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In Atlanta, a 'dreamer' priest faces deportation - and a divided congregation

By: Julie Zauzmer The Washington Post
January 25, 2018 Updated: January 25, 2018 at 3:54 pm
Caption +
The Rev. Rey Pineda celebrates Mass at Misión Católica de Cristo Rey in Atlanta on Jan. 14, 1028, as Congress tries to work out a deal regarding the fate of Pineda and hundreds of thousands of "dreamers" like him. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Michael A. Schwarz.

ATLANTA - As he hands each person the Communion wafer, the priest watches his congregants walk back to their seats. They drop to their knees and bow their heads. Hands clasp. Around the church, a tear runs down a cheek, then another, then another.

The priest knows the prayers behind the faces of these undocumented immigrants, whom it is his special mission to serve. It's a prayer he shares: Señor Jesús, please don't make us leave the U.S.

The Rev. Rey Pineda is a DACA recipient. He's one of nearly 690,000 young adults granted temporary authorization to stay legally in the country that they were brought to as children - the only publicly identified DACA recipient who has used the authorization to become a Catholic priest.

Across the country, "dreamers" such as Pineda, 29, are at the center of a contentious debate. One side believes that anyone who broke the law to come here doesn't belong here now. The other side believes in granting a chance to people who came here as children and are now enmeshed in American communities.

The same debate is simmering at Pineda's Atlanta parish, where he leads a congregation of thousands of Hispanic immigrants and thousands of conservative white Southerners. It's a conflict about principles, such as fairness and culture, and welcome and security, and forgiveness.

But it's also a conflict about what should become of their priest.

As Pineda sees it, the same desperate journey that made him an illegal immigrant at age 2 is also what made him a man called to serve God.

After a car crash in Pineda's tiny hometown in Mexico, his mother, Teresa, was in a coma; doctors told her husband that if she survived, she would never fully regain mental or physical function. Seeking help, the family somehow made it across the desert to Los Angeles - and, in Pineda's view, U.S. medical care was their first miracle.

The family stayed in the country and moved to Atlanta. Early on, Pineda picked up on the theme of God's saving grace in his story. "That kind of began to shape for me the awareness that we had survived a lot," he said. "It wasn't just due to my parents' own strength and perseverance, though that definitely had a lot to do with it."

By 16, he wanted to be a priest. But the priests he consulted told him he could not become one of them because he was undocumented and could not legally work in the U.S.

The church supported him as he pursued his calling anyway, first as a philosophy major at Southern Catholic College, then two more years in seminary. At that point, the vocations director sat him down to say the church wouldn't ordain him because he was undocumented.

Pineda kept studying anyway, believing that somehow, God would provide a path to the priesthood. And then one appeared, in the form of an executive order. Then-President Barack Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals just in time for Pineda to become a priest.

The parish where Pineda works is one of Atlanta's stateliest - the Cathedral of Christ the King. Built on land that was once the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan before the cathedral's construction 80 years ago, the grand church is now home to a nearly 6,000-family congregation that is split racially and politically, much like North Georgia's 1.2 million Catholics and the Catholics of the nation.

White Catholics, who make up just less than 60 percent of Catholics in America, lean strongly Republican. Sixty percent voted for President Donald Trump, more than had voted for any Republican over the past 16 years, while 37 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, according to Pew Research Center data.

Latino Catholics, who made up 34 percent of American Catholics in 2014 and are growing in number, voted in opposite proportions: 67 percent for Clinton and 26 percent for Trump.

In September, when Trump canceled the DACA program that Obama created in 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decried the decision and called on Congress to pass legislation allowing so-called "dreamers" to stay in the country.

But the words of the bishops don't dictate the political stances of the faithful. At Christ the King, where Pineda is one of three active priests, it seems almost everyone in the English-speaking Masses routinely refers to immigrants as "illegals."

Many parishioners voted for Trump, who made his brash opposition to immigration the foremost position of his presidential campaign.

Five miles from the cathedral's stained-glass grandeur, the parish has a second location: the Mision de Cristo Rey, a converted warehouse.

When Pineda preaches at the Masses in Spanish, which draw as many as 1,000 people each Sunday, his message is one of solidarity. Most of the churchgoers here are undocumented or related to somebody who is.

"They all know I'm a dreamer," he says. "When we pray, when we're nervous about things that are happening in the government around us, I always, kind of tongue-in-cheek, remind them: 'Don't worry. If they come for you, they come for me.'"

This month, when he delivered a homily in Spanish, Pineda talked to the Latin American churchgoers about God's call to forgive. The offender might be our family or friends, he said. Or it might be "politicians who are vilifying us, making us look like the enemy of the people. Even he has to be loved. That is what the Lord asks us do to."

Arelis Hernandez took that to heart. After the Mass, she said she was trying to pray for Trump. It's hard, though. She's an undocumented immigrant, and though she tells customers at the clothing store where she works that they shouldn't worry about their immigration status, she's terrified when she goes home at night.

On bad days, she comes to Mass. "When I come here, I talk to God. It makes me more relaxed," she says. "Especially the priest, he says, 'Don't worry.' Especially Father Rey. He says: 'I am too.' He says: 'I am a dreamer.'"

Before leaving the mission, she turned toward the altar and crossed herself one more time, gathering strength for the journey ahead.

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