Love, support for immigrants follow group's verbal attacks on Massgoers

IMAGE: CNS photo/Francisco Lara, Catholic Sentinel

By Rocio Rios

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — Father
Raul Marquez had never seen anything like it. Eight men walked to the front
door of St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland Jan. 29 and began bellowing
during the Spanish Mass.

Dressed like hunters,
they accused worshippers of not being true Christians, questioned the sexual
morals of the women and harangued the congregation for being made up of

The group, which calls itself “Street Preachers,” has been setting up counter-protests at events
criticizing President Donald Trump, including a late-January demonstration at Portland
International Airport.

The harmony that
naturally comes from Mass was shattered. The community, already living in fear
because of federal immigration policy proposals, was shocked.

“All that Sunday I felt
upset and didn’t understand,” said Father Marquez, a Colombian native who has been
pastor of St. Peter for five years. “How I was going to be happy while I heard
and remembered the verbal insult? I was looking for an answer.”

The Gospel reading of the
day said, in part, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and
utter every kind of evil against you.”

The following Sunday,
Feb. 5, an answer to the priest’s question came and the fear was soothed as
more than 300 people formed a human shield in front of St. Peter Church during
Masses. News of the previous week’s attack had gone out on social media,
drawing the crowd that stood in silence, holding signs.

“I didn’t expect
this outpouring of love for us,” said Alberto Gonzalez, a native of Oaxaca,
Mexico, who has been a member of St. Peter for 18 months. “This time is very
difficult for us and here we are surrounded by love of all of the American
people, who came to show they are here, we are one, we are one community.”

With tears in his eyes,
Gonzalez said he has not felt supported until now. At first, he thought the
large group of white people had come to hurl more invective, but then he saw
they had come to protect their brothers and sisters.

“This is solidarity,”
Gonzalez told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese.
“This is love.”

Parishioners got a lesson
in nonviolent response to harassment. A table of coffee and sweets was put up
near the front door of the church for protectors who came out despite chilly

Joining Father Marquez in
a sign of support were Father Ron Millican from nearby Our Lady of Sorrows
Church and the Rev. Elizabeth Larson from St. Mark Lutheran Church.

“I wanted to come here
and hug each person,” Rev. Larson said.

Father Millican invited
his parishioners to come and show support. “We need to be together,” he said.
“It is very sad that it takes something like this to make us come together. But
it is beautiful — the outpouring of support for the dignity of everyone.”

Nona Carrasco was one of
those outside who got completely wet. “This is my community,” Carrasco said. “I
don’t stand for bigotry. I will stand for my community and this is what we do.”

Also in the crowd was
Matt Cato, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice
and Peace.

Father Marquez received
hundreds of messages of support. The first was a letter from Portland
Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, who told the people of St. Peter Parish he stands with them.

“I was saddened beyond
words to learn of the terrible experience that many of you encountered as you
came to church last weekend,” the archbishop said in his letter. “It is so tragic that you were coming to
celebrate God’s love and mercy and yet you experienced cruelty and hatred at
the hands of severely misguided protesters.

“I am especially upset to
learn of the verbal abuse heaped upon members of our Hispanic community” and also
what was “directed against women in your community,” he said, calling it “vile
behavior.” Archbishop Sample also noted that the same group was targeting other
churches as well.

“Please be assured that
I, as your archbishop and shepherd, stand firmly with you in the face of such
ignorant and hateful words,” the archbishop told parishioners. “You are our
brothers and sisters, and as members of the same family of faith, we must hold
fast to our unity in Christ. ‘ Be assured of my love and prayers for all of you.”

After the Feb. 5 Mass,
Father Marquez walked out to thank supporters. He could barely move as people
hugged him and asked for his blessing.

“This is the time to live the
Gospel radically by praying for those men and their few sympathizers and to
intentionally forgive them,” the priest said.

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Rios is editor of El Centinela,
the monthly Spanish-language newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese.

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