success stories

Success Story in Hispanic Ministry
Dolores Mission, Los Angeles, Calif.

Dolores Mission is a Jesuit parish on the east edge of Los Angeles in the heart of the Mexican population. It has become nationally known through its extraordinary outreach to the poor and its fulfillment of the "preferential option for the poor."To understand the significance of Dolores Mission, it is necessary to describe the setting in which it operates: Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has the largest Hispanic population of any U.S. city, largely of Mexican background, together with many refugees from Central America and from many Asian nations. Of the 12.6 million estimated population of metropolitan Los Angeles in 1989,4.5 million were of Mexican and Hispanic background. If present trends continue, by 2010, Hispanics will constitute 60 percent of the population and will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. From the standpoint of numbers alone, the challenge of the Hispanic presence to the Catholic Church is massive and critical.

It is also a troubled population. There were 600,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1989, but 25 percent did not speak English well. Many of these are Hispanics. But there are many others. In the five years between 1989-1993, the city expects an increase of 14,000 children per year in the school system. This will require the addition each year of nine new elementary schools, one junior high and one senior high. The economic burden and the recruitment of competent teachers will be an enormous task. Thus the educational problem will be one of the most serious the city will face. In fact, due to the 1991 budget cuts, teachers had to be terminated rather than hired.

Hispanics are among the poorest people in a flourishing metropolitan district. Los Angeles is challenging New York City as the nation's financial and industrial leader. It is the center of the aerospace industry and boasts of development in automobiles, the garment industry and shipping. The area's gross national product surpasses all but the 10 most productive nations of the world. In the presence of this enormous wealth, the Hispanics remain a poor, politically weak and exploited population. Fifty percent of the district's children (300,000) live below the poverty level. It is indeed an area where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Hispanics have little political power. They had two elected members of the city council (1991), although Hispanics make up 36 percent of the city's population. Whites had eight members on the council, although only 40 percent of the city was white. There were three black members and one Asian. Thus the Hispanics are apolitically deprived population. In the presence of this situation, Dolores Mission stands out as an extraordinary advocate of the poor.

The parish came into existence as St. Mary's Parish in the late 1880s when the area was an immigrant area, with Russian Jews, Italians, Irish and others. It was) something like New York City's Lower East Side. Dolores Mission was a mission center of the mother parish, and was started in a CCD building in 1917. In the late 1920s the present church was built. In 1940 the housing projects were built for working class people. However, when the freeway was built it cut the parish in half, precipitating neighborhood change, and new people, mostly black, began to move in. The church, which had been located on land where the freeway was built, was moved to the present site at that time. The school was built in 1954 when the neighborhood was predominantly black. During the 1960s the Mexicans moved in, giving the neighborhood its present character. It is a poor, crowded area. About 2,400 families live in the housing projects, which are a large segment of the parish. Given the large number of Mexican families, that could mean l2,000 to 15,000 people, a parish of large proportions.

The parish's present pastoral character began when a group of young dedicated priests came into the area. The priests reflected carefully on what to do. They or saw clearly that their mission had to include the empowerment of the poor. As Father Thomas Smolich, S.J ., expressed it: "But we thought among ourselves, if we empower the poor, to what are we empowering them? What do we want to come out of it? If blacks become involved in a situation, the Hispanics tend to get left out." It was clear to whom they would minister: refugees, undocumented aliens, the poor hidden enclave of Mexicans. The priests conceived a creative activity for the Hispanic poor and needy. They called it Proyecto. The priests describe it as a project rather than a center. It attempts to bring together a number of areas and parishes for Hispanic ministry through a process of analysis, reflection and concrete action for justice. "Its purpose is to provide a context for planning, reflection and direction for practical pastoral ministry already taking place." Members of the Proyecto meet at regular intervals during the week to engage in a process of reflection and decide courses of action. They seek to carry out the mandate of the 32nd Congregation of the Society of Jesus: "The Mission of the Society of Jesus is the service of the faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement." Father Smolich describes some of the activities:

"It was clear to us that the poor (refugees, undocumented, Dolores Mission people) were structurally left out. They had no channels built into our institutions that enabled them to manage the things that affect their lives. There was tension in the parish when refugees and the undocumented began to appear in increasing numbers. So we had a wonderful parish celebration-dancing, singing, liturgy and procession, food and a good time. This helped to quiet the tension."

We developed a series of small Christian communities (Comunidades de Base).There are now 14 in the neighborhood. They meet once a week at some convenient local place where they read the Gospels, share their reflections and plan common activities suggested by the spirit of the Gospels.

"In 1986 we responded to the Sanctuary movement for refugees and undocumented Mexicans. Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hollywood gave us a convent and we converted it into a residence for the Sanctuary families. It is called Casa Rutilio Grande. The Sanctuary program at Dolores Mission started in 1988. They renovated the convent space on the top floor of the school and have housed a number of families (30 persons) there. They hope to find them jobs and move them to permanent housing. It took courage for Dolores Mission to do this. There has been a long and impressive history around the Sanctuary movement. Priests, sisters and many laypersons have been harassed, obstructed and finally arrested, tried and convicted."

In 1988 the women of the Sanctuary families formed a cooperative. They were not able to get legalization if they were receiving AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children). They started a plan for taking care of one another's children so that the mothers could get jobs. It has worked out wonderfully. There are six women working. One of them has now been able to apply for legalization."

The remaining five are seeking work. They may then be able to apply for legalization. It was impressive to see the day-care center in operation. ...It is called a cooperative (mothers caring for each others' babies). This avoids a cold war about state authorization. At the present time, 1991, we are building a new building for the day care center. Meantime, some of the women are going to school hoping in the future to be certified to work in a day care center."

We also started the Dolores Mission Alternative, an alternative school for very tough kids who have dropped out of school. It is now directed by a very competent layman. It is operated under a contract of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a project called SEA (Soledad Enrichment Action). The small stipend from the contract must be supplemented by funds privately raised by the parish. Between 1988 and 1990, 150 students were registered in the program. Last year 143 were enrolled. It has resulted in phenomenal changes for the kids. This could be a model to replicate in other places."

We use the church as a shelter overnight. As of October 1991, Dolores Mission was providing shelter for 90 to 100 men. Sometimes this may go up to 130 men since the shelter at a nearby parish has been terminated. The members of the basic Christian community prepare the evening meal for those seeking shelter."

It is our conviction that the problem is not here in the United States. That is bad enough; we are angry about the way the Los Angeles police collaborate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. There is no need for them to do that. But unless we get things settled in the countries from which the refugees come, we will never begin to solve the problem of the refugees. One million refugees and undocumented and seasonal agricultural workers applied for legalization in California. There are 1 million more who did not. No one knows how many Mexicans are here.

"We have begun to challenge the employer sanctions of the 1986 immigration law. We made a decision at Proyecto not to collaborate with the employer sanctions. Now the movement is spreading."

Father Gregory Boyle, Dolores Mission's pastor, is certainly what the parishioners call him, un ]esuita faro. Rare indeed, and one must see him in action to appreciate the intensity of his dedication and its price. His accessibility to people is incredible. Refugees, undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexican, people in need literally swarm around Dolores Mission all day and part of the night. And he is in the midst of it. It is the same with the other priests.

Dolores Mission is a parish church; the rectory, now used as a community center, is a small structure behind the church with a series of offices and two garage attached. In front of the offices and west of the church is a fairly large open plaza used as a parking lot, but also for large parish gatherings. Parish meetings, fiestas, demonstrations, etc., take place here. There are Masses every day and seven on Sunday; all but two are in Spanish. The routines of an active parish life go on all day, mothers with babies arranging for baptism, young people planning marriages, etc. A staff of catechists circulates around the parish offices, clearly concerned about their work. One office worker I watched was supervising the distribution of food(the parish feeds 140 people a day), answering the telephone, taking care of office work, responding to dozens of people who just walked in.

The parish has organized 14 basic Christian communities. Some of the leaders were in and out during the morning. Actually, the parish is divided into nine districts, and basic Christian communities are organized according to districts. As indicated earlier, they meet once a week for prayer, Scripture reading, reflection and to plan activities. But they do many other things. For example, they prepare a hot meal for the men who sleep in the church at night.

There is not much activity of Pentecostal or Evangelical sects in the parish. Father Boyle attributed this to the activity of the basic Christian communities. Bible reading is a common feature of the basic community meetings. Since Bible reading and study is one of the attractions of Pentecostal churches, the emphasis on the Bible in the basic Christian communities protects parishioners against the sects' approach.

There is a small charismatic group in the parish. About 30 of the members meet every Sunday in the church. But so many parishioners are involved in social action and advocacy for the poor that the charismatic style does not greatly attract them.

The distribution of food-large amounts- takes place according to district. A sign, indicating the district, together with a map (e.g., for District 1), is posted on the parish doors. Then the parish leaders of the district (often leaders of the basic Christian communities) visit to inform the needy. They appear at the parish office for their bag of food. After the parishioners of the particular district for that day have been served, anyone who appears looking for food gets it, first-come, first-served, as long as the supply lasts. A parish lay worker organizes and supervises all this while doing a dozen other things as well.

The shelter the parish provides for 80 to 100 men at night is a remarkably organized situation. The men themselves, 80 regular customers, (all are carefully signed in at night and checked for knives or weapons) have organized themselves into eight groups of 10 each. They have marked out the exact part of the church they will occupy. They have created a set of rules all must obey. The men take turns for security watch-check each one out, even to the bathroom, and check him in again. The overflow (10 or so who can be squeezed in) sleep on the pews. They clean the church upon leaving. I was there three hours after they left, and the church was immaculate.

The sad thing is that the men cannot find work. They walk the streets all day hoping to find something to do. The city government tried to pass an ordinance forbidding them to gather on street comers where they met hoping for a pick-up for a day's work. The mission staged a dramatic press conference protesting the proposal. As Father Smolich explained, strong protests also were raised against employer sanctions, and efforts were made to find work for the undocumented.

Dolores Mission publishes a newsletter periodically which reports the many activities of the parish and the Proyecto. The parish has an elementary school with 170 children. During the past year much of the report has dealt with gangs in the area. The priests and their lay colleagues are among the few people in Los Angeles in close communication with the gangs. A description of the attitudes and activities of the gangs in the publication give an insight into these young men and women that is not available elsewhere. It is remarkable what the parish does with them.

Actually some of the gang kids now help out in the parish, cleaning the church, distributing food, helping out with building things. The kids have impressed everyone. Once they have something useful to do, it seems their attitude toward life changes. Actually, they're the ones building the new day-care center under the guidance of an experienced contractor.

Dolores Mission certainly qualifies as a national parish, but it is a national parish in anything but a stable neighborhood. The area of the parish has all the enormous problems of poor inner-city areas. The impressive feature of Dolores Mission and the Proyecto is the skill with which the priests and parish leaders have reached out to this neglected, oppressed community and given it some hope. Its spiritual mission has given some meaning to the lives of the people there, and the church is the most important advocate for the people, empowering them in every way possible.

To the ordinary Angelino, the area is dangerous territory where violence is part of ordinary life. But seen through the eyes of Dolores Mission, it is a population struggling to achieve a human lifestyle. What the future of the parish or the people twill be is difficult to say. But whatever happens there are many who will have It discovered the greatness of themselves and who will find some way of creating for themselves and contributing to others a sense of their worthiness as children of God.