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Commentary on local issues, viewpoints of residents and community leaders, and letters. : Olivares Was a Beacon of Hope, Refuge

April 04, 1993|JAVIER RODRIGUEZ H.

Father Luis Olivares, pastor of Downtown's La Placita Church, Our Lady Queen of Angels, died March 18 of AIDS. He was 59. Javier Rodriguez H. is an activist and member of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild.


The first time I heard Father Luis Olivares speak was at Cal State L.A., at a 1980 political conference for Latinos. He caught my attention immediately. He was forceful, articulate and had an air of leadership. He did not sound like an apologist for the Catholic Church. Listening to him was refreshing.

Many of us who participated in the civil rights movement for Chicanos did not trust the church or its leaders. With few exceptions, the church was not with us during the student strikes of the '60s, the Chicano anti-war movement or in the struggle against police brutality in our barrios after the 1970 death of newspaperman Ruben Salazar.

Because of the church's conservative stance against our efforts to open the doors of equality, Catolicos por la Raza (Catholics for the People) was born in 1969. Led by law students Miguel Garcia and Ricardo Cruz, this organization denounced the Catholic Church as not being for the poor and oppressed, but rather defended the status quo and itself practiced racism against Mexicans in the United States.

The organization gained prominence on Christmas Eve 1969, when more than 100 followers entered the Cathedral of St. Basil in the Wilshire district and battled police officers dressed as ushers, disrupting the nationally televised midnight Mass of Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the principal spokesman for the church.

That movement and the incipient theology of liberation for Latin America influenced a new crop of Mexican activist priests and nuns who filtered into the struggles of justice for La Raza.

Father Olivares fit that mold.

As his stature developed in Los Angeles, he took risks as he took up causes that disturbed the halls of power in the church and in the government. From the United Farm Workers and the United Neighborhood Organization to the refugee camps of El Salvador, he was there.

As the new wave of immigrant-rights activism began in 1982, he gave shelter to the newly formed Coalition for Visas and Rights for the Undocumented at Our Lady of Soledad Church in East Los Angeles.

Two years later he marched with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actor-activist Martin Sheen, civil rights attorney Antonio Rodriguez and thousands of others in a Downtown march

against the Simpson-Rodino immigration reform bill.

Olivares, like Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, met the Jesuits about 1986. He joined them in founding Los Angeles' Proyecto Pastoral, a think tank and political center in support of Mexican immigrants and Central American refugees. With the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the center concluded that the teachings of Jesus would best be served by protecting and empowering those left out in the cold as "illegal aliens" and homeless. This was the height of neo-liberalism in the United States--and the anti-people policies of Ronald Reagan had taken hold in society.

Our Lady Queen of Angels in Downtown and Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights had been declared sanctuaries. Every month, thousands of immigrants and refugees were fed and housed in the two churches. Father Olivares and the Jesuits called on other churches to join them in giving immigrants shelter, food and protection.

This act of defiance brought upon them the wrath of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its regional commissioner, Harold Ezell, who threatened to raid the churches. The city witnessed the standoff, and the church hierarchy's attempt to stop the rebellion in its ranks. The priests held steadfast; Ezell never carried out his threat.

Three years later, unlike many Latino politicians, Father Olivares joined the struggle for democracy in Mexico and sat with Mexican opposition leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas at a breakfast in East Los Angeles for human rights.

During his tenure, the church thrived with activism. Masses were sprinkled with a vibrant gospel that called for a kingdom on this Earth as well as in heaven. Since his departure and the dismantling of his work, the church has once again become a museum of quaint history.

Long live Father Olivares.

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