US Catholic Faith in Real Life

As the nation debates immigration, a DACA priest’s future remains uncertain

For Father Rey Pineda, the current U.S. battles over immigration are personal.

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In late June, Father Rey Pineda began his fifth year as a priest. A few days later, he started his third assignment as chaplain of St. Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta. The summer was filled with the details of beginning a new job: figuring out the commute, learning his new schedule, and organizing his office. In between all these tasks, he served as chaplain at a summer camp and, as a passionate soccer fan, found a bit of time for the World Cup, disciplining himself to stay off Twitter so he wouldn’t get sidetracked engaging with followers. And of course, like much of the country and the world, he spent his summer watching, horrified, as news unfolded of children and parents separated at the southern border of the United States.

As a Catholic priest, Father Pineda hurts for those families. But it’s personal, too. He came to the United States as a child and is now one of nearly 700,000 beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that has allowed people who immigrated to the United States as children and grew up here to remain and work in the country legally. He knows firsthand what it’s like to be a child, and an immigrant, looking for a better life.

“My heart just, it breaks for the children, for the parents, for what it means to every single person who would find themselves in the same situation that my parents found themselves in,” he says.

And now the program that has given him a chance to stay in the country where he’s spent nearly his entire life is under threat.

Across political lines 

In July 2016 Father Pineda was just beginning his second assignment as a priest at Atlanta’s Cathedral of Christ the King, where he served for two years. It was a homecoming, in a way; after moving to Atlanta at 6 years old, Cathedral of Christ the King was the first church his family attended.

It was also a fraught time, a few months before the presidential election, with campaign season in full-swing. During the presidential campaign then-candidate Donald Trump had been vocal about his thoughts on immigrants—Mexicans, like the Pinedas, in particular—as well as the policies he would implement, focusing heavily on the idea of building a wall and detaining, then deporting, anyone attempting to cross the border illegally. He also announced that he’d “immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties,” referencing DACA. 

Despite his fears for himself, for his family, and for many of his friends, Father Pineda focused his homilies on moving past political lines and uniting in the love of God and diligently avoided preaching about politics.

“That was difficult because I wanted to preach politically,” he says. “I was just getting here, and I couldn’t lead with that.”

In January 2017 President Trump took office; in September Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration was rescinding DACA. Suddenly, Father Pineda was back in a state of uncertainty. For many of his parishioners, it was the first time someone they knew was affected and the first time they realized their priest was undocumented. They reached out to him with empathy and compassion.

“Because there was already a relationship there, I think it affected people who would otherwise just dismiss it,” he says.

Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta

Undoubtedly, Father Pineda’s presence and situation have impacted parishioners who know him. Father Brian Higgins is Pineda’s close friend and former vocational director. He presides over a rural parish of about 400 people. Father Pineda spent time there during seminary; he still visits regularly and is loved by the congregation.

“I can speak for my parishioners, I see a big shift because of Father Pineda and their relationship with him,” Higgins says.

Father Higgins also believes that Father Pineda’s experience has given him wisdom and empathy that allows him to relate to his parishioners.

“It’s easier for him to relate to people who are struggling in other areas of their life,” he says. “He’s able to really empathize with how they’re feeling and kind of reach out and then use his own situation in life, as well as his faith, to show them how they can balance what seems to be bad.” 

A miracle

It was 1990, and Teresa Avellaneda and her husband, Rey Pineda Sr., lived in a tiny town in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Guerrero borders the Pacific Ocean and is likely best known for its heaving resort city, Acapulco, but Teresa and Rey’s town is tucked inland, in a flat valley at the bottom of a steep mountain road. Las Mesas de Pineda, named after Rey’s family, is where Rey had always lived and where the couple planned to raise their own children.

“It’s a simple life, and that is what it was supposed to be: simple and beautiful,” says Father Pineda.

Father Pineda as a small child pretending to read. Courtesy of Rey Pineda.

Father Pineda was 2 years old, and Teresa was feeling the telltale symptoms of another pregnancy. When villagers needed anything they couldn’t grow or make themselves, they’d hitch a ride with the local public transport, a pickup truck, through the mountainside to the next, slightly bigger, town. This day, Teresa planned to visit the doctor for confirmation of her pregnancy. Villagers usually loaded into the back of the pickup, but Teresa’s likely pregnancy meant she and her toddler sat in the cab. Her 12-year-old sister-in-law climbed into the back. It’s through her, Father Pineda’s aunt, that the Pinedas know what happened next, since Teresa can’t recall it herself.

The truck drove up through the mountainside, then started to lose control. Passengers jumped off the back to save themselves as it took a final turn and launched Teresa and tiny Rey from the cab. Rey’s head was wounded, though not badly, but Teresa suffered a brain injury that put her in a coma.

This was on a remote road between two remote towns, and the truck from which Teresa and her son had just been thrown came through once a week. But shortly after, another vehicle appeared. Teresa was put in that car, and then a helicopter, and then taken to an Acapulco hospital. Her husband received the crushing news: Though his son was safe, Teresa wasn’t pregnant after all, and the prognosis for her life was bleak.

The doctors were clear that without money, they couldn’t treat her. If she woke up they would release her, and she would likely die soon after. One of the doctors knew of someone who would treat Teresa but that doctor was in the United States. So Rey Sr. waited, and he planned, and his town joined together to raise as much money as they could to help save this young mother. When Teresa woke up a few months later, Rey Sr. took his family, his wife still wrapped in bandages, and crossed the border into California.

“When I hear the story it just reminds me of how much was at risk; that there were better odds of us surviving if we went through that trip, that journey, through the desert, with my mom in bandages and me still recovering, than staying there, in that town, with no access to any kind of support,” says Father Pineda. “It was a moment that really changed the course of our life.” 

Undocumented life

From before the Pinedas set foot in the United States, public sentiment and laws around immigration had been shifting. Within a few years of their arrival, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act boosted the number of border patrol agents and increased the punishments for people immigrating illegally, as well as speeded up the deportation procedures. Immigrants like the Pinedas felt the daily stress of living in a place where they were considered illegal. From the time Father Pineda was small, he understood the implications of being undocumented.

In California Teresa’s recovery had been incredible. Not only did she regain her health completely, contrary to the doctor’s initial prognosis, she also gave birth to two more babies. But it was hard for the couple to find enough work in California, and criminal activity in Las Mesas de Pineda meant it was unsafe to return. When Rey’s sister came to visit from Atlanta and told them that the Olympics meant plenty of work there, they decided to move.

Father Rey Pineda and his family. Courtesy of Rey Pineda.

In Atlanta Father Pineda’s family found an apartment in a heavily immigrant neighborhood. It wasn’t a good neighborhood by any normal definition: Father Pineda remembers that tenants were taken advantage of and the conditions were poor but also says some of his best memories of childhood come from his family’s time there. The complex had a central courtyard where Rey and his younger sister, Lisbeth Pineda-Cruz, would play tag, baseball, and marbles. There was a joke they both remember from growing up. Someone would yell la migra, Spanish for “border patrol,” and the kids would scatter, laughing. Once, when Lisbeth was around 5 and still too young to understand the joke, a police officer pulled into the complex. Her cousin shouted to run, and Lisbeth panicked and took off, tripping over her sandals and peeling the skin off of her knee. Inside, her father comforted his crying, bleeding daughter and asked her why she ran. She explained that she’d run because she knew she wasn’t from there.

“My 5-year-old mentality was I’m not from here, I’m from California,” Lisbeth laughs.

Despite her misunderstanding, she knew there was reason to be scared.

“I just kind of heard the rumors ‘oh immigration’s after us,’ ” she says. “I knew there was some sort of flagging toward us Hispanics, Latinos, but I wasn’t sure exactly what.”

Father Pineda remembers the game as a joke, but he knew beneath it was something serious.

“It only caused us fear when our parents themselves would get stressed out about it,” he says. “You were comfortable enough in it because you were surrounded with people who were just like you, but there were definitely moments where you realized the implications of it, even as a child.”

As the oldest he had a bit more responsibility. He knew that there was always a chance his parents’ workplace might be raided and he and his siblings would come home to wait for parents who would never arrive.

“We had to know, ‘OK if that happens, you go to this person’s house, or you grab this bag and you go here, or somebody else knows to come and get you,’ things like that. There was a plan that we had to know,” he says.

A sanctuary

Growing up with this stress, church became a sanctuary. First, when Father Pineda’s parents had to work, his aunt took the family to Sunday Mass at Cathedral of Christ the King—the same parish he would go on to serve as a priest. The sisters became a large part of his life, spending time at the family’s home.

“These sisters were the ones who were making Christ present in our own home, and it was a beautiful gift because I remember being very comfortable with the church at that time and being very aware of what God was doing,” he says.

When he was 11, the Pinedas moved to the suburbs of northeast Atlanta. At face value, the neighborhood was safer, but there were fewer immigrants there, and that meant keeping a lower profile, no longer joking around about their immigration status.

“At that point there was truly a separation between the church and the rest of my life,” he says. “At the parish you were just one of everyone else, you didn’t have to worry about your status.”

When he was only 15, Father Pineda told Lisbeth that he wanted to be a priest. For his vocational director, Father Higgins, it was a risk to begin to work with someone so young, but he saw something special in Rey. Despite the support within the church, there was a hurdle. Father Pineda knew that without a Social Security number he wouldn’t be able to attend college, but when he discovered that he couldn’t become ordained as a priest without documentation, he was stunned and heartbroken. 

“That was a tough realization because I thought it’s the church, they’re not concerned about that, that’s not going to matter because I’m trying to serve God,” he says.

Once again, God provided the answers to his prayers: Pineda attended Southern Catholic College, a school that made a point to welcome students regardless of their documentation, and majored in philosophy. From there, he moved to Illinois to attend Mundelein Seminary. But in the summer before his third year of seminary, he was running out of time.

“There was so much prayer going on that summer, and so much work being done by activists all over the country,” Pineda says.

And then those prayers were answered. In June 2012, President Barack Obama announced DACA. With the stroke of a pen people like Father Pineda were able to apply for work permits and know that they wouldn’t be targeted for deportation.

“Here’s this wall again and this time there really isn’t a way around it, or over it, or under it, or through it, it’s just there. And then all of a sudden God punches through it,” Pineda says, laughing. “It was amazing. When DACA was announced, it was like gasping for air for the first time in a long time.”

Father Pineda and some of his friends at their seminary graduation. Courtesy of Rey Pineda.

An uncertain future

Over six years later, Pineda is holding his breath again. Immigration is a hot-button issue among a slew of hot-button issues, and his own future in the country is uncertain.

Father Pineda submitted his documents for renewal months ahead of schedule, and in late June, as days ticked by with no news, the government debated two immigration bills that would decide the future of immigrants in his position—and those in far more precarious positions, too. The so-called “compromise bill,” drafted as a middle ground for a more conservative bill, would have allowed DACA recipients like Father Pineda to keep legal status and potentially a chance to become citizens. But it also would have made it harder to seek asylum and meant that families could continue to be held at the border, indefinitely.

In the lead-up to the vote, Father Pineda was pensive. The bill might have saved him and other childhood arrivals, but he resisted being a pawn, unwilling to hope for his own salvation in exchange for the suffering of so many others. 

The bill failed, and for now all Father Pineda can do is wait and pray for the next round of votes, for his own papers, and for news from friends and family in similar situations. Lately, he has turned to 1 John 4:10 for understanding and comfort: “This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

“Hope itself is not going to be everlasting,” says Father Pineda. “There’s going to be a point where there’s not going to be a need for hope, one day in heaven hopefully; but love is the eternal thing.”

This article also appears in the October 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 10, pages 18–22).

Image: Father Pineda with the altar servers at Cathedral of Christ the King. Courtesy of Rey Pineda.

Published: 
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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