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Bishop Barnes: Immigration Advocate and Pastor

Bishop 25th Episcopal Anniversary
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By Jeanette Arnquist

 When Bishop Gerald Barnes returned to California from Texas in 1992, the political atmosphere was full of rhetoric that would ultimately lead to the passage of Prop. 187 two years later. 

 He was compelled to talk about the Gospel. 

 Just a few weeks after his episcopal ordination, a high speed chase by the Border Patrol resulted in five deaths near Temecula Valley High School. A stolen Suburban, with 13 immigrant passengers, desperately trying to escape apprehension, ran a red light at the school crosswalk, plowed into an Acura, killing five, the three occupants of the car and two students who were on the sidewalk.

 Only a couple of days later, Bishop Barnes celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation for students from Temecula and surrounding communities. I was there because we lived in Hemet and my daughter was being confirmed. It was my introduction to Bishop Barnes’ bilingual preaching style and his deep concern for those who are suffering. Even with very limited Spanish skills, I knew enough to know that he was saying something different in Spanish.

 He based much of his homily on the tragedy, offering his heartfelt condolences in English to those who had lost friends or family in the accident. And in Spanish, I heard him address the fears of the immigrant community, discuss the history of immigration, and offer a message of hope. 

 It was my privilege over the next 20 years to get to work with Bishop Barnes and to learn something about his life, his vision and his faith. For him, involvement in political activity must be driven by faith, not politics.

 Bishop Bares commitment to inclusivity and justice has been evident from the beginning of his episcopal ministry. He worked to make every event and every program accessible to the monolingual Spanish and English speakers. He believed that Church has to be Church for everyone, period.

 Shortly after becoming the Ordinary, Bishop Barnes engaged the Church in a listening and priority setting process that resulted in the well-known Vision Statement. It was a blessing to be able to participate in that process along with representatives from each parish and ethnic community. We sat at tables based on our region, not our language or ethnicity. Somehow we figured out communication. I clearly remember sitting with Martha from Hemet and Marta from Perris, neither of whom could speak the other’s language. As Marta was telling her story, tears were streaming down Martha’s face. Not all communication is based on understanding words. We were able to encounter each other and enter into each other’s pain and hopes.

 Bishop Barnes commitment has not been limited to making sure that ministry reaches each ethnic minority. Unity in diversity requires that all have a place at the table, that the different communities become one community in working toward the common good. It is not enough to provide pastoral services in 17 different languages. We must stretch ourselves to create communities where all work together.

 In 2003 Bishop Barnes became the chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration and Refugee Services. Whoever is in that position leads legislative efforts to achieve justice for immigrants and often issues statements relating Church teaching to matters of public policy. So Bishop Barnes found himself in the halls of government talking with lawmakers and urging them to reform the system in a way that reflects our heritage as a nation of immigrants.

 Sadly this brought out the worst in some people, who made it their business to let him know just how wrong he was. It was the same old cry, “but they broke the law.” He received thousands of ugly letters and faxes, denouncing him and the efforts of the Church to work to achieve justice. This was especially painful to Bishop Barnes because he truly wanted to respect those who disagreed, and yet remain faithful to the Gospel.

 In 2005, the issues around immigration had not gone away. In December, the House of Representatives passed the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Bill.” The following March, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles got a lot of press for asking his priests to refuse to turn over persons suspected of being undocumented if the proposal became law. Around that time, Bishop Barnes convened all of the ordained and lay ministers in the Diocese for some reflection on the theology and practical implications of the bill. He closed his talk with “If people ask you what this meeting was about, tell them we talked about the Gospel.”

 In July of 2014, Bishop Barnes and others from the Catholic community stepped into a national refugee crisis involving Central American migrants fleeing violence and destitution in their homeland. They were coming to the Texas border and ultimately to California and our own diocese in Murrieta. Despite ugly rhetoric and behavior there from anti-immigrant voices, Bishop Barnes put faith into action by offering temporary shelter to a group of migrants from Central America at St. Joseph Parish in Fontana. In doing so he reminded us that assistance is humanitarian, not political. And that a political solution – comprehensive immigration reform – is necessary to bring final resolution to the crisis.

 Immigration issues still have not gone away, and thanks be to God, Bishop Barnes hasn’t stopped talking about the Gospel.


 Jeanette Arnquist is the former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity and Justice for the Diocese and is now retired in Tuscon, Arizona.