'Grateful to be Part of a Bigger Church': An Interview with Bishop Joseph Tyson

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 U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series of six presenting those interviews.

Bishop Joseph Tyson, 57, has been Bishop of Yakima for the last four years. Originally raised in Seattle, before entering the seminary Bishop Tyson obtained bachelor’s degrees in Russian and Eastern European Area Studies and in Editorial Journalism, and a Master’s degree in international relations. He worked as a parish priest in the archdiocese of Seattle for 16 years; then in 2005 he was appointed as an auxiliary bishop.


Located in the center of Washington State, the Diocese of Yakima covers seven counties and has a population of roughly 180,000 Catholics.

Tell me a little bit about Yakima.

Yakima, it’s the largest diocese no one has ever heard of. We're one of the larger Catholic Charities in the West with Seattle, Fresno and San Francisco being larger. We serve a lot of people. We also have a huge outreach for migrant housing. In fact we have kind of a unique program where we help our folks buy and own their own homes using sweat equity.

And we have the largest mental health service in northcentral Washington, second after the Department of Health and Human Services. We’re basically a Catholic Charities with a chapel attached.

About 75 percent of the diocese is Spanish; most people go to Mass in Spanish, most of my clergy is Spanish. We have upwards of 70,000 workers** at the peak of the harvest season. We’re the largest producer of apples in the world, the largest producers of pears on the planet. Agriculture is the largest sector of the state’s economy. It’s larger than aircraft, larger than I.T., larger than designer coffee.

I was born in the diocese. I grew up in Seattle, but I spent a lot of time over here, my Grandpa was a union organizer for the AFL/CIO, organized at the bakeries. I used to spend a lot of time going out with him to Safeways, commercial bakeries. We’re all sent, we’re all apostolic missionaries, but it’s kind of nice to be someplace where you already know the lay of the land.

How would you characterize the relationship between the church in the West and the broader national conference?

I’m so grateful for the Holy Father and for the community that I have with my brother bishops across the country. We’re all in a profound and deep communion as bishops with the Holy Father. And certainly there are moments of tension, things we don’t necessarily line up on, but on the whole, we pretty much have a high degree of communion with each other. I think our differences are just strategies, how do you reach every believer? It’s different to do that in the West.

I’m reluctant to draw generalizations, but when I’m listening to conversations, so many places in the East, they’re trying to figure out how to close and consolidate schools. Meanwhile I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to open a parish in West Richland. I’m asking, how am I going to get those Masses to the migrant workers? Over the summer we have Masses in orchards and fields. We move locations around based on what fruit is coming in.

So I’m not closing, consolidating, I’m trying to expand, and figure out how do I reach every believer, whether they’re in our parishes or passing through, especially in the summer. That’s what’s on the top of my head.

I’m very interested in making sure we uplift the Gospel of Jesus Christ and provide robust opportunities to receive the richness of our teaching. But it’s also, How do you aim that at the person in front of you in the circumstances they’re in? That’s the other piece I think we’re really having to think through in the West, given some of the population patterns and language.

Do you feel like your experiences in the northwest has insights to offer the broader Conference?

I’m a bit of a backbencher at the USCCB. I’m not one of the leading lights of the conference. I try to bring our experience to the table, but there’s just a lot going on all across the church in the United States. I consider myself a learner; when I show up at the USCCB I’m looking at the mobile apps, asking how we can better use technology and what not.

I’ve been very struck, though, by paragraph 27 of "Evangelii Gaudium," where the pope talks about his dream of a church: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, languages and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

It’s an interesting phrase, “missionary option.” And I think it’s quite a powerful insight from the Holy Father. I grew up in a church where there were so many arguments between liberals and conservatives; people were fighting about authority and sex. This is not that. This is about the mission. We need to be focused on the mission, proclaiming the mission of Jesus Christ, letting people bump against that in their daily circumstance. And they can figure out where they’re going to stand in relation to that.

We can burn a lot of energy on internal debates to the detriment of the mission. And I think Pope Francis in a powerful way is reminding us of the missionary option.

So what do I bring to the table? I don’t consider myself an expert, but I know I’m trying some new things out. Every seminarian works in a parish, teaches middle school religion. In the summer every one of my seminarians picks fruit, travels with migrants and lives and works with them.

Really? Your seminarians work in the fields and orchards?

Oh yes. If you want to be worthy to lift the bread and the cup, gifts of human hands, you’re going to know the weight that allowed them to happen.  

Our people live hard lives. People have deportation issues. The future priests, they need to know this.  I have them studying at Mundelein and I know they’re going to get robust theology there; they love Robert Barron, they get the mission part there really well. And in the summer I’m giving them opportunities to know who they’re aiming at, our people. Because the guys getting their StLs, they’re going to be the best teachers our poor ever have.

And hey, I don’t know if this is working. But I hope it is. What I’m bringing to the table is Pope Francis—can we not lose the robustness of our seminary formation, education, a solid prayer life, solid spiritual direction; but can we also be sure that we’re aimed towards mission? Because people want Jesus. They don’t care a rip about internal disputes that we’ve been arguing about for I think way too long.

So the seminarians get the teaching, but they also know who they’re serving. Can we aim the beauty of the church into the circumstances, sometimes the hard circumstances, of our people?

Two summers ago, pretty much everyone picked fruit, they’d get up at 2:30 in the morning, do their morning prayer, then at 3 am they’d be in the vans with everyone else, and go pick. We’d reflect once a week, how did you sense the presence of God in the work?

I don’t mean to sound disparaging about the past debates, but we want to focus on the mission and bringing people Christ. This is about Eucharist; that’s what we’re inviting the people to, so it’s really good to be in communion with their lives, so we know the gifts that we’re receiving and that we offer. We know the labor that went into the bread and the wine in central Washington. The seminarians are seeing what it takes to put the bread and the wine on the paten which will become the body and blood of Christ. They’re seeing every step of that.

That sounds like a powerful experience.

I’m just trying to make sure that I’m aiming the fullness of the church of all ages to the specific circumstances that our people are in. Because the church has prior claim on us. This is not something that we’re inventing. And the folks here bring a lot to the table, they’re bringing their lives to the table.

I generally don’t encourage the seminarians to go in and identify themselves. I have a good friend that’s a packer, he’s been good about taking our men into the warehouse. And then generally it comes up naturally in conversation (which means generally the language cleans up a little bit!). And then the people begin asking them questions about their faith and their lives. It’s often the first time they’ve been able to have that kind of contact with one of us. And they’re able to open up and ask their questions, and see that we’re approachable. We do Mass and confessions as well.

Last summer one of my newly ordained priests, he’d emigrated from Mexico when he was 15, and myself had a Mass in the fields. And my back was pretty twisted up, so after when someone came up and asked for confession we got chairs and sat down. And when she was done, I see there’s a whole long line out there in the field, waiting.

People are hungry for God. But they don’t necessarily come to church, because they’re on the move, especially during migrant season. So we go out. The church comes to them.

I want a full robust embodiment of the third edition of the Roman Missal when we’re celebrating Eucharist. But that entails being able to embody that in the fields where the people are. Because the church is bigger than the building. So if people can’t come to church, we bring church to them. That’s the lesson every seminarian is learning. We’re missionaries. We go out there.

That’s this missionary option that I think Pope Francis has really uplifted in this beautiful way.

When you frame that option in the way you have, it gives a lot to think about.

I don’t mean to overemphasize it. We’ve got 41 parishes and 6 schools. But we’re forming missionaries.

When it comes to parish life and youth, we’re a young diocese. The average age of a Catholic in the diocese is 23 years old. If I do a five o’clock Mass in English, I could be the youngest person in the room. But if I do a Mass in Spanish I assure you I could be the oldest. We have lots of young folks, lots of people in confirmation prep.

But once someone’s highly educated in the Spanish speaking community—and even more in the English speaking community, they’re off to Seattle or Portland or somewhere else. There are very few jobs in central Washington. So even on the parish side of things, I’m thinking we’re forming missionaries. Parents can feel sad, they’re losing their kids. But no, we’re not losing them, we’re sending them. We’re forming missionaries. That’s been a real lens for me.

I guess the other thing we contribute in the West, I’m watching these national debates, they’re beating each other up on immigration reforms. And we’ve got wingnuts like everybody else, but on the whole for all this polarizing debate nationally, locally folks are actually pretty good. The English speaking community, they’re very gracious. Most folks are very kind to the Spanish-speaking folks, the documented and undocumented. And most of the Hispanic folks are happy. I don’t know how we get that on the table—turn down your violin strings, chill out, don’t be so uptight. Have a taquito.

I’m kind of in a more Republican area, but most local leaders would like to see some kind of pathway for agricultural workers. On the national scene everyone teams up and takes sides, but out here, they sit back a little bit. We know how to have a good time.

The mayor of Grandview, WA is a white guy, great guy; when I did the blessing for these two hundred homes we put in he came out, thanked us. And he said, “I was watching poker on TV”—I thought, Where is he going with this? And then he talked about one of the poker players, who shared what was his great insight into winning. And the guy said, "You play the hand you’re dealt."

That’s probably what we can do a better job of teaching. Out here, we know how to play the hand we’re dealt rather than getting into the big political debate and arguing. And how to bring Christ into the hand you’re dealt.

Would you say some of the internal, “liberal vs. conservative” church debates you talked about earlier have died down?

I think they have. The secular media, they’re always looking for the wedge issues, because that sells the advertising time. And sometimes that goes on in Catholic media, too. But I think we’re all getting a little better at being mission focused. Because people don’t give a rip about all that.

I think the tension is that some of our people, especially on the English side, have a tendency to view their faith through a political lens, whether it’s a left lens or a right lens. And what we’re doing now is saying, you view your life through the lens of faith. I think that’s the corrective that all of us are always doing.

Things get refracted in an odd way in the national media, a polarizing way. When you’re in a small place, I think because we’re closer together we have a better capacity at times for dialogue. And that begins with the Word of God. If we’re going to be a church in dialogue with the world we begin first by dialoguing with the Word of God. Because that’s what’s going to shape our conversation.

Maybe it’s harder not to get sucked into all that on the East Coast.

I think some of my brother bishops are in a greenhouse because they’re just in the middle of it. And they do great things. But for me, it’s five hours to Washington DC from Seattle, five to six, and it’s just a little more than that to Tokyo. (I may need to check my geography on that.)

The spring USCCB meetings always move around the country, which I really appreciate. About four years ago we were in the Seattle area, I think for the first time. And one of the bishops from the East Coast said to me, Well, it took a long time to get here. And I was like, and your point is? This is what I do every November. I take a little puddle jumper to Seattle and then get on a flight and make my way East. I mean the guys from Alaska, they probably could get to Tokyo faster.

When you’re in Yakima, nothing’s really near. Trust me. We have four flights daily to Seattle. They have this campaign right now, Alaska Airlines, “The Best Way to Fly.” Who are they kidding, it’s the only way to fly. There are no other airlines here.

Is it a struggle being connecting with the national conference from so far away?

What really helped me was when I was elected the chair of our region. I think I was the youngest bishop in the region at that time so they figured I was the most capable of dragging my roller bags through TSAs.

But I’m also in Mexico every January, and I’m kind of connected that way. It was big news here when Cardinal Alberto Suárez from Morelia [in Michoacán, Mexico] was named a cardinal. Most of our people are from Michoacán, and they’d never had a cardinal. I’d had lunch with him the January before last; he’d already been up to Yakima visiting, and I invited him back. Well, I’m 73, he said, so I’m going to be retiring soon, maybe after I’ll come back. And then boom, he’s made a cardinal.

So for me it isn’t just about being connected with the conference. I have this other world of being a bishop of a diocese that is so tied into the church south of the border. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out—how do I stay connected with what’s going on in that part of the world as well? That’s what’s hard, keeping connected with both the Spanish speaking part of the church as well as the English speaking side of the church. It’s not that I don’t feel connected to the conference, it’s just I’m also struggling to stay connected to the church in Mexico, which is well over half of the diocese in terms of their cultural roots.

I had the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bridgeport—it’s near the Chief Joseph Dam (we have a system of dams for irrigation for all our crops). They’re closer to Canada than they are to Yakima—it’s a three hour trip from Yakima—and it’s all Spanish speaking. The entire town there is practically from [the Mexican state of] Guerrero. Most people in the diocese are from Michoacán, but you get to Bridgeport and they’re from Guerrero.

And they all cheer when I show up, and we’re carrying this statue of Mary on this little anda [walk] up and down the streets in freezing weather. And then I go into the church and they have in the rafters hundreds and hundreds of items that they’ve made by hand. They’re just so thrilled to celebrate Eucharist and have the bishop come for Guadalupe.

On the English side [of the diocese] I’ve really had to rebuild, bring back some robust diocesan catechesis. We had this wonderful Magnificat program in Spanish, but not in English. Sometimes the needs of the immigrant communities can be overwhelming, the English side can get lost in all that. So we’re trying to make sure that we’re doing a better job of all that as well. My second year we launched Magnificat in English in Yakima, and the third year we launched it on the northern side, Quincy. And then this year we have the same three sites we had in Spanish.

I’m grateful to be in communion with many places that are more prominent than I am, with the bishops and all the dioceses, and all the people who offer prayers, and Catholic Extension. I’m grateful for my priests—we have some wonderful priests in Yakima, who are very good, very very holy, and very courageous in really elevating the Gospel. I’m grateful for them and our lay leaders and our benefactors.

I’m just grateful to be a part of it all, grateful to be a part of a bigger church.

CORRECTIONS, June 1-3, 2015: The Diocese of Yakima has the second largest mental health service in northcentral Washington, not in northwest Washington.  The city of the Mayor of Grandview has been updated. The correct number of Catholics in the Diocese of Yakima is 180,000. The correct size of the Catholic Charities in relation to the surrounding area has also been updated. 

**June 8, 2015: The number of workers working during harvest time has been corrected. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
3 years 7 months ago
Friends, I just want to note a couple of items here. First, I think my comment was that SF, Fresno and Seattle have LARGER Catholic Charities operations -- not that we are larger. We are not. Also there are probably more that 10,000 workers in the fields in the summer. 10,000 represents the number of guest worker visas -- those would be documents folks -- so just want to clarify and note those items. Thanks. Bishop Joseph Tyson
Peter Fuchs
3 years 7 months ago
While Joe Tyson is repeatedly and somewhat obsessively trying to correct the record on how big his charities are, there seems to be a larger issue not addressed. He says here, and on a recent Youtube video that the people he is working with have "hard lives". I am NOT disputing that this is the case. But sending some seminarians to work in fields for a few months on their summer breaks is hardly going to help those "hard lives.". This is window dressing in a moral sense. What will help them is helping to elect politicians that help to address the real issues of poverty and welfare in this country, as well as immigration issues, of course. The Bishops whom he says are busy with deep communing with the Pope are in the United States mostly allied with the Republican Party which tries every which way to hurt the actual welfare of the poor in real terms. And this alliance comes because they are fixated on issues like gay marriage and draconian anti-abortion laws. Thus in their fixation on these issues, to the detriment of other issues of real poverty, which the Democrats have championed, they are in fact vexing the "hard lives" of the very people they supposedly want to help. Tyson has a long trail, traceable easily with a Google search, of fixating on issues like gay marriage, and playing into the hands of Republican tactics. We are now supposed to accept that sending some young guys out to the fields somehow assuages the more basic contradiction in his approach. Not very convincing in a moral sense. Lastly, the "hard lives" are certainly only made harder still by asking poor people to avoid sane contraceptive measures, and thus increasing the number of kids they have to feed. There is a basic illogic here, and one vexed in terms of real compassion.
3 years 7 months ago
Friends, one more item -- the mayor to which I referred was the mayor of GRANDVIEW -- about an hour from Yakima. We'd blessed some houses there for Catholic Charities Housing Services -- Caritas Yakima Vivienda -- and he's the one who talked about "...dealing with the hand you're dealt..." Also, the geography is bit in accurate. I referred to our Catholic Charities outreach in North-Central Washington. Northwest Washington is located in the Archdiocese of Seattle which -- again -- is considerable larger that Yakima. Yakima is in the upper 40 percent of Catholic Charities in terms of size but would be one of the larger agencies here in the West coast and the second largest after Seattle here in Region XII. I sure appreciate the attempt to tell the story of the West. It's a lot of details. Blessings. Bishop Joseph Tyson
Tim Reidy
3 years 7 months ago

Thank you for these clarifications!

3 years 7 months ago
Friends, I just noticed on more thing. We reported 180,000 Catholics in our last report to the Holy See -- not 80,000. But again I'm grateful that we've broadened the picture of the Church in America to include experiences from the West. Thanks again. Bishop Joseph Tyson
3 years 7 months ago
Friends, since there are editorial angels correcting the other notations I made, I am hoping that someone will correct the statement regarding Catholic Charities. We're one of the larger Catholic Charities in the West with Seattle, Fresno and San Fransisco being larger. The article incorrectly states that Seattle is larger. It is not and that's a howler of an error. Catholic Charities in Seattle is one the largest in the United States -- let alone in the West. Blessings! +Bishop Joseph Tyson
Zac Davis
3 years 7 months ago

It should be fixed now! Thank you!

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this refreshing (and sometimes funny) commentary, Bishop Tyson. My husband and I were in the Yakima diocese (Pasco) in the early years of our marriage and I loved the people and the land there. I still think about it a lot. How contemplative the desert land was, and how real and raw the people were. I don't know how it is now, but back then (the 70s) the Catholic Church felt very relevant. Your comments kind of capture it.
Peter Fuchs
3 years 6 months ago
An interestingly informative addendum to this article is contained in the interview Tyson did for "Vocation Boom" radio show recently, which is now available for listening on their site. It is informative generally about the level of forthrightness involved in such descriptions. Indeed, he mentions several of the aspects he does here. But when asked to describe his own particular path to the priesthood, to help others discern theirs, he doesn't mention that before becoming a diocesan seminarian for the Archdiocese of Seattle, he sought to be a Jesuit. As he told me personally, when we were both seminarians in Washington DC in the mid-eighties, he wanted very much to be a Jesuit, but was later turned away by the famous Society, He related several times to me personally that this was enormously difficult for him, but he went on anyways with his pursuit of clerical status. One can surely speculate why at this point a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Crouch would prevaricate so clearly on a critical matter of his own past, especially in a context particularly focused on "Vocations" where it would be decidedly relevant. More broadly, it does show simply the a certain habitual lack of forthrightness about such discussion on motives for such things. I think this sheds light on the assertions of why he is apparently substituting an actual coherent concern with the political realities of immigrants (vis-a-vis the decided alliance of the USCCB with Republican party approaches) for some window-dressing sops with his seminarians. If he cannot even be forthright about the a critical matter of his own path to the clergy, one can surely assume some other layer of intent here besides the explicit. ---- All of this was then given an even more odd perspective, by Tyson's answer to a phone caller on the Vocation Boom show. A woman, identifying herself as calling from San Francisco, was calling to complain about a Jesuit (!!) priest from San Francisco who had apparently posted accepting comments about gay people on his parish website from San Francisco. Simple decency on the part of the Jesuit priest. Yet the lady caller was irate that her complaints to the Archbishop Cordileone there had not resulted in the priest being sanctioned or removed. The astounding thing is that Tyson agreed with the woman and said her high dudgeon was justified, and encouraged her further. Thus bringing his whole involvement with the Jesuits full circle in a not so forthright sense yet again. One can only say. the level of honesty inherent in such discussions is very revealingly demonstrated by the whole, very odd matter.


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