In the wake of the shootings in El Paso last month, Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez issued a strongly-worded statement. “With El Paso a line has been crossed,” he wrote on Aug. 13. “We are left with hard questions about what our nation is becoming.”
The mission of the church is clear, he said, in the face of the rising white nationalism that may have inspired the violence in Texas. “We need to help our society to see our common humanity—that we are all children of God, meant to live together as brothers and sisters, no matter the color of our skin, the language we speak, or the place we were born.”
Archbishop Gomez is the former archbishop of San Antonio and a Mexican immigrant whose mother’s family has lived in what is now the state of Texas since the 1800s. The violence in El Paso hit hard.
Growing up in Monterey, Mexico, not far from the border, “every day we received a newspaper from Texas,” he told me in a phone interview. “It was kind of normal to be in Mexico and understand that the people of Texas [and us] were family. The border was just a physical or political reality.
“Really what I’m trying to help people understand,” he said, “is that the people on both sides of the border are the same people.” White nationalists, he argued, ignore the diversity present at the origins of our nation. “It seems like [people are saying] Latinos do not belong in the United States, when we were here before everybody else except the Native Americans,” Archbishop Gomez said. “We were all there at the very beginning—Native Americans, Hispanics from Mexico, the people coming from Europe to the East Coast. There were Asians also here early; Filipinos were here in the 1500s!
The mission of the church is clear, he said, in the face of the rising white nationalism that may have inspired the violence in Texas. “We need to help our society to see our common humanity—that we are all children of God, meant to live together as brothers and sisters.”
“Our Founding Fathers wanted to form a nation where people coming from all over the world could be together, respecting each other and where they came from.” The polarization of the present moment, he said, undermines that ambition.
“We are becoming more separated from one another, and I think that is dangerous. We need to think about who we are,” Archbishop Gomez said.
Parish life, he suggested, offers a means of overcoming that alienation. "In the archdiocese of Los Angeles,” he said, “people from different cultures go to the same churches. So they get to know each other. And that helps unify us; we see we are all alike. We go to church; we have a family; we work; we struggle to make progress economically.
“When we are together in church, in a community, we get to know each other. And that really helps us to overcome the temptation of separation,” the archbishop said. “I had Mass [on Sept. 5] at Our Lady of Peace. It was the 75th anniversary of the parish. Afterwards, we had lunch and little presentations from different cultural groups, and it was beautiful. Everybody was together.”
When I point out that many Catholics voted for President Trump and support his administration’s immigration policies, Archbishop Gomez admitted, “That’s the real challenge. And it’s a little frustrating for me.”
But he also finds that many Catholics are open to dialogue around immigration policy. “The bishops of the United States are trying to find the best way to help our country to address the immigration reality of the times we are living in,” the archbishop said. “We are asking for some kind of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a system to facilitate the movement of peoples and at the same time makes sure there is border security.
“You look at what has happened the last eight, 16, 20 years: We went through Republican administrations, Democratic administrations, and still there is no solution.
“Somehow politically we are not able to address the issue,” he said. “I think we are all frustrated about that.”
Still, the treatment of the undocumented and the place of immigrants in U.S. society are hotly contested questions today. Whether online or in seats of government, conversations on these topics can heat up into recrimination and outrage.
In his statement, Archbishop Gomez called out the myths of white nationalism. “The first non-native language spoken in this continent was Spanish, not English,” he wrote, adding that “the myth that America was founded by and for white people is just that—a myth.”
And yet he has no appetite for verbal combat. “Polarization,” he said, “is just a huge danger. It’s easy to fall into that. But that’s not what this country is all about.
“I don’t have problems with people expressing their opinion,” he said. “I try to understand where they’re coming from and I try to help them understand the teachings of the church.”
The way to defuse the anger in our society, he argued, “is to get to know each other. When you know the people that are coming to this country, it changes your opinion. Because these are good people. They work like crazy.
“Especially now, our problem is that we don’t talk to each other,” Archbishop Gomez said. “You talk to your little machine, but you don’t talk to the person on the other side. What we need to foster is more communication and personal knowledge of people that are different.”
“Our Lady of Guadalupe is a good intercessor,” he said. “She came to unite everybody.
“Maybe she can help us.”
Correction, Sept. 13: The quote beginning, “It seems like [people are saying] Latinos do not belong in the United States..” was edited to clarify the text in brackets.