I am grateful and humbled to be receiving this peace award from the Casa today. My Franciscan journey began here in 1954, when I made a men's retreat. I'd never even heard of Franciscans before. One morning I had served Mass for a friar, and when asking my dad who those guys were-Franciscans, and what they did, he signed me up for a men's retreat here at the Casa. And at the end of the retreat, I was signed up for the seminary in Santa Barbara.
My parents, each of my eight brothers and sisters, and Isabel - whom I nicknamed 'Bika', who worked for the family during my childhood, have had - and still have - a wonderful influence on my friar journey, as have the friar community. In 1967 I was ordained in my home parish of Nativity, in Flagstaff. I told my family I was going to pray for snow so people would remember - 83 inches! My little sister, Beth, met me at the train station with: "You overdid it!
Work with Cesar Chavez
My first assignment was Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Delano, California. Bishop Manning asked the friars to take over because of the escalating tension there. So, I went from the theology classroom to Delano - no year of intership for me! The Farmworker Union under Cesar Chavez's wonderful leardership, had its hands full with the strike. Cesar had a gift of leadership and a passion for justice like I'd never seen. You would never know he only had an 8th grade education. His commitment to nonviolence equaled his passion for justice. His deep faith, which I got to witness on many occasions, truly inspired me. His love for our Lady of Guadalupe was like none I'd ever seen.
But what most challenged and inspired me was his passion for justice. I remember when a couple of ruffians from another union - who gave the farmworkers a hard time - got into a fight with each other and were arrested, roughed up in jail and given a heavy fine. Cesar heard of it, and sent two of his lawyers to take their case. The fine was lessened and each of the men giving an apology. This was hard for the young union members to handle, and even threatened the union's unity. But Cesar did not budge. I believe one or two of those men became Cesar's bodyguards. Cesar's faith and courage, the farmworkers' loyalty in the midst of so much violence and injustice, had a profound effect on me!
Work with Undocumented Immigrants
Though I'd asked to go to the Apache nation, my next assignment was Las Vegas, to live in the Black ghetto and minister to the Hispanic parish of St. Christopher. On arrival, I was asked to take a vacated parish out in Overton, sixty miles north of Las Vegas. Here I ministered to St. John's parish, half Anglo, half Hispanic. Invitations to baptize from an area north of Overton, introduced me to a community of undocumented Catholic families, and I began having Mass in a little motel, room 6, which we called the cathedral of Cristo Rey. Soon I was ministering to undocumented families in the wider area. How I cam to love them! On one occasion there was a raid, during which the immigration officers flagrantly broke the law. I was enraged! We met that night in one of the homes that had been affected. As I sat there, I was thinking: Let's just get one of them and show them that they can't hurt people like that. Imagine! I had said nothing as I sat simmering, but the mother, whose house it was, looked directly at me and said: "Father, as long as you hate immigration people, you're no good to us. You have to help us fight their injustice, but you have to love them, or you can't help us."
Work with the Apache American Indians
You see what great teachers I had! They prepared me for the ministry I am in, and have been for the last thirty-one years, pastor of one, and then three White Mountain Apache parishes. And what great teachers they have been! I can vividly remember sitting in the hospital emergency room with a mother whose daughter had been shot through both legs at a dance. Her mother said to me when I came and sat next to her: "Father, I'm trying to forgive the man who shot my daughter, but I am having a hard time!" Talk about teachers!
With Pope John Paul II's visit in the 1980s, I heard him apologize to the Native Americans for our misunderstanding and persecution of their religious beliefs and traditions. He asked for forgiveness and told them to go back to their own spirituality, which was given by God and sacred, and bring those tradition to Christianity so both could be enriched. What an incredible blessing that was! And my bishop, Pelotte, our first Native American bishop, encouraged me to combine the two spiritualties as much as I could. Again, what a blessing! How it has enriched our liturgies! And I've been invited to participate in their ceremonies, and been so enriched by them! As the Pope and Bishop encouraged, we use parts of their spirituality in our Eucharistic celebrations; they use our rituals - blessings, Eucharistic, prayers - as part of their ceremonies.
In the 31 years I have been with the White Mountain Apaches, I've seen so much injustice and prejudice, so much oppression, from within and without. I have seen their woundedness, divisions and addictions. I see them struggle to keep alive their sacred traditions and ceremonies.
And I have been so blessed by a number of parishes, including here at the Casa, and St. Thomas More in Glendale. You help Anna - who has ministered with me for over 11 years - and me, to reach out to those in great need, and great need there is! Because we have won the trust of so many in the community, we are in a position to reach out. We do so with the help and support you give us. For example, the food cards you have sent, are so important, and enable us to be there in a quite, sometimes critical way to help ease some of their burdens. We have won the trust of so many, Catholic and non-Catholic. But without your most generous support, we would be helpless to reach out to them.
And they have been such an inspiration in so many ways. One of our parishioners, Deedee, came upon a scene where an inexperienced driver from the Valley had slid off the road in the snow and hit a tree. Deedee was the first on the scene. She stopped, saw that the mother - the driver - was dead, and that her son was in bad shape in the back seat. Her prayer of what to do was answered by the Lord asking what she would want someone to do if that were her and her son in the back seat. So, she crawled in the back seat, held the boy and began to sing to him in Apache. They boy later told the doctor who was stitching him up that an angel had come along, crawled into the seat with him and sang to him, but he didn't know what she was singing. Years later, as her own son was dying, after two lung transplants, I was there as she held him in her arms and sang to him: "This little love of mine, I'm going to let him shine..." She is now in our music ministry.
I have been so blessed to have been with the White Mountain Apaches for these 31 years! The Apaches in our three parishes have embraced me - and now Anna - so well; have been such wonderful teachers. An now we have begun bringing in outside groups for an immersion experience that has dramatically influenced the lives of those who come! This now includes friars in our formation programs. I call it "reverse mission": "those who used to receive the missionaries, are now the missionaries, and the role of the missionary - me - is to build a bridge of trust so others can come and experience the richness of their lives and spirituality." Reverse mission is truly one of my passions!
I am deeply touched by this award! It came as a complete surprise, and it will encourage me to continue to work in the midst of such overwhelming odds. My love and respect for my teachers, mentors, friars, and friends along the way, makes me most grateful to our provident and loving God, who writes so well with crooked lines. Thank you for this most amazing gift!
Jesus, Francis, Cesar Chavez, Fr. Alan McCoy, my undocumented brothers and sisters, my fellow friars, the White Mountain Apaches, my family and many friends, have reminded me that each of us is called to struggle for peace and justice in our very hurting world. Each of us is gifted. Each of us is a part of a faith community; we can, and are called to witness, pray, and continue to work for peace and justice. Jesus encourages us: "With Me you can do all things." So, as my father St. Francis told us: "Preach always, and if necessary, use words."
Office of Vocations
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