Bringing the Gospel to the Burgeoning Catholic Latino Population in the U.S.
In person interview with Diana Richardson Vela, president of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
| Posted 9/5/13 at 2:40 PM
Diana Richardson Vela is the president of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL), which seeks to form Latino leaders in their knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith, engaging them to work with their local bishops in reaching out to the Latino community.
Vela previously served as the executive director of Guadalupe Radio, the first Catholic radio station in the Los Angeles area, and she has been a board member of the Right to Life League of Southern California. She and her husband, Rodrigo, now lead the Phoenix Chapter of CALL, and they have one child.
Vela was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, by her American mother and Mexican father, and she graduated from the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey before she moved to the United States 10 years ago. She spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond following CALL’s 2013 annual conference in Los Angeles, where Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago expressed support for CALL’s mission and initiatives, but warned attendees that a toxic U.S. culture had eroded the faith of many Latinos, with only 40% of third-generation Hispanics still identifying as active Catholics.
The 2013 CALL conference, “Building a Culture of Faith” in Los Angeles, attracted more than a couple hundred participants from around the country. This was a record number for CALL. Are you developing more traction with Latino business and professional leaders?
Last year, we had our conference in Miami. This year, we moved it to the West Coast. We got a wonderful response, exceeded our goal. Participants came from Denver, Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New York and Brooklyn, as well as from California.
CALL always promotes the sanctity of life, marriage, vocations and the dignity of the person. We wanted to build a theme around these issues, and we focused on religious liberty, the defense of marriage and evangelization. Speakers talked about the Church’s understanding of the Christian vocation, how to apply that teaching to daily life.
Lay leaders shared what they are doing. Allan Sears, the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, talked about religious-freedom issues.
Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, talked about what Pope Francis has said about taking care of the poor, especially in the U.S.
Do you credit some of the strong turnout you received to the recent election of a pope from Latin America?
It helps in strengthening our faith and getting excited about our faith. People feel welcomed and are touched by the fact that, since his election, Pope Francis’ message has been one of love and care for the poorest. It has created a great excitement.
Archbishop Chaput noted that while he and Archbishop Gomez, who also helped start CALL, expected Hispanic immigrants to help alter the secular trend of U.S. culture, too often the reverse has happened, and Latinos have struggled to hold onto their faith, like many other Americans.
One subject that was very well received was the defense of traditional marriage.
Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco explained the value and sanctity of marriage. He said that if we don’t defend marriage between a man and a woman, and if people don’t understand why we believe in marriage as a union of one man and one woman, then they won’t be able to understand the love of Jesus for his Church.
The whole teaching of the Church goes hand in hand with an understanding of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. He explained that if we don’t defend marriage it will pose a huge threat for us in the near future.
How do you address the fact that a rising number of Hispanics back same-sex “marriage,” and many Latinas are having children out of wedlock, according to the Center for Disease Control?
The challenge is to bring Church teaching to ordinary Hispanics.
In one of our programs, we partner with Family Life Works to offer a program to students that builds character and promotes marriage and virtues. Local chapters work with the local ordinary to decide what schools we will serve. Most are Catholic schools.
We support evangelization and family-life projects. Education has been a priority, and we underwrite tuition and sponsor students at inner-city Catholic schools.
CALL has decided not to start new programs, but makes use of programs that have already been initiated by the Church. We partner with different entities that can help us address issues related to education, media and legislation.
One challenge is that while we have more Hispanic Catholics in Congress taking a more prominent role, it’s heartbreaking to see how they compartmentalize their faith and work life. The challenge is to show how our Catholic faith can be translated into every part of our life.
An estimated one-third of Catholics in the U.S. are Hispanic, but only 7% of the priests serving the Church come from this community. What’s the answer for promoting vocations?
CALL is trying to support the local ordinary’s efforts to promote vocations.
The Los Angeles chapter supports Casa Juan Diego, a house of formation for seminarians finishing their studies. In San Antonio, the local bishop has asked CALL to help with constructing a new chapel and offer classes in leadership development for the seminary.
Our members have developed relationships with seminarians and serve as mentors. Seminarians are invited to CALL meetings, and they volunteered at our conference. That gave them a chance to hear the speakers and do some networking.
During a CALL pilgrimage to Rome, we visited the North American College and met with the nine-12 Hispanic seminarians studying there. It was wonderful.
We have started to see an increase in Hispanic vocations. To our surprise, we’ve noticed that a lot of vocations did not come from places with a large Hispanic population, but from the Midwest, the East and states like Idaho and North Carolina.
Immigration reform has been a major issue for Latinos, yet non-Hispanic Catholics often question the need for reform or even oppose it outright. Do you see any change in attitude, especially as Congress debates this issue?
It is difficult. Archbishop Gomez has been a leader on this issue, and he has shared that a lot of people are not open to this subject. Some ask: How can we offer citizenship for someone who has broken the law? It is hard to talk with them.
But the Church has made a great effort to explain the need to establish a path to citizenship, to provide guest-worker programs and to promote family unity.
The bishops have asked pastors to talk about immigration reform on Sept. 8 and promote support at the grassroots level. Having our priests share Church social doctrine will help non-Hispanics come to the heart of it. As Catholics, we should help immigrants come out of the shadows and start on the road to dignity and family unity.
In your experience, what works best for helping non-Hispanics rethink their skepticism or opposition to immigration reform?
I don’t concentrate on economic and legal issue or offer statistics on border security. I focus on Church social doctrine and on the immigrants who come to this country and are hardworking persons willing to risk their lives to support their families.
Many people don’t understand how hard it is to get into the country legally. The system [for legal immigration] that currently exists is extremely expensive, and it takes a long time to resolve. For a family that is separated or someone suffering from violence in their own country or someone who needs a job quickly, what is currently on offer is unrealistic.
The U.S., as a leading economic power, has a social responsibility to take in these economic immigrants and the refugees from violent drug wars. People are not looking for a free pass and are willing to work hard. Many pay taxes and get no rights in exchange.
Did some of CALL’s members come from difficult circumstances before arriving in the U.S. and finding success here?
We have immigrants who came in from Mexico, as well as first-, second- and third-generation Hispanics. They tell us about parents who came here, worked hard, and now their children have the chance to get educated in the U.S. Several of the CALL members share their ancestors’ stories — families that were already here at the time of the 1848 Mexican Cession, especially in the territories of California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Their families helped rebuild and strengthen their community and country.
Drugs and gang violence have ensnared Hispanics in this country. Have CALL leaders discussed tackling these problems?
We are looking into this, but there is nothing official. Statistics show a problem with Hispanic youth not graduating from high school and involvement with drugs. Latinas have a high rate of abortion.
We are trying to figure out how to help, and right now we think the best way is to strengthen marriage and the family. In many families, both parents are working. We also hope to partner with an organization on gang-related issues.
Moving forward, what gives you most hope about the Church’s efforts to build the faith of ordinary Hispanics and help them navigate the dangerous currents of U.S. culture?
We are excited about the Church having many more masses in Spanish. Parishes are adopting and embracing Hispanic faith traditions, like devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It has been inspiring to see major Church leaders come to our conference and welcome our work in their dioceses. They are taking the time to engage, and this is encouraging. The Church is receiving us with open arms and really responding to the fact that Hispanics are changing the Church and our nation.
The Church is at a pivotal moment. As they await the outcome of the immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill, the U.S. bishops must strengthen engagement with Hispanics, despite powerful cultural forces pulling this community in the opposite direction. Do you foresee CALL playing a more prominent role during this challenging time?
CALL supports and promotes the six principles provided by the USCCB to explain why the Church backs immigration reform, helping our members understand the teaching of the social doctrine.
CALL is an organization that seeks to form Latino leaders in their faith. It is open to all. We are looking for our own conversion, growing in the faith and truly having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Once that is achieved, we want to help the local community, working with the local bishops and working on local evangelization projects. Anyone interested in faith formation and service should consider CALL.
CALL will have a role in promoting the common good of Latinos in the United States by working within the context of our culture and in communion with our Church, by providing programs, services and events for the benefit of our Latino community, Church and country.
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