Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Catholic Church To Central Washington Congregants: 'Love The Undocumented'

Anna King
Northwest News Network
Enrique Acevedo, 18, of Prosser, Washington, takes a selfie with Bishop Joseph Tyson is the head of the Diocese of Yakima after a church program.

A Catholic bishop is preaching a message that’s tough for some of his white parishioners to hear: that they have to love their undocumented immigrant neighbors.

Bishop Joseph Tyson is the head of the Diocese of Yakima that stretches across seven counties in central Washington. He said more than 70 percent of Catholic churchgoers there are Latino. Among the adults, he said most are undocumented.

And he’s telling everyone the bottom line in central Washington.

“If you want to protect the unborn -- you have to walk through the doors of the undocumented,” Tyson said.

Changing the pro-life culture

Seventy people recently gathered at Blessed Sacrament in Grandview, Washington, as part of a tour Bishop Tyson is doing. He’s already spoken to crowds in Richland, Yakima, Moses Lake, Ellensburg and East Wenatchee.

That night there were seven round tables of Latinos -- and one table of all white people at the back.

“Here, central Washington is a pretty pro-life environment,” Tyson said.

He then explained a change he wants to see in that pro-life culture. He started by pointing out a statistic.

“Most of our pregnancies are on the Spanish side,” he said.

Tyson said 80 to 90 percent of Catholic babies baptized in Central Washington are Latino. Then he said pro-life volunteers in his diocese have been successful in helping women have those babies, but that most of the families they’re helping have some undocumented members.

And here’s his punchline: all Catholics have the responsibility to help those babies and their families.

“I know in the national debate that’s like two different moral universes -- red issue, blue issue,” Tyson said. “But here in central Washington we live a different reality.”

‘Teaching in a distracted classroom’

In central Washington, that reality includes fear of immigration raids and deportation. Tyson said those fears and what he calls “racist rhetoric” undermine the Catholic pro-life mission.

After the bishop’s talk, snacks are served. The Latinos stayed for fellowship, but the whites hit the doors.

Sitting in a wooden pew in the back of the auditorium, Bishop Tyson looked over the remaining people.

“We’re teaching about God in a distracted classroom right now,” he said. “That might be a way of looking at it.”

And he said white people in his parishes often don’t ask questions during his talks. They write emails afterwards.

“The push back is usually underground,” Tyson said. “Some of it can be pretty severe. Where I can think, ‘Glad you didn’t say this, you know, it’s better we’re doing this offline.’”

They say things like “they should be afraid” and “go back to Mexico with the rest of them.”

Stephanie Dahl went to Tyson’s talk in Richland. She was into it, but as a white person in a mostly white crowd, she said her agreement with the bishop put her in the minority.

“I felt the need to nod my head a lot to convey my agreement and understanding with the bishop,” Dahl said. “There were a lot of still faces and not a lot of other head nods happening around the table and around the room.”

Maria Perez feels the divide at Blessed Sacrament in Grandview. Some whites in her parish always say hi, others, she said, “they just pass me by like I’m nothing.”

A changing script

Bishop Tyson told his Grandview Latino followers it can be hard to face racist or unfriendly white people. But it’s God’s work.

He also told them that in central Washington, things have changed so much that sometimes white people can feel like outsiders.

So, Tyson says Latinos in central Washington need to flip the script of a Catholic story that goes back centuries.

“So English speakers, the Spanish speakers are going to be learning how can they be better missionaries to you in [the] north.”

He said opening doors and hearts will take love. And it may take some steamy posole.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.