SAN BERNARDINO — Sister Rosa Martha Zarate had been stripped of her duties as coordinator of community programs for the San Bernardino Diocese and was considering taking legal action when she wrote a letter to the Vatican in June, 1986.
"I wrote that I was desperate, that I may file a lawsuit and that I knew there would be consequences," recalled Zarate, 46, who belongs to a religious community based in Guadalajara called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. "I also wrote that I wouldn't run away."
The Vatican's response was disheartening to her.
"Rome said I should look at this in the light of the Gospel," Zarate said, "and that I should return to my religious community in Mexico."
'That Did It'
Instead, she negotiated a one-year contract to work at a local church. But when she reported for work a year ago, Zarate claims that she was denied entry and was told "there is no contract."
"That did it," said Zarate, a small, dark woman who wears her hair in a waist-length braid and plays an old guitar autographed by Cesar Chavez.
Two weeks ago, Zarate filed a $1.5-million lawsuit in San Bernardino County Superior Court against the diocese and three church officials, including Bishop Phillip F. Straling. The suit claims wrongful termination, defamation, employment discrimination based on sex, fraud and "intentional infliction of emotional stress."
"I am not looking for revenge or money," Zarate said. "I just want my position back . . . and to stop women in the church from being treated as second-class citizens."
Zarate and her supporters believe that her problems with the diocese are rooted in her admittedly confrontational personality, her controversial "liberation theology" and what they see as a tradition of discrimination against women in the church.
Liberation theology takes a political activist's view of the church's role in achieving social justice for the poor. It has been particularly controversial in the Latin American church, where some conservative bishops have suggested that the movement's real objective is to inject a class-struggle analysis of society into Christian gospel.
Zarate acknowledged that her work with the poor sometimes blurs distinctions between religion and politics.
Ministered to Poor
"From the beginning I ministered to my people--Spanish-speaking people and the poor," she said. In the course of that work, "I have participated with Cesar Chavez in farm workers' strikes."
But Father Patricio Guillen, who worked with Zarate and also lost his job at the San Bernardino Diocese's community program, denied that their ministry was based on Marxist philosophy.
"Our ministry is based on an empowerment of the people . . . showing them how economic, social and religious dimensions are intertwined," Guillen said. "Their way is based on a paternalistic way of dealing with people."
In the lawsuit, Zarate claims that Bishop Straling and a small group of priests felt "threatened" by her "non-traditional approach of taking the church to the people" and "systematically spread lies and unfounded rumors" about her theology and ideology.
The suit accuses Father Joseph Pawlicki and Father John Connor, both associated with the Valley Missionary Program in Indio, of labeling her a Marxist and communist.
The defendants, the suit added, "have historically and traditionally discriminated against women within the confines of the employer and employee relationship."
Zarate vehemently denied that she is a Marxist.
"I never taught Marx," said Zarate, fighting back tears. "I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. But I also believe in the reality of my people--they have a right to an education, they need jobs and they are discriminated against."
Straling was out of town and could not be reached, and Connor declined to comment on Zarate's allegations because he had not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit. In a telephone interview, Pawlicki said he could not recall calling Zarate a Marxist.
'Strong Tint of Marxism'
"She is going to have to prove that we did that, and I don't believe she can," Pawlicki said. He added, however, "she admits that she was involved in liberation theology . . . and there is a strong tint of Marxism in liberation theology."
Zarate said she has suffered for her actions. Among other things, she said church officials in December severed her annual salary of $13,000. Facing personal debts and attorney's fees totaling $22,000, she lives with relatives in Colton and receives small donations from friends and supporters.
Beyond that, Zarate said, she finds solace in the "personal prayer songs" she writes and sings in Spanish.
Zarate came to this country in 1966 on orders from her religious community in Mexico to minister to the poor and people of Mexican descent. Over the next 12 years, she helped establish a convent in San Ysidro and worked for the San Diego Diocese, developing community groups in Latino neighborhoods.