ONE HUMAN FAMILY Bishop Barnes’ Episcopacy has been marked by tireless advocacy for immigrant families. LEFT: Bishop Barnes visits with asylum seekers at St. Joseph Parish, Fontana in 2014. RIGHT: Bishop Barnes listens to six-year-old Sophie Cruz, who offered testimony at the 2016 Diocesan Migration Mass about the threat of being separated from her parents.
By Anneliese Esparza
Welcoming and accompaniment. Those are the core principles behind the Diocese’s commitment to minister to immigrants, which began under the leadership of Bishop Gerald Barnes.
Bishop Barnes’ impact as an advocate for migrants was felt at the national level when he was elected chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration and Refugee Services in 2004. His role as chairman included lobbying of federal lawmakers with the goal of achieving comprehensive immigration reform.
In 2017, Bishop Barnes showed his support for migrants by joining five other U.S. bishops to participate in a Papal Mass along the Texas-Mexico border.
Speaking at the time, Bishop Barnes said he was reminded of the immigration crisis’ impact on many families in the Diocese of San Bernardino. “It was very emotional,” he said. “I felt like I was carrying a lot of our people who couldn’t go.”
Closer to home, Bishop Barnes showed his commitment by creating a full-time staff position to minister to immigrants, the Justice for Immigrants Campaign Coordinator. Further, in 2016, the Diocese and Catholic Charities opened the Santo Toribio Immigration Center in Palm Springs to give assistance to undocumented immigrants. During his remarks at the blessing of the new center, Bishop Barnes said that people of faith cannot succumb to a “culture of indifference” to the plight of migrants.
It was also under Bishop Barnes’ tenure that Operation Bienvenida began, a designated ministry to those seeking political asylum in the U.S.
Operation Bienvenida, which means Operation Welcome, began in 2014, when the Diocese agreed to work with federal immigration officials to temporarily receive asylum seekers who were coming mostly from Central America. In July of 2014, St. Joseph Parish in Fontana, with assistance from the Diocese and Catholic Charities, provided nearly 50 migrants with food, clothing and shelter, and helped them make arrangements to travel to their relatives in the United States.
The ministry expanded to a much larger undertaking a few years later, when it operated from fall 2018 to fall 2019 in three locations in the Coachella Valley and San Bernardino: the Valley Missionary Program at Our Lady of Soledad Parish in Coachella, the Galilee Center in Mecca and Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in San Bernardino. During this second iteration, Operation Bienvenida welcomed and assisted around 5,000 asylum seekers.
Bishop Barnes says that he saw this ministry to migrants as a crucial component to the Diocese’s commitment to hospitality, which is one of its four core values.
“This Diocese, like our faith, believes in bienvenida, or welcoming. We welcome people. We accompany them, and in time, they will accompany somebody else. And Operation Bienvenida is an accompaniment of these brothers and sisters that are coming here, for whatever reason, and we don’t ask those questions. We just let them know that they are a brother or sister,” said Bishop Barnes.
As the grandson of immigrants, Bishop Barnes feels strongly about the importance of this ministry. “Throughout my life experience, I’ve seen that immigrants, or people of color, are treated differently. I’ve experienced that myself. And the Church at some times has given in to that, or it also failed at times to give the immigrant and/or the person of color their rightful place. That is totally against the Gospel. And that’s why I’m passionate about it,” said Bishop Barnes.
Deacon Luis Sanchez, who coordinated Operation Bienvenida in 2014 and co-coordinated it with Sister Hortensia Del Villar, SAC, in 2018-2019, said that Bishop Barnes showed his leadership and support for Operation Bienvenida in various ways, including visiting with the asylum seekers and encouraging department directors to send employees to help with the ministry if needed.
“There’s one thing that I remember from Bishop Barnes that will stick with me forever. We had a meeting, and the question was, what are we going to do if none of our parishes will take them? Where will we put them? And I remember Bishop Barnes, with no hesitation, said, ‘Here [at the Diocesan Pastoral Center]. And then somebody said, but what about the classes? And Bishop Barnes said, ‘We suspend them,’ ” said Deacon Sanchez, who is now Director of the Department of Ecclesial Services.
Operation Bienvenida brought together an assortment of volunteers, including laypeople, deacons, priests and religious, both local to the area and from other parts of the Diocese and of the country. Bishop Barnes saw that wide array of volunteers as inspiring. “In spite of some of the negative rhetoric and threats that were going around, I saw people coming out wanting to help these people ... and it brought a lot of people together again,” he said.
Today, Operation Bienvenida continues, but it has now shifted from being directly overseen by the Diocese to being a program within the Galilee Center, which is a nonprofit organization that provides food and clothing for disadvantaged families in the Coachella Valley. The Diocese remains very involved in assisting the ministry.
Bishop Barnes said that the reason many, including some Catholics, view immigrants with suspicion is because of “fear and ignorance.”
“There’s always this fear, this suspicion, of the person that is ‘other,’ because of language or race or physical features ... There’s a tendency to see the foreigner as not equal to in abilities and understanding,” said Bishop Barnes. “There’s also a tendency in all of us to blame somebody else for whatever problem we have. We don’t look at ourselves, we find a scapegoat.”
Bishop Barnes added that immigrants have given “great gifts” to our country. He urges the Church to meet immigrants with welcome and accompaniment rather than fear and ignorance.
“The Church has to be at the forefront of this [issue of migration]. It has to be, because of our Catholic beliefs ... Our life as Catholics tells us, we must treat them with dignity and equality,” said Bishop Barnes. “The Church has to be strong in living the Gospel.”