National Catholic Register


In Los Angeles, Kentucky and Tijuana, Church Lives the Christmas Spirit

BY David Finnigan

Dec. 22-28, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/22/96 at 2:00 PM


A trio of Catholic Christmas stories from across the Tijuana, Mexico border, to inner-city Los Angeles and out to northeast Kentucky's coal mountains. Catholics are called to serve the poor, be they black and urban, brown and illegal, or rural and white.

FATHER KEN DEASY can count, among his many gifts, empathy and a knack for inspirational homilies. About a year ago, the 42-year-old priest moved from St. Monica's Catholic Church near the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, Calif., to become pastor of St. Agatha's in central Los Angeles, where palm trees give way to tenement buildings and liquor stores.

A large parish nationally known for its outreach to Catholic young adults, St. Monica's has had prominent patrons—actors Kelsey Grammer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martin Sheen and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. St. Agatha's, by contrast, remains small and financially poor. Women there had been praying for a pastor to pull them out of what some called a spiritual slump.

With Father Deasy's arrival, it seems their prayers were heard. Instead of the requisite slam on the commercialism of the holy season, his take on the Christmas frenzy is that it's great. In an Advent homily, he said: “We are doing things for others. That's why the malls are packed. What is so wrong with that?”

Two subtle developments at the parish seem worth noting at Christmas. First, there is race—it's not a problem at the parish, but it's still a major issue in a polarized city. Four decades ago, St. Agatha's was a mostly white parish. Now it is largely made up of Latinos and African-Americans.

Father Deasy brought something new to this ethnic mix. Given a charisma that earned him a following from prior assignments at mostly white, suburban parishes, he has begun to attract Caucasians to St. Agatha's. The 10:00 a.m. Sunday gospel Mass now finds Catholics of all colors who greet each other and shake hands warmly. Parishioners say newcomers mean the more the merrier.

“You feel very welcome—here you just feel like that's really true,” said John Carlin, a 33-year-old, single, white sports-marketing executive from L.A.'s affluent west side. “If this church was, like, an hour away, I'd still go to it.” 10:00 a.m. Sunday gospel Mass now finds Catholics of all colors who greet each other and shake hands warmly. Parishioners say of newcomers, “the more the merrier.”

“You feel very welcome—here you just feel like that's really true,” said John Carlin, a 33-yearold, single, white sports-marketing executive from L.A.'s affluent west side. “If this church was, like, an hour away, I'd still go to it.”

The other Father Deasy-inspired development is his urging the veteran parishioners of St. Agatha's to give newcomers the greeting: “We're just glad to see you here—however you got here.”

Joanne Lombard, is a 45-year-old black mother of three, is a choir member and parish volunteer. Her husband, Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Herbert Lombard, has been attending St. Agatha's for 40 of his 50 years. “We were always active in the parish, but it now seems we live here,” he said. “We always have a good Christmas here because we love each other.”

Like the welcoming faces at St. Agatha's, an unconditional hospitality is the hallmark of Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico.

The “house of the migrants” is run by the Scalabrinian Fathers and Brothers, an order founded in 1887 by Italian Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini. Numbering some 700 priests and Brothers in 26 countries, the order dedicates itself specifically to helping immigrants, refugees and migrant workers. In Tijuana, the Scalabrinians serve Mexican and Central American immigrants who have gravitated to the border town with thoughts of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Tijuana's Colonia Postal section is poor. It features bumpy, unpaved city roads, ramshackle houses and gangs with attendant stabbings and shakedowns. Streets don't have street signs. Mangy dogs roam without collars.

Next to a parish, so lacking in space that its Saturday catechism courses are conducted in the church's front pews, sits the blue, four-story house for migrants. Men can stay there up to two weeks and get free food, showers, soap and a bunk bed in rooms that sleep as many as 12. The Casa can handle 150 to 220 migrants a day. A smaller, separate facility helps traveling women and children.

The Scalabrinians do not advocate illegal border crossings. They employ social workers to teach men about the potential hardships of life in the United States, making sure they understand that the streets there aren't paved with gold. Some return home to Guadalajara or Mexico City, frustrated. Others stay in Tijuana. Still others make the crossing.

Scalabrinian Brother Gioacchino Campese, 29, counsels the men. He loves the Gospel of Matthew's take on the Cannanite woman (Mt 15, 21-28) because, he said, “it's about people who are strangers.” Wearing a Charlotte Hornets cap and a Houston Rockets T-shirt, Brother Campese, an Italian, said the Casa hosts weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as discussions on human rights and regular liturgies.

For Christmas, celebrations begin in earnest with observance of La Posada, the nine-day Church celebration of the journey of Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. On Dec. 21, men from the Casa were scheduled to go to the Tijuana side of the border, light candles and join in song with people on the San Diego side. It's called La Posada sin fronteras, or “without borders.”

There's a tall ornamented tree in the migrant house's center patio; Christmas for the men will also include gifts and traditional Mexican dishes—all an attempt to make Christmas away from home as homey and gentle as possible.

Christmas is so vital to Mexican families that some dads who make the journey north, cross the border, find a job and then return home to be with their families for the holiday. “They will risk crossing the border again to go back to their families for Christmas,” Brother Campese said. “That is how important it is to Mexican families.”

On the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, Catholics are sparse. Remote diocesan parishes here are staffed by the Glenmary Home Missioners. The order—which numbers about 100 priests, Brothers and Sisters—was founded during the Depression to staff Catholic outposts from Texas to Mississippi and up through the Appalachian Mountain region.

The small Kentucky towns of Grayson and Vanceburg are pure Glenmary country. In Vanceburg, Holy Redeemer parish serves 35 families with a single Sunday Mass at 9:00 a.m. In the next county there's Grayson, home to Sts. John and Elizabeth Catholic Church, with some 60 families and one Sunday Mass at 11:30 a.m. Due south, in Elliott County, there are two nuns, five Catholic families and no parish or mission at all. The faithful must drive to Grayson for Mass and the sacraments.

Glenmary Father Bruce Brylinski, 41, shuttles between the Grayson parish, where he is pastor, and Holy Redeemer, where he serves as sacramental minister. ASister works there as pastoral administrator. Each Sunday, he first says Mass in Vanceburg, then drives back to Grayson for the 11:30 service. In both places, women dominate the pews, he said. “Culturally, women seem to carry the parish membership,” said Father Brylinski in a telephone interview.

The Glenmary Missioners and their flocks participate in Project Merry Christmas, an interdenominational effort to collect children's toys, clothing and food baskets for the benefit of local needy families of all creeds. While good will can come in waves around Christmas, Father Brylinski said he teaches his parishioners that “there are 12 months, and January and February are more severe months and when March comes around, heating bills come in.”

“It's a reminder of the Nativity being a gentle presence of God,” Father Brylinski said, adding that non-Catholics show up at Christmas services.“People will come out because it's Christmas eve. There's kind of a fascination, a connection to the past.”

Sts. John and Elizabeth Church in Grayson lost two families this year to out-of-state job transfers. Such a change comes as a blow to a small community. But Father Brylinski said this Christmas also will be a time of growth—the formal acknowledgment of several students entering the catechumenate, preparing themselves for Easter conversion.

David Finnigan is based in Los Angeles