The National Catholic Review
Paul J. Fitzgerald

Isaias crossed the small parking lot next to the church and approached the rectory. On an open door was written, "Proyecto Guadalupano: a Program of the Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission." In the small office, he sat down opposite Arturo López, the program director, and began to tell his story. Born in a poor section of Guanajuato, Mexico, Isaias had grown up in a large family. As an adolescent, he began running with a gang involved in drug trafficking. Recently there had been tensions within the gang, and Isaias had had to flee. He offered few details, but it was clear that he was obliged to run from danger, and from his home and family as well. In the United States without papers, and burdened with equal measures of guilt and fear, he had bounced among several charitable agencies before being sent here. Given his situation, Isaias was a prime candidate for Proyecto Guadalupano.

Arturo López, the program director, was only 20 years old when he himself arrived in the United States from El Salvador at the height of the civil war. Inspired by Archbishop Oscar Romero, he had worked for justice as a consequence of his faith, and soon his life was threatened. Rejection and isolation met him in the United States, yet there were also points of light. He received hospitality from a Mexican family, and he discovered a spiritual home at La Placita, a downtown Catholic church. He found work, too, and gradually his life began to take on a semblance of normalcyuntil one day in 1985, at a Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, when Father Luis Olivares declared the parish a sanctuary for people fleeing war and poverty. Arturo was deeply moved by this commitment. He prayed, and an idea came to him. He placed his inspiration under the protection of the Virgin, who, at Tepeyac, had promised protection to all her children, just as she had protected her firstborn by fleeing into Egypt.

Arturo saw the war refugees and poor immigrants camped out under freeway overpasses, beginning their days on street corners in search of work. He knew firsthand of arbitrary mistreatment, non-payment, unsafe conditions and the constant fear of deportation. The Proyecto Guadalupano was born of Arturo’s desire to respond to this reality. His own suffering became meaningful as it led him to alleviate the suffering of people like himself.

As with other programs for the homeless, the men in the program (now located at Dolores Mission in East Los Angeles) are fed and sheltered. They receive counseling and practical information. There is a "bank" where they can deposit their earnings, spending what they need, sending what they can back to their families. Unique to this program is the way the men are welcomed into a faith community; there, they can experience their human dignity in the respectful treatment they receive and in the contributions that they can make.

In his first days at Dolores Mission, Isaias was faced with a choice: Would he continue his life as a gangster, or would he make a new beginning? His first contacts were with some of the shadier men in the program, types who had also been involved in criminal activities. Theirs was an affinity born of a certain type of machismoexaggeration, swagger, the ready recourse to violence. Little by little, however, Isaias moved from this into a different circle of men, gentler and more honest, who gradually became his friends. Isaias felt a keen desire to alter his basic vision of himself and the world. He joined a prayer group, asked for spiritual direction from one of the Jesuits and took an active role in the liturgical life of the parish. After a few months, he found regular work, and with his new friends he prayed and planned his next move: graduation from the Proyecto into an apartment.

Arturo López believes that Isaias’ story is a good example of the aims of the Proyecto Guadalupano. Prayer is a key element. The men are invited to join a comunidad eclesial de base, a group that meets weekly to read Scripture, discuss the members’ lives in light of the Gospel, nourish the habit of prayer and carry out concrete acts of mutual support and community service. The men find a safe place to converse with others about their lives, feelings, hopes and fears. They are listened to with respect, compassion and understanding. They encounter forgiveness and acceptance, and they dare to hope again. The growing confidence in God’s love and providential care go hand in hand with daily experiences as members of a faith community.

The experience of honest dialogue is a second key to the success of Proyecto Guadalupano. When tensions develop among the members, Arturo uses frank communication to solve these problems, usually by unmasking the misunderstandings that underlie most disputes. He will call the antagonists in and begin by establishing the context of the conversation. "Where do you live?" "Here!" says the first. "And do you have any unmet needs?" "Well, no." The same questions are posed to the other person. Once it is settled that they are both "at home" and that each is respected as a human being, only then is the problem addressed. Resolutions tend to come quickly, problem-solving skills are learned and erstwhile opponents often become friends.

The third key is work. The men are provided with the resources they need in order to find employment and be able to express their dignity as human beings by contributing to the common good. This dynamic realizes the program’s undergirding spirituality: Work is commensurate with service in community. When asked to describe his own work, Arturo replies, "My days are eaten up by a thousand tasks: all of the organization that must take place for the men to be cared for. My job is time-consuming, but it is also a gift of time, attention and care to these men. Sometimes the work isn’t done when eight hours have passed, and I am called upon to sacrifice some of my own time, yet my family understands. The important thing is to remain focused, to see the members who are in need."

Arturo speaks readily of the ancient Jewish custom of asylum for refugees. They had once been slaves in Egypt, and God liberated them. We should welcome others who are similarly freed by God from new forms of enslavement. Arturo hears this same divine invitation to radical hospitality in Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks of welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and imprisoned. Immigrant dayworkers often suffer from all these forms of poverty at once. Many left their homes because of grinding material poverty; others fled warfare or oppression. None were able to meet their obligations to their families, so they set out for the United States. The journey was fraught with dangers and suffering. They arrive here sick, injured and malnourished. Some are quite ill psychologicallythey are far from their families, and they have seen horrible things along the way. They closely resemble the poor in whom Jesus promised to be: hungry, thirsty, ill, homeless.

"We can feed and clothe and shelter them," Arturo reports, "and we can help them to find work to earn their daily bread, and bread for their families back home. We can treat them as human beings; we can respect their human rights. But it is all so obvious, isn’t it?" Volunteer groups take turns to cook, serve and share in the evening meal. At night, the men sleep in the church. This raised a stink at first among the regular parishioners. Literally! The church smells a bit in the morning, after serving as a dormitory for 50 laborers. But the parishioners soon came to accept the Gospel call to hospitality, and now they claim that the church "smells like roses!"

One of the requirements of the program is that the men take an active role in organizing their communal living. To this end there are three committees; from them, the men are invited to choose one of the following: human rights, liturgy or recreation. The Comision de los Derechos Humanos fosters the sense that these men are indeed human beings with inalienable dignity. Weekly human rights classes keep them informed about labor laws that apply to them. Often the men share their stories, and in listening to one another they become aware of their own moral sense, their ability to distinguish between what is just and unjust. They see that they merit humane treatment from their employers, and that they in turn have a corresponding obligation to act in an ethical manner. This is part of the healing process for those who suffered injustices back home, during their journey as emigrants and here in the United States.

The Comision de la Liturgia is charged with organizing regular opportunities for spiritual conversation, sacramental celebrations, meditation and prayer. Despair is a real danger. The men need courage to confront the obstacles in their lives, the many difficulties, rejections, subtle slights and outrageous insults to which they are subjected. The liturgical committee seeks to give the men the sense that God is not only among them but within them. The celebration of the Eucharist takes on added layers of meaning when it is woven into the experience of receiving food, shelter, comfort and respect, awakening in them a sense of gratitude, wonder and renewed faith in the promises of God.

The Comision de Eventos Sociales plans recreational opportunities for the men. They work very hard for low wages. Some are tempted to work seven days a week, both for the money and in order to fill otherwise empty days. Other temptations include alcohol, drugs, prostitutes and consumerism. They need to be reminded that they are more than strong backs and skilled hands. Like all human beings, they need to rest from their labors and be exposed to nature, beauty and leisure. The committee organizes outings to the beach, to the homes of benefactors, to the park for games of soccer. These events help the men to experience themselves as persons in community, and this makes their living together more peaceful and more fruitful.

Most of the men are at least nominally Catholic, yet they arrive with an ambiguous set of impressions about the Roman Catholic Church: distant, severe, unengaged, for the pious and the perfect. Their initial contacts with the Proyecto are, therefore, often confusing to them. They are intrigued that a Catholic parish community al otro lado ("on the other side," in the United States) would offer all these services and treat them as it does. It seems strange to them that Catholics would actually live out the consequences of their faith, that they would actually do what Jesus commands! During their stay, many rediscover their faith, perhaps for the first time since they were small children. Some choose to make their first Communion. There is a standing invitation, but no pressure is placed on them to do sono "praying for your supper." If a man asks to be prepared for the sacraments, his peers in the Comision de la Liturgia undertake this task.

To maintain his focus in this ministry, Arturo himself relies on prayer. His principal image of Christ is in the faces of the men who come in search of help. He sees Christ crucified in their fractured lives, and he sees his own proffered charity as a participation in Christ’s resurrection. To be present to Christ in these men is to see God’s victory over sin and death as the men regain hope and reclaim their own inalienable dignity as brothers of Christ and children of God. When they tell their stories, the tears that flow are as much of gratitude as they are of pain, gratitude that Christ is with them through it all, that they are not abandoned, that God loves and supports them, and that their prayers to the Virgin of Guadalupe have been answered.

In the church, where the men sleep, there are two images of the Virgin. The traditional image, from Tepeyac, shows the woman pregnant with the redemptive promise of God, hands together in a gesture of welcome, of prayer and of blessing. A second image, painted by Fernando Arizti, S.J., depicts the Virgin walking along a rock-strewn street that leads from a Mexican village to Los Angeles, a city named for her, Queen of the Angels. She is seen to accompany the men from their homes, along the journey and into this new, rich and hostile city.

These days, Isaias keeps in touch with Arturo. He still sends money to his parents back home, with whom he has reestablished a good relationship. Completing the circle, he is now a youth minister, preparing and conducting retreats for young Latinos in his new parish.

Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., is a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California.

Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., is a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California.