of pain, put a face on what racism is and strip it naked of its glamour. In that place of trust, we can walk together.”

It’s those personal stories of pain and hope that give a raw edge to the gathering. Jose Arrellano has elaborate swirls of tattoos around his neck and down both arms. As a kid in Los Angeles, he loved school and played the trumpet. But the allure of the streets won. Arrellano stands before the delegates at the meeting with closed cropped dark hair, a goatee and a Homeboy Industries T shirt. A gentle soul with the body of a gangbanger he used to be years ago. People are in tears as he tells his story. “The gangs accepted me with all my brokenness,” he says. “I felt like I finally belonged. I lived in vans, floated in and out of the system. I developed this character. Nothing was going to hurt me.” Arrelleno’s life was entangled in the criminal justice system until his late 20s when a friend told him to call a Jesuit priest, Fr. Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries to help former gang members learn skills and find work. Arrelleno made his way out of the darkness and despair. Now he helps pull others up from the abyss. “Pain is the great equalizer,” he says. “None of us can put our head down and say this is not my fight. We stand in community with each other. Your issue is my issue. My issue is your issue. We have to make the circle so big no one is standing outside it.”

The message is echoed by a close advisor of Pope Francis, Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads an influential Vatican office focused on a wide range of justice issues. Turkson’s presence in Modesto over three days is a sign that the pope considers this meeting important. “Together we can’t be broken,” Turkson tells the group. “Pope Francis wants us to identify structures of exclusion and recognize we are the protagonists of change.” While the pope didn’t travel to the meeting, he sent a four-page page letter that the cardinal and a PICO lay organizer take turns reading out loud in English and Spanish to the delegates. “For some time, the crisis of the prevailing paradigm has confronted us,” Pope Francis tells the participants. “I am speaking of a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our common home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees privileges of a few…. As Christians and all people of goodwill, it is for us to live and act at this moment.”

Along with Cardinal Turkson, another high-profile church leader in attendance is Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the largest and most diverse diocese in the country. More than 40 languages are spoken in the city, and a million undocumented immigrants reside there. Gomez delivers a message that is anything but abstract to many of the delegates. “People are afraid,” he says. “Our brothers and sisters are hurting. Children are terrified. Any day they can come home and find their parents deported. It isn’t right. Even if they broke the law, they are still human beings and have rights…I don’t like the tone coming out of the administration. The bishops are making clear we oppose the executive orders put out by President Trump.” Gomez urges the group to study the farmworkers movement and what he calls “the beautiful example of Cesar Chavez. “At the heart of activism,” he said, “is the Beatitudes.”

The strong words are not enough for Andrea Mercado, the campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

I’m curious what some of the Catholic bishops at the meeting think of the often edgy testimony from progressive activists

“With all due respect to Archbishop Gomez and his work in LA, but we do not hear the Catholic church speaking out enough,” says Mercado, who was part of a 100-mile pilgrimage from an immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania to Washington when Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015. “Be bold! Take action! Offer sanctuary to immigrants!” The delegates are on their feet, cheering loudly. During a small break-out group session inside a classroom with pictures of Jackie Robinson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King hanging on the walls, a dozen participants squeeze into undersized desks usually reserved for students. Frustration bubbles to the surface. Catalina Morales, twenty-five, was raised in a proud Catholic family and is now an organizer in Minnesota for ISAIAH, a faith-based organizing network that includes hundreds of congregations around the state.

“She is saying what people need to hear,” Morales remarks about the speaker from the National Domestic Workers Alliance who challenged the Catholic church to be bolder in defending immigrants. Tears well up in her eyes and her voice crackles with emotion. In her work with nearly two-dozen congregations in the state, Morales has found that Catholic churches are the most cautious about becoming a sanctuary parish that would provide refuge for undocumented immigrants. Some priests and parish leaders have confided to her that the caution around not joining other Christian denominations embracing sanctuary comes, in part, from not wanting to alienate white, conservative parishioners who contribute the most financially to the parish. “You have churches choosing money over the lives of human beings,” Morales says.  

I’m curious what some of the Catholic bishops at the meeting think of the often edgy testimony from progressive activists. PICO National Network and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ program for funding local community organizing efforts around the country, sent an invitation to every bishop in the country (more than 200), and 17 showed up. David Talley, appointed by Pope Francis to be coadjutor bishop of Alexandria, Louisiana in 2016, does not seemed fazed when I put the question to him. “It’s exciting for me to be here and learn about so many different groups working for those on the margins,” he says. “And it’s a good thing for bishops to hear critiques of the church.” Talley, chair of the committee that oversees the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty campaign, dismisses well-funded efforts by some on the Catholic right over the years to discredit organizing and insist that activism has no place in the church. “God came to save us through humanity, and the Incarnation is messy,” he says. “Pope Francis shows the whole church that solidarity is about standing with people on the peripheries.”

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ conference international justice and peace committee, admits he didn’t know what to expect from this meeting. He assumed “popular movements” would be ecclesial groups like Focolare, focused on prayer and spirituality. By day two of the gathering, Cantú, the son of Mexican immigrants and at 50-years-old a relatively young bishop, is settling in and appreciates the sense of urgency in the room. “The church can be very cautious in how we respond,” he acknowledges. “I’m all for caution but if we are too cautious the moment will pass us by and the church will lose the opportunity to be a prophetic voice.”

Joseph Fleming, PICO’s national Catholic engagement coordinator who played a key role in organizing the event, describes the Modesto gathering as a two-way street. “For the Catholic church, this meeting was an opportunity for evangelization, to share with a new generation of faith-based and secular activists, the church’s rich legacy of Catholic social teaching,” he said. “And, I think, in an important way, it was an opportunity for grassroots leaders to evangelize the bishops, to call them to prophetic leadership.” A culminating document from the meeting that focuses on racial and economic exclusion, as well as a call for all Catholic parishes to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, will soon be shared with Pope Francis and has been shared already with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Robert McElroy didn’t need any motivation to speak boldly. Appointed by Pope Francis to lead the San Diego diocese in 2015, Bishop McElroy is a rising star in the Francis era, and widely regarded as one of the intellectual forces in the American episcopacy. Along with Cardinal Blase Cupich in Chicago, he is at the forefront of pushing the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops—in recent years most focused on fighting same-sex marriage and contraception coverage—to demonstrate greater institutional commitment to the breadth of Catholic social teaching and the pope’s priorities as they relate to poverty, inequality, and climate change. 

McElroy begins by reminding the diverse audience, not all of whom are Catholic or Christian, that Catholics have long been at the forefront of social-justice activism. From “worker movements of Catholic action in France, Belgium, and Italy to Pope John XXIII’s call to re-structure the economies of the world in Mater et magistra, to the piercing missionary message of the Latin American Church, the words ‘see,’ ‘judge’ and ‘act’ have provided a powerful pathway for those who seek to renew the temporal order, in the light of the Gospel and justice,” he says. But at this “pivotal moment as a people and a nation,” the bishop warns, “our very ability to see, judge and act on behalf of justice is being endangered by cultural currents which leave us isolated, embittered and angry.”

McElroy’s energy picks up as he reminds the audience that Donald Trump was the so-called candidate of disruption—and that now it is the church’s turn to do the disrupting, fighting back against those who would take medical care away from the sick, deny food to the poor, or send troops into the streets to round-up those without papers. The bishop didn’t stop there.  “We, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ, as children of Abraham, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, of people of all faiths and no faith,” he continues, “we cannot merely be disruptors, we also have to be rebuilders”:

We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person and assert what that flag behinds us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal. We must rebuild a nation in solidarity, what Catholic teaching calls the sense that all of us are the children of the one God, there are no children of a lesser god in our midst.

The bishop receives a three-minute standing ovation.

For Ellie Hidalgo, the pastoral associate at Dolores Mission Church, a Jesuit parish in East Los Angeles, the bishop’s words are a clarion call to put the principles of her faith into action. “I was sad and embarrassed that so many Catholics voted for Trump,” she says. “But listening to Bishop McElroy gave me hope and made me proud to be Catholic. It helped me reconnect with the great history of Catholic social teaching. We stand on the shoulder of giants. Other Catholics have struggled for justice and gave us this rich heritage. It’s now our moment.”

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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