Durango immigrant group may lose as civil unions divide Catholics

Diego Nicolas, of Durango, stops by the office of Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, where he has volunteered for two years, and talks with Compañeros Director Nicole Mosher on Wednesday. Nicolas says the threat by Catholic Campaign for Human Development to withdraw its funding for Compañeros has led him to question his faith. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Diego Nicolas, of Durango, stops by the office of Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, where he has volunteered for two years, and talks with Compañeros Director Nicole Mosher on Wednesday. Nicolas says the threat by Catholic Campaign for Human Development to withdraw its funding for Compañeros has led him to question his faith.

Backlash is mounting against the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s pending decision to defund Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, a nonprofit in Durango, based on indirect ties to One Colorado, a group that advocates for civil unions.

For the past three years, Compañeros has been doing “God’s work” – helping thousands of financially and socially vulnerable Hispanic immigrants secure health care, navigate the tax code, comply with local laws and understand basic rights.

Now, its future is uncertain, as it likely will lose the Catholic campaign’s annual $30,000 grant – 50 percent of Compañeros’s shoestring budget.

Nicole Mosher, director of Compañeros and its only paid staff member, said the loss of the church’s support was “crippling.”

Testing the faith

The campaign’s decision to defund Compañeros for being indirectly associated with One Colorado has elicited stinging criticisms of its grant policies, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops toughened in 2010 by issuing the “Ten Commitments” at the urging of politically conservative Catholic groups.

The new rules forbid the Catholic campaign from issuing grants to organizations that are in coalitions with organizations that hold positions contrary to church’s doctrine.

The Pueblo Diocese’s Michael Papesh, chief of staff to Bishop Fernando Isern, said CCHD was obligated to ask that Compañeros withdraw from the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition – a broad, statewide collection of 93 groups that advocate on immigrants’ behalf – because the immigrant-rights coalition began a collaboration with One Colorado last year.

In a letter, Compañeros refused, citing its reliance on the coalition and its commitment to serving immigrants regardless of their sexuality.

Papesh said Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s break from Compañeros had been “fairly painful.”

“We love the work they’re doing. But we’re boxed in a corner. CIRC was effectively endorsing civil unions. CCHD has been under very significant pressure for several years to ensure that church funds go to groups that support, or at least, do not oppose, church teachings,” said Papesh.

During the last five years, the American Life League, a Catholic group that advocates the criminalization of abortion in all circumstances, has lambasted the Catholic campaign for funding anti-poverty organizations it deems insufficiently faithful to the Church’s position on abortion and gay marriage.

Michael Hichborn, director of American Life League’s “Defend the Faith” program, said defunding Compañeros showed “the Pueblo Diocese is doing a fantastic job. They’re taking the Ten Commitments seriously.”

The New York Times’s veteran religion correspondent Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift and co-director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, said, “Twenty years ago, this would not have been an issue for CCHD. It’s a direct response to the militancy of people with a very specific agenda – they’re focused on abortion above all, and, secondly, same-sex marriage.”

Guilty by association?

At first, Papesh said, CCHD did not think Compañeros would lose its funding over its involvement with Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition.

“We thought, ‘gosh golly gee, it’s this large coalition.’ Just remove your name from the website. But the response we got back was that they felt that would be discriminating against homosexuals if they were to remove their endorsement,” he said.

Papesh said the letter Compañeros had sent the Diocese had an “undertone of defiance. We were a little shocked that they were willing to give up what we viewed as substantial funding.”

Compañeros spokesman Danny Quinlan disputed Papesh’s characterization of Compañeros’s correspondence with the Catholic campaign.

“Compañeros never endorsed civil unions. We really don’t have any direct contact with One Colorado. It’s like three degrees of Kevin Bacon: We’re in a movie with CIRC that was in another movie with One Colorado. It had never occurred to us that that was going against Catholic teachings. We thought we were in compliance with what was stipulated by the grant,” Quinlan said.

What would Jesus do?

By most accounts, the immigrant coalition’s alliance with One Colorado is genial but haphazard. Joyce Woodram, deputy executive of the group, pointed to an instance in which one woman in a committed lesbian partnership faced deportation.

“We worked with CIRC to bring media attention to that issue,” Woodram said.

“For me, the Catholic hierarchy is giving Compañeros an ultimatum, saying that fighting against the rights of gay people is more important that supporting immigrant families,” she said.

James Salt, director of the Catholic Union, said the group already had raised $5,000 for Compañeros, and that one anonymous donor has promised to match that.

“The work they’re doing is critically important to the mission of the Catholic Church. Help the poor, marginalized and the vulnerable? That’s what the Church should be about. If the Church had been historically consistent in this policy, they couldn’t have supported the organizing work of Martin Luther King Jr., or Jesus Christ associating with prostitutes,” Salt said.

Steinfels agreed.

“In terms of the moral principle involved here – do you ever cooperate, even indirectly, with people with whom you disagree? I think you do. If there is any room at all for discretion in this decision, it borders on cowardice and scandal that Catholic leaders would not make use of it,” Steinfels said.

Diego Nicolas, who went to Compañeros two years ago with a legal problem, said it would be “tragic” if Compañeros was forced to shut down.

“It’s the only organization in the Four Corners doing this kind of work,” said Nicolas, who has volunteered at Compañeros ever since, providing immigrants with tax assistance.

Raised Catholic, Nicolas said CCHD’s defunding Compañeros had caused him to question his faith.

“I don’t know if I consider myself a Catholic anymore. I think it’s totally unfair. The mission at Compañeros is to help immigrants. We don’t advocate gay rights – that has nothing to do with Compañeros. The Church – I’m really, really disappointed. I am an immigrant, and I am also gay. Compañeros helped me because I was an immigrant, not because I was gay. That’s what Jesus would have done,” Nicolas said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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