By Natalie Romano
At least three Catholic communities opened their doors to both democracy and community this election by turning their parish halls into polling places. Over a four-day period, hundreds of people were expected to cast their votes at Our Lady of Hope in San Bernardino, Our Lady of the Valley in Hemet and St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Needles. The pastors said they wanted their parishes to play an active role in the electoral process.
“The church recognizes that politics are a human endeavor and wherever there’s a human endeavor, it’s important the Church guides and leads by example,” explained Father Manuel Cardoza, Pastor of Our Lady of Hope. “To open up our parish is such a good way to do that.”
Father Anthony Bui, Pastor of St. Ann’s, felt that his parish could be a symbol of faith and faithful citizenship.
“For the community we represent Christ. We spread out love and hope and peace and justice,” said Fr. Bui, STL. “We can do that through our spiritual life and through faithful citizenship.”
While parishes provided the space, the Registrar of Voters from each county provided the voting machines and poll workers. With the COVID-19 pandemic underway, elaborate health measures were also implemented. Guidelines included safely spacing the voters, the voting machines and making face masks available to those who needed them. The Diocese stressed that the safety burden was entirely on the Registrar of Voters.
“They take on that huge responsibility and do it well,” said Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Office of Emergency Operations Collaborative. “They staff it completely on their own. Their people wear masks and scrub the facilities pre and post-election.”
Still, that wasn’t enough for some parishes. Gallant noted fewer churches participated this year largely due to the coronavirus. Another concern this election cycle was the potential of protesters and unofficial/self-appointed poll watchers. Local deputies were scheduled to patrol polling sites while election volunteers were trained in de-escalation techniques. Fr. Cardoza proclaimed that for the first time ever, he was concerned about voter intimidation and said he was prepared to ask any troublemakers to leave.
“I think it’s a very tangible concern of our community. Most of the residents in this area are minority folks and working folks of all ethnicities,” he said. “The church should be a welcoming place for everybody.”
At press time, Gallant said she was confident that voting would go smoothly, noting there were not many problems in the region prior to the election.
“When we look at our communities where the polling places are located, we have much confidence and faith that they (citizens) will respect the dignity of the polling site and the sanctity of the church grounds,” she said Oct. 16th.
Long term parish employees expressed how they’re honored to do their part as a citizen and a Catholic. Sharon Bowling has been with St. Ann’s for two decades and organizes with the Registrar of Voters every election. She said if our Catholic beliefs are going to be impacted, we must vote.
“How can you say you have faith in something without standing up and fighting for it?” asked Bowling, Office Manager at St. Ann’s.
Staff at Our Lady of Hope have fond memories of past elections when children from the former parish school would get a glimpse of democracy in action.
“We would bring the 8th grade class in when there wasn’t anyone voting. We would let them walk around and see the process,” recounted Sam Kolendowicz, Parish Life Coordinator, Our Lady of Hope. “My oldest son got to do that. He was excited to know what was going on.”
Now that election day is over, Fr. Cardoza reminds us despite our differences we can come together as children of God.
“No matter what the political persuasion, most people want to make the country better. There are disagreements on how it’s done...people think there’s only one way,” said Fr. Manny. “Jesus found a lot of ways.”
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.