'Good Comes from East L.A.' — An Interview with Bishop Gerald Barnes, Part 2

This week in the print magazine Jim McDermott, S.J., writes about the unique character of "The Church in the West." As part of that project he had the opportunity to interview a number of bishops about their experiences in their own dioceses and within the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series presenting those interviews.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our interview with Bishop Barnes. In this piece, he talks about racism in the church today and struggles in the ways the USCCB works with the West Coast. In the first part, he talks about the church in San Bernardino.

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What things would you say make the church in the West unique or distinct?

Although there have been issues of diversity in places like New York, Chicago, Washington, here it’s different in that we’re all one. We actually don’t have ghettos here. You want to know where the Hispanics are? They’re everywhere. The Filipinos? They’re everywhere. The African Americans? Everywhere. We don’t have the “Mexican side of town.” In the whole diocese, all of our 91 parishes except for 4 have Mass in Spanish. Everybody knows more [about Mexico] than Corona Beer, they know what a posada is, they know about Our Lady of Guadalupe. I studied in the East; they hadn’t heard of Guadalupe – that’s from 1531, before Lourdes, before Fatima, and they had no idea of what it is or what it means to the people.

Also, I think a lot of the people who came out here came with a pioneering kind of spirit. They came for a fresh start. There’s a newness here. And there’s less dependence on identification with traditional things, less “This is how we always did things.” It’s nice. We do it our way.

Most of the time we’re also much less legalistic than they are in other parts of the states. I think that’s the influence of the diversity that’s here. I was brought up that the law must be obeyed because it’s the law. Here, yeah, it’s the law, you try but...

So when we deal with some issues in the conference, like looking at the placement of the Holy Days, the Ascension, there’s a difference in the way that we see these kinds of things. We have to be a lot more flexible, our people commute great distances; on the East Coast, it’s not that far, they have a different kind of transportation system than we do. And again, we don’t have the big institutions that they would have back there.

Unfortunately they don’t see us as equals many times. When we were proposing a change in Ascension Thursdays, I remember Cardinal Law asked me, Jerry, how is the water out there? I said, we’re doing pretty well—we were in a drought at the time. But he wasn’t talking about that. He started laughing, and he asked, What are you guys drinking?

Today, there’s only three regions that celebrate Ascension on the Thursday—the Midatlantic, New York and Lincoln, Nebraska. And yet the ordos for the whole United States still have it on Thursday.

I never even noticed that.

Everything is on the East Coast. When they come here they complain about how far they have to travel, and it’s just once every five or six years. We have to go there two or three times every year and if we’re on a committee it’s even more.

I remember I was on a committee, we were supposed to go before the administrative board or some committee over there [in Washington] to talk about our plans. And they said, "Bishop it’s going to be 20 minutes, at the most 45." And I’m thinking, "You want me to go all the way to Washington DC for a twenty to forty five minute meeting?" And they said, "We’re paying the way."

And I thought, "Are you going to pay me back for the time?" Because the flight from here is six or seven hours. And we can’t get anything direct from here to Washington. So I have to go the day before, and the meeting’s on one day, and then I fly back tomorrow. I’ve lost three days. Can you give me that? But that doesn’t occur to them.  

Don’t say you want representation from the West if you’re not willing to accommodate us.

The spring meeting rotates, and occasionally it winds up on the West Coast. Where committees meet depends on the chair. But the East is where the resources are. There was a time when we talked about moving our meetings to somewhere more central, Dallas or Chicago, to accommodate us, but then you have to bring all the resources there.

There was even talk at one time of having two conferences. I think they brought it up to Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF and he said it’s worth talking about, but we didn’t move on it. And there’s something about us being together, too. 

What suggestions would you have to make things better?  

A lot of stuff could be done through technology. Today I had a conference call – it was 9am here, noon in Washington. They surveyed us ahead of time and accommodated. We could do that all the time with the technology that we have now. It would save money and much more time. But you have to be open to that.

We have the same problem here [in San Bernardino]. Blythe is a long way; Needles is further. It takes them four hours to come here. So we do faith formation classes through that video conferencing. The other day we had a mandated workshop on harassment. A lot of the priests came, but other priests could watch it.

I think efforts could made be for that. But I think the East is going to have to appreciate the need more. We don’t have the number of dioceses or bishops that the East does. We have some large Catholic populations, in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Phoenix, Orange, Las Vegas, Seattle. And then we have a lot of rural areas.

I think we don’t appreciate the differences. Here the church is a lot more lay-run; we have Masses in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian, Ebo, Tagolog, Arabic, Tongan, Chmorra, Samoan, Guamanian. And all the communities are recognized, they are part of the diocese for who they are. They can be Vietnamese, they can be Tongan, they can be Chmorra and celebrate how they are, and the diocese recognizes that. And not as tokens—I tell them, we need you on our boards. And it’s an effort because for some of them are not as fluent in English as they might like, or some of them are tied into a model where they have to ask the parish priest for permission even though the bishop’s asking them, or their bishop is still in their home country. I have to say, No, I’m your bishop. When you go back there, then he’s your bishop. They have to go step by step.

Of our 41 seminarians, I think five are Caucasian; the rest are Asian, Hispanic. Our seminarians go to Camarillo or San Antonio, which are very diverse. You don’t find that in many East Coast seminaries. You go to other seminaries and you’re getting some diversity but the majority is Caucasian. That’s not the reality here.

A priest who works with inmates in the diocese told me a story of you coming to visit inmates on a holiday and saying to them “I come as one of you.” It sounded like you have a lot of feeling for them.

We have a lot of prisons here, unfortunately. I’ve made it a point on these big holy days—Guadalupe, Thanksgiving, Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, Mothers’ Day—to visit. I’ll be in the parish in the evening, but I’m going to be in the prisons in the afternoon or morning. It really makes the people feel included, that you would come there on this big day. Well, they are a part of the church. It’s like going to visit the sick—you’re a part of this community.

I grew up with that. My folks reached out to the poor. We were poor. We always had someone living with us that wasn’t a blood relative. There was always that outreach, that “Who’s missing from the table?” So you bring those values with you.

When I was in San Antonio, there was someone I’ll always remember because he always asked, "Who’s missing?" Who’s missing. Because first of all they have the right to be at the table. I’m Hispanic, and one of our values is mi casa su casa. There’s always enough for someone else. Just put more water in the soup, in the beans; there’s always enough for someone else. And that person—you need that person, they have something to offer you.

A lot of our people feel marginalized. Someone said to me, I never thought I was second class until I came here [to the States]. Because you know, our country is number one in everything, and so everyone else is number two. But they never thought they were. And they’re not seen as adults here because they don’t measure up to the norms that we have. Some aren’t even seen as Catholic; it makes these people feel like they don’t belong. So our efforts are to make them feel included.

I was from East L.A. Boyle Heights was the most integrated area in Los Angeles at one time, African American, Japanese American, Jewish Americans, Armenians, White Russians, Hispanics of course, Croatians. It was all of these.

When I went to the seminary, people asked things like, "Did you do drugs? Were you in a gang?" I never had that image that people saw people from East L.A. as criminals. And I denied that that was where I was from, I’d just say I was from L.A. When they’d ask what part, I’d say near Alhambra.

I did that until I did this retreat, where a key passage was “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And I realized, you know what, I’m out of East L.A., and my parents are from East L.A., and a lot of good came from there. Good comes from East L.A.

Wow. What an insight.

It helps me understand people. “You’re Mexican”—the way some people say that. When I came here I was the first auxiliary ever, and people would talk about a little Mexican girl that used to work in the office and was very good, she could read Spanish, translate. And I asked, What happened to her? Did her parents not let her work here anymore? And they said "No no, she wasn’t a kid, she was sixty." And I wondered, "Then why did you call her a little Mexican girl?"

For good and bad I don’t look Hispanic—what does Hispanic look like? I don’t have a Hispanic surname. So because of that, when I originally worked with the Spanish speaking, initially they were testing me. And then they’d say, "Oh, you’re one of us." When you can speak to them and laugh in their language, it’s all fine.

The English, they think I’m one of them, and I can say to them, "Oh you don’t know these people, you don’t know who they are."

Before I entered the seminary I was teaching current events. I had students watch the news, bring in a current event—someone’s trying to pass a law, etc. Bring that in and explain it.

At the end of the semester I gave a lot of Cs, 2 Bs, 4 Ds, 1 F.  And I got called into the principal’s office. How could I give all these people Cs, Ds, F when they don’t know how to read? “Mr. Barnes, you don’t understand these Mexicans,” they told me. “Don’t let their brown eyes fool you, those people are dumb. Their parents are dumb, they’re dumb and they can’t help it. They’re also prone to be communists.”

And I told them, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m Mexican American from East LA.” And then they switched it all around. “Oh, Mr. Barnes, let me shake your hand, some of my best friends are Mexican.”

I see it in the church, that “You don’t understand.” People will say they don’t want to give the Mexican community a morning Mass—“You know these Mexicans, they’re always late, and they want to sing every verse of the song, and then they don’t want to go home. That’s why we give them the last Mass of the day. We need to clear the parking lots.” But aren’t we all supposed to do fellowship, bring our kids?

When I came to San Antonio, I said to someone I didn’t realize how Catholic the town was. And they said, “No, no, it’s a Protestant town. What makes you think it’s Catholic?” And I told them I drove around the neighborhoods, saw all the churches and schools. And they said, “Oh, well, if you count the Mexicans.”

That was then. But I still see that today in the church. I might be talking to a bishop, and you’ll hear “I have one thousand Catholics.” Oh, I thought you had twenty five thousand. “Well, if you count the Mexicans. The Hispanics.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ken Lovasik
2 years 6 months ago
I have known Bishop Barnes for 46 years. I first met him when we were both seminarians beginning our theological studies at St. Leonard College in Centerville, OH. We spent four years together at St. Leonard's. I was a Franciscan Friar and Bishop Barnes was a Missionary of the Holy Family. I read this interview with great pride in Gerry: the kind, gentle, devoted man I lived with so many years ago ... has only grown kinder, gentler and more devoted to God and God's People. I'm sure there are other bishops like Gerry, but we need many, many more! I'm counting on Pope Francis to choose them for us! God bless you, Gerry ... ad multos annos!

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