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Church Leaders in O.C. Grapple With Prop. 187 : Religion: They oppose the measure, but pastors delivering message may alienate some in congregations.

PROP. 187. Illegal immigrants would not receive basic health, education and welfare benefits.

October 03, 1994|DOREEN CARVAJAL and GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FULLERTON — Just a few days shy of a Sunday Mass at St. Mary's, the pastor is seething with a quiet indignation more often reserved for mortal sin than a ballot measure.

"I won't be mincin' words on this one," vowed Father Richard C. Kennedy in the lilting accent of his native Ireland. "I haven't worked out what I'll say, but I'm going to make it clear. Proposition 187 is immoral. . . . This thing is completely Godless."

But by the weekend, Kennedy was not ready to deliver his message. He needed more time to reflect and consult with other priests on the perils of staking out a position on the initiative, which would ban most public benefits for illegal immigrants, including education and basic health care.

From pulpits across California, clergy members are suddenly wrestling with political strategy instead of conventional demons. The top leadership of all the state's major religious denominations has attacked Proposition 187, calling for compassion while invoking the Bible: "Welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it."

Yet it is the foot soldiers--the priests, ministers, rabbis, and nuns--who are delicately trying to deliver the anti-187 message in a fashion that will persuade rather than alienate. The political reality is that members of their congregations feel like most of the state's voters: rightly or wrongly they blame immigrants for many of the state's problems and support the initiative.

Using the Bible to prick the consciences of church members, a broad coalition of 60 religious organizations has launched a frantic campaign to woo them with homilies and house parties, candlelight vigils and forums, Sunday sermons and appeals for compassion from top religious leaders.

The appeals have grown even more passionate as the leaders have warily noted the popularity of the measure in recent polls.

"The church needs to be heard on this in public more often. We've got to define the issue," said the Rev. Chester Talton, the suffragan bishop of the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Talton is especially concerned about provisions that cut health and education services to children. "Jesus calls on us to care for the child and as we care for the child we care for Jesus himself," Talton said.

Shunning this broad coalition are fundamentalist ministers like the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition based in Orange County. He said ministers supporting the initiative do not need to organize because "it's not considered part of the core doctrine."

Sheldon publicly supports the crackdown on illegal immigrants, remaining resolutely unmoved by religious appeals to "welcome the stranger."

"Illegal strangers are different than a passing-through stranger who needs a night's lodging, food and clothing," explained Sheldon.

Noted the preacher: Biblical teachings do not address "illegal strangers."

*

With the sweet strains of the children's Angelic Choir in the background, Gardena pastor Jose Luis Torres nervously prepared to face the church leadership at a business meeting of the Pacific Presbytery last month.

While the children swayed in white robes to a chorus of "Somebody Bigger Than You and I," Torres was gathering strength from the Bible.

He had been privately warned by some church leaders about the potential for backlash within his own religious community if he forced his fellow pastors to take a position against the controversial immigration measure before they were ready.

Just a week earlier, smaller sub-groups of the San Gabriel Valley Presbyterian ministers took a bold stand against the measure, but Orange County's pastors considered the issue too politically hot to handle and refused to allow discussion.

Torres, a native of Puerto Rico, insisted on forging ahead. He reminded the church leaders that the Bible bars Christians from oppressing "strangers in our midst." He warned that the ballot measure will invite discrimination against Latinos. Wearily, he confessed, "I am tired. I'm tired of fighting and fighting and fighting."

Then Torres waited, watching in amazement as most of the church leaders--representing 52 congregations from Malibu to San Pedro--bolted to their feet from the pews to signal their opposition to the ballot measure.

The voting at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in central Los Angeles that September afternoon also reflected the schism facing many churches. Rev. Mark Nazarian, the pastor at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Redondo Beach, stood to oppose the measure, while his two church elders didn't budge.

"The church should not be debating political issues," St. Andrew's elder Dick Olson, 61, said matter-of-factly.

Nazarian was mindful of the complaint; his vote that day was his first public expression against the measure and probably his last. He will deliver no sermon railing against Proposition 187.

By longstanding custom, Nazarian said, he tries to "stay away" from politics.

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