MUCH-DESERVED RECOGNITION The Diocese of San Bernardino, Father Francisco Gomez, S.T. and the late Father Francisco Valdovinos, S.T. were among those named Building Resilient Communities’ “Faith Leader of the Year” for their work during the pandemic. LEFT: From left to right, Sister Mary Frances Coleman, RSM, Director of the Office of Consecrated Life; Vicar General Monsignor Gerard Lopez (who accepted on behalf of +Fr. Valdovinos, S.T.); Father Rocendo Herrera, S.T. (Pastor of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mecca, where Fr. Valdovinos served before he died); and Fr. Gomez. TOP RIGHT: Fr. Gomez (left) accepts his award from Pastor Jim Smith (right), Building Resilient Communities’ Director of Programs and Services, while Salomeh Wagaw, Program Director of Health Equity at Riverside University Health System (RUHS) Public Health, stands by. BOTTOM RIGHT: Faith Leader of the Year Awards for Fr. Gomez, Fr. Valdovinos and the Diocese.
The Diocese of San Bernardino, as well as Father Francisco Gomez, S.T., and the late Father Francisco Valdovinos, S.T., were among those named “Faith Leader of the Year” for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The honorees were recognized at an awards breakfast on April 21 at the ARK Church in Redlands.
The award was from Building Resilient Communities, an interfaith non-profit that focuses on preparing faith communities for disaster. They hosted the breakfast to thank faith leaders for their tireless ministry during the height of the pandemic. “When disaster strikes, it’s the faith community that takes the lead ... thank you for not only doing your regular work [during the pandemic], but for stepping up and going the extra mile,” said Debra Williams, Building Resilient Communities founder and CEO.
During the pandemic, the Diocese worked closely with public health departments in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, hosting scores of COVID testing sites, and later vaccination clinics at parishes. Fr. Gomez, Pastor of Our Lady of Soledad, Coachella, and Fr. Valdovinos, who was Pastor of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mecca, before he died of COVID in 2021, were key figures within that diocesan impact, as was Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocesan Office of Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC).
“The Diocese was a crucial part of the equity work during the COVID-19 pandemic response,” said Salomeh Wagaw, Program Director of Health Equity at Riverside University Health System (RUHS) Public Health.
“A partnership between RUHS Public Health and the Diocese of San Bernardino was a vital part of serving the Roman Catholic community, the Latinx population, as well as the agricultural, migrant and hard-to-reach communities, more specifically but not limited to in the eastern the Coachella Valley. Parish locations were trusted spaces, and the leaders were trusted messengers for the community,” she added.
With information changing rapidly, and misinformation spreading even more rapidly during this time, these spaces provided people to not only get tested or vaccinated but also to get educated on best practices for preventing and battling COVID. “This model was effective and necessary for saving lives, and the continuation and evolution of the partnership has allowed for ongoing efforts to address health disparities, inequities and injustices faced by the community,” Wagaw said.
Wagaw called the late Fr. Valdovinos a “trailblazer” for his work in ensuring his community, who often didn’t have access to media and technology, received information, medical care and necessities. He encouraged vaccinations and started a food pantry at his parish, volunteering there himself. His death of COVID in January 2021 sent the community into grief, and spurred many to get vaccinated.
“[Fr. Valdovinos] was truly one of the first people to say, ‘Let’s open the doors. Let’s get everyone tested and vaccinated in a safe space, where we can give them information in the language they’re comfortable in, with all the resources they need. His work will always be remembered, and thank you (Fr. Gomez) for continuing that legacy and continuing that work,” added Wagaw.
Vicar General Monsignor Gerard Lopez, who accepted the award on behalf of Fr. Valdovinos, compared the priest’s death to the sacrificial love of Jesus. “He was a wonderful priest, a good minister, and did everything that he could for the people. He even shared in the sickness and death that claimed so many of the people out there. Like Jesus, he was willing to give up his life for the people, especially for people that have very little,” he said.
Fr. Gomez said that Fr. Valdovinos gives us an example of service and suffering, and inspires us to follow in his footsteps. “When we celebrated his funeral, we took his mission cross. We held it up to the people and said, ‘Who? Who’s going to take up this cross? We’re going to take up this cross,” he said. “It’s a cross that says, this is how much I have loved you. Please love one another.”
Below is the full list of Building Resilient Communities’ Faith Leader of the Year honorees for this year.
Honorees nominated by Riverside University Health Systems (RUHS) Public Health: The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino; Fr. Francisco Gomez, S.T.; Fr. Francisco Valdovinos, S.T.; Islamic Society of Corona-Norco; Islamic Center of Riverside; Sikh Gurdwara Riverside
Honorees nominated by Building Resilient Communities: Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches; Reverend Dr. Joshua Beckley from Ecclesia Christian Fellowship, San Bernardino; Dr. Reginald Woods from Life Changing Ministries; Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement; Bishop L Kirk Sykes and Pastor Karen Sykes from CrossWord Christian Fellowship, Moreno Valley; Pastor Martin Porter from Quinn AME Church, Moreno Valley; Bishop Ron Gibson from Life Church of God in Christ, Jurupa Valley; Pastor Harold K. Webber from Living Way Christian Fellowship, Moreno Valley
Honorees nominated by San Bernardino County Department of Public Health: Pastor Algier Johann Ravelo from Inland Empire Filipino Seventh-day Adventist Church, Redlands; Pastor Steven Shephard from St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, San Bernardino