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Raymundo Chávez Vázquez sticks a finger under the collar of his neatly pressed white, button-down shirt, giving himself a little fresh air. He rarely wears his priestly collar anymore. "It restricts my throat," he says in a scratchy baritone. "Sometimes I feel like I can't breathe with it on." With his goatee, wavy jet-black hair and rugged face, 38-year-old Father Raymundo looks like a dead ringer for Desperate Housewives bad boy Ricardo Antonio Chavira.
But he's a Mexican Catholic priest, committed to his church's social teaching that immigration is a universal human right. He believes that the church has a moral duty to protect immigrants, regardless of their legal status. "We try to help all people," he says. "Even if you're illegal and not Catholic, we should help. It's not a religious matter, it's a matter of justice. Making it a crime to help an immigrant goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ, who said we have to welcome the foreigner into our midst."
Two years ago, when the bishop of the Austin Diocese, Gregory Aymond, was looking around for a new parish priest to take over a scandal-ridden church, he knew he had a rare treasure in Father Raymundo. The young Mexican was handsome, charismatic, intelligent and dedicated.
Sure, there were potential problems. Father Raymundo's English was almost nonexistent. Unlike most immigrant priests, he had a tendency to speak openly about polemical topics such as homosexuality, war and, above all, immigration. Bishop Aymond shrugged off these concerns. "Sometimes all of us who are holding up the gospel message are construed as being too political," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "Jesus was political. He read the signs of the times and spoke the message of truth to the current situation. All of us as priests must do the same."
So where did the bishop send this talented pastor? Right into the heart of Aggieland — Bryan, Texas, to be exact. The activist priest landed in a Mexican-American parish called Santa Teresa, where his support for the church's social gospel rankled some members. At the time, the church was dominated by Mexican-American Tejanos, many of whom were three or four generations removed from the old country and had fully assimilated into mainstream life in the Brazos Valley. Many of these folks spoke little Spanish and found it hard to relate to a Mexican activist priest.
Santa Teresa had other problems as well. The church was reeling from a corruption scandal involving the former parish priest, Victor Robles, who is now serving time in prison for embezzling more than $110,000. "When I got here, the church was in pain," Father Raymundo says. "And it was gathering dust."
Almost as soon as he arrived at Santa Teresa, Father Raymundo set about reviving the church's Mexican roots. He drove down to his hometown in central Mexico in a pickup truck and returned with hand-crafted religious iconography, much of it made by indigenous artisans. He threw open Santa Teresa's doors to the latest — and largest — wave of immigrants, poultry plant and construction workers who felt welcome for the first time. He sent out lay missionaries to knock on doors and invite people to church.
Only six weeks into his tenure as parish priest in 2005, Father Raymundo met with a church member named Angelita García Alonzo. García Alonzo is a community gadfly, a devout Catholic whose liberal views often clashed with those of previous priests at Santa Teresa. At the time, she was trying to organize a protest of a speech on the Texas A&M campus by Samuel Huntington, a Harvard-trained scholar whose new book claimed that the very identity of Protestant America was threatened by the newest wave of Hispanic immigrants.
Huntington had been invited by a group of distinguished scholars at A&M to give a talk at the George Bush Presidential Library. A few faculty members were outraged but, as usual, García Alonzo had trouble getting a protest off the ground.
"When I told Father about it, he got mad," Alonzo says. "We showed him Huntington's literature and he decided to join the protest."
There was little time to mobilize, but Father Raymundo announced the protest at mass on Sunday. García Alonzo asked if they could carry the church's banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a sign of Hispanic pride. He said yes.
Father Raymundo claims that it wasn't a hard decision to join the protest, but it came at a difficult time. Not only was he struggling to learn a new language, he was also trying to strike a delicate balance between pleasing the longtime Tejano parishioners and ministering to the hundreds of immigrants who had started coming to his Spanish masses from all over the Brazos Valley.
Together with a few other church members, Father Raymundo caravanned over to the Bush Library and joined forces with a smattering of faculty members and students from Texas A&M. García Alonzo says that most Latino community leaders from the Hispanic Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens "were reluctant to join."