Tucked between a law office and a weight loss clinic (“hasta 20 libras al mes”) on 26th Street in Little Village is a church and a quiet hotbed of social change. A broad white sign, in prim red lettering, announces this as the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission. A blue awning stands watch over the window and the door; its lack of words is all that distinguishes the mission from the litany of other storefronts on the street.
“We don’t need a church that looks nice,” one of the mission workers says. Before the mission moved in here a few years ago, 3442 W. 26th Street was a shoe store.
It’s a church now, on Sundays. For the other six days of the week it’s a multipurpose community hub. On each of those days, one to two hundred people pass through the doors. If they try anything on for size, it will be the piles of donated clothes lined up against the wall. More likely, they will come because an undocumented loved one has been detained, and they don’t know where they are; or they will come because they need critical medical attention they can’t get through insurance and surely can’t afford; or they will come because they can’t feed their families; or they will simply come to pray.
Father José Landaverde founded Our Lady of Guadalupe six years ago. (It moved into its current space in 2011; the original building was a repurposed bar.) He used his own meager funds to start the mission from scratch. Though it has since grown to fit the needs of the neighborhood, Landaverde has remained its soul. His short, sturdy but lean frame is reminiscent of a boxer’s, and he carries himself with a steady authority. He leads Mass on Sundays, but he also drives around trying to stop people from being deported.
“Little Village has many churches, but those churches are just places people go to pray,” Landaverde says. “They are not working with those who are suffering.”
Attending to the needs of the suffering is what it means to be a Christian here, at the mission. “Jesus was an insurrectionist,” Landaverde says. He taught us “we deserve the same rights as human beings.” He taught us “to work for the poor and the marginalized.” Landaverde pauses, sitting back thoughtfully in his office chair. “The Gospel is social justice, you know?”
This was too much for some. Within the Anglican Catholic Church, Landaverde has been accused of being too radical and too political: of being a communista. Over the past year, he has increasingly clashed with officials at the Diocese of Quincy—of which the mission was until recently a part—over his emphasis on social issues, his acts of civil disobedience, and his fights for political change.
On October 18, an article in Univision reported that Landaverde would temporarily be stepping down from the priesthood for “health reasons.” On October 25, officials from the diocese arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe with a letter formally banning Landaverde from the priesthood and the mission for two years. The decision to ban Landaverde, the letter said, was made “in light of your failure to provide pastoral care to your congregation, your illegal activities, and your unwillingness to accept the guidance and oversight of the diocese.”
But the ban never had a moment to matter. Members of the mission’s governing council greeted the diocesan officials with a letter of their own, renouncing their association with the diocese and declaring their support for the leadership of Father Landaverde instead.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is now unaffiliated, still led by Landaverde, and still there for the people it serves.
Landaverde has no explicit political allegiances, but he is unabashedly a radical. “They asked me if I was a communist and I said yes,” he says, with more than a hint of glee. “To be communist is to follow the word of Jesus…You need to respond to the social needs of the people.”
He knows those needs very well. Born into poverty in El Salvador, Landaverde was separated from his family and forced into the jungle at age eight by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. At seventeen he was arrested and beaten for organizing the poor. He fled the country and eventually arrived in the United States, where he was granted status as a political refugee.
He stayed at Su Casa Catholic Worker, a shelter for displaced and homeless Latino families in Back of the Yards, where he again took part in community organizing. He also studied for the priesthood. As Landaverde sees it, the two go hand-in-hand.
“I strongly believe as a Christian that you need to do both—the spiritual and the social,” he says. It’s not a matter of one or the other. “We need to believe in equality. A church that is not connected with the poor is not a church of Christ.”
Landaverde connects with the poor through both ordinary acts of kindness and vehement acts of protest. People can come to the mission just to talk, or they can come to plan a march and a strike. His overriding mission is not of charity but of change.
“Charity just ends up containing the poor and the marginalized,” he explains. If someone is driven by hunger to steal a loaf of bread, Landaverde doesn’t just want that person to be fed. He wants to change the structure that made the hunger so.
It’s a tall task, and it’s not a new one, but Landaverde can’t be criticized for not confronting it head on. He has been arrested at protests almost a dozen times. A photo from the Chicago Tribune, in May 2012, shows him surrounded by officers outside the Immigration Court building in the Loop, wearing his clerical collar and holding a “Judges are racist” sign. That summer, he was also arrested in Washington, D.C. for confronting Janet Napolitano (then the Secretary of Homeland Security, who presided over record annual deportation numbers during her term) and calling her “the devil.” The charges were later dismissed.
“Here in Little Village, there are many people who don’t have documents,” Landaverde says. One of his usual extraclerical activities consists of running around looking for these people when they’ve been detained by Homeland Security officials. When this happens, you first need to find out where they are. They could be at any number of local prisons, or they may no longer even be in the country at all. So Landaverde often finds himself driving around to different prisons in search of neighbors who have been detained; when he finds them, he makes inquiries about paying bond or at least seeks further legal aid.
One Thursday, when he was supposed to sit down with me at the mission to talk, Landaverde found himself at the correctional center at Clark and Congress instead, looking for a parishioner’s husband. As it turned out, he was already in Mexico.
Another picture, which Landaverde shows me on Facebook, shows him standing coolly at a protest march, wearing the same clerical collar and also a Che Guevera tote bag.
“Do you believe a conservative diocese will keep me?” he asks, with a laugh.
When Our Lady of Guadalupe first opened, in the one-time bar, it was part of the Anglican Province of America. “They never messed with us,” Landaverde says. But the APA reorganized, and in 2011 the mission was left to join the Diocese of Quincy, as part of the Anglican Catholic Church. For the first year, there was little communication between the mission and the diocese, which is based in Peoria and has no other members in Chicago.
“We started to invite them to see what we were doing and they didn’t like that,” Landaverde recalls. “They didn’t like the press I was getting.” They started asking him if he was a communist, and of course he kept saying yes.
The diocese says it had been monitoring the mission for much of the past year, with mounting concerns that politics were becoming too important. “We cannot support a mission whose first priority is social issues,” Bishop Alberto Morales, who leads the diocese and wrote the letter banning Landaverde, told me. “He’s not just a social worker; he’s a priest.”
After leading a hunger strike this past summer, Landaverde did ask for some time off to get back to health. Another priest came in, but he didn’t maintain the same day-to-day presence as Landaverde, and it wasn’t long before things culminated in late-October’s separation.
Morales says his diocese could not “support any illegal things,” and that they received “many complaints” about how Landaverde was “unstable” and “not there on Sundays.” This might explain one of the more bizarre provisions of his letter, which required Landaverde to “submit to a psychological evaluation by a licensed psychologist” of the bishop’s choosing. Morales declined to elaborate further on the nature of the alleged complaints, and said the diocese had moved on.
“These people believe they are living in the sixteenth century,” Landaverde says. He supports same-sex marriage, but “they don’t believe in that.” He supports “communism in the sense of the Gospel,” and he supports breaking laws in cases of civil disobedience.
“Father José sees that this is the only way to get stuff done,” Juan Balbuena, who helps run operations at the mission, explains.
And the mission has stood behind him. As one parishioner put it: “A lot of people come for the church itself—and because they love the father.” They care for him enough to support a change in affiliation over a change in priests. People here talk about the church as a community, but they almost never talk about it without mentioning “Father José.”
The mission is now applying to the United American Catholic Church, a more progressive and inclusive denomination. “We’re going to keep working on the same issues we’ve been working on,” Landaverde says. “We’re going to be there—fighting.”
Next week, he tells me, there will be a new sign outside. And a big rainbow flag.
But Our Lady of Guadalupe is already open “to the people who are suffering, day by day.” These are the hundreds of people who pass through its doors. They enter first through the church, a deep, cavernous room that culminates in the altar by the far wall. They pass the piles of clothes on their left, the old shoe store counter and the rack of flickering candles on their right, and, just before reaching the first rows of pews, turn the corner and suddenly emerge upon a hidden cluster of back rooms.
This is where it all happens. A hall, stuffed with chairs, serves as a waiting room of sorts for the different offices: medical and legal and spiritual and anything they need to be. Like the church itself, the back hall is drab but not dreary. A sprawling red banner stretches across the entirety of one of the walls. “Without Legalization,” it reads, in big white letters set over smaller ones: “there can be no equal labor rights.”
Often, these rooms provide “really basic stuff for people who don’t have papers,” as Lou Curet, a doctor who runs a free clinic four to five hours every week, describes his office.
The first day I visited, I walked in when things were just getting started, around ten on a Thursday morning. A man and a woman were rearranging things behind the altar, and another man sat behind the old store counter. When I came back, at two, the church itself was still empty, but there was now a line of five or six people for the back rooms. Others came and went while I was there.
Balbuena listed off the basic services the mission provides, and explained how most of them tied back to immigration. He also had an example of another kind. “Just today,” Balbuena said, “this girl came in. She didn’t look well.” She started talking to him, and it turned out that since she’d last been here—to talk about getting married—she’d been pushed down a set of stairs and had a miscarriage. She was too afraid to report it
to the police. Then, just a few days before, she had tried to take her own life.
“You try to do as much as you can,” he said. He ended up referring her for psychological help. “You don’t want to do too much.”
Yet Landaverde has a curious way of almost doing both. His protests have national implications, even as they are rooted in local plights.
Over the summer, Landaverde led the mission in a series of protests aimed at local hospitals, on behalf of fourteen undocumented and uninsured parishioners and neighbors in need of critical kidney and liver transplants. Those who are denied such care are effectively handed a death sentence.
Fourteen protestors from the mission took part in a hunger strike that lasted eleven days—the same one that later prompted Landaverde to ask for some time off. During the strike, Landaverde, Balbuena, and the others (including some of those in need of transplants themselves) consumed nothing but water and fluids. A larger group marched on Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn and set up camp outside Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown. The marches and the hunger strike garnered significant public attention, and were covered in such publications as The Nation, the Chicago Tribune, and In These Times.
After the protests at Northwestern, the hospital released a statement denying that legal status was a factor in selecting candidates for transplants. “The criteria for recipient selection are the same for every candidate regardless of citizenship or other immigration status,” the hospital wrote.
But this was also beside the point. Undocumented immigrants don’t have access to federal insurance, and often have to foot the medical bills themselves. This is something almost nobody, undocumented or not, can ever hope to do: according to Milliman, an actuarial company, the average cost of a liver transplant in the United States was $577,100 in 2011; the average cost for a kidney was $262,900. And those figures don’t include the cost of post-treatment medications, which call for another $10,000 a year for the rest of a patient’s life. While hospitals may not look at a candidate’s citizenship when determining who gets organs, they can—and do—look at whether they will be able to pay.
“They want money,” Balbuena said of the hospitals, “and in this community, most of the people don’t have the money.”
He first came to the mission because his mother needed a liver transplant, and she is trying to get one still. “When we came we thought we were one of a few people, but we realized there are a lot.”
Across the nation, undocumented immigrants in need of critical transplants end up falling through the cracks. Certain exceptions are made with Medicaid to allow treatment for “aliens” in the case of “an emergency medical condition.” But these only include instances of “sudden onset” or childbirth. Life-threatening organ needs are not met. Nor will this change under the Affordable Care Act, since undocumented residents will still be prohibited from the low-income insurance provisions the act will provide.
“The issue is people need transplants,” Landaverde told the Tribune, during the protests at Northwestern. “They cannot let people continue dying.”
Or, as one man’s sign asked: “How can you ignore when we’re dying at your door?”
There would be no Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission without José Landaverde, but the story isn’t just about him, if it ever was. “He’s a helper,” one man says of Landaverde. He pauses, then adds: “Everybody is a helper.”
Most of the people here are first- or second-generation Mexican immigrants—Balbuena estimates well over eighty percent of all parishioners don’t speak English—and many of them come with their families. Manuel Tempor only moved from Venezuela a year-and-a-half ago, but he spends three to four hours every Sunday when he comes to the mission for Mass. “It’s more inclusive, definitely,” he says, comparing it to other churches he’s known. He dismisses any significant cultural barriers. “We share the same language, the same values, the same God.”
Parishioners like Tempor often praise the fact that this is a “liberal” church and not a “conservative” one. Like the immigration and medical
protests led by Landaverde, this might carry implications that reach beyond Little Village and even the city of Chicago. Latinos have traditionally supported liberals in American politics, but conservatives have never lost hope that their Catholic heritage will swing them in the end. There’s no chance of that at Our Lady of Guadalupe, where many of the parishioners have left Roman Catholicism, first for the ACC and now for the UACC, to follow a priest who calls out the “capitalist system” for “destroying humanity,” who believes that “through the Bible you can create social change.”
Still, “the church itself is not really very different [from others],” Elsie Feliciano, one of the parishioners on the mission’s administrative committee, tells me. “The religious part is the same.”
But then she points to the back rooms. “Many churches disagree with that,” she says. We’re sitting in the last row of pews. Only the last third of the wide red banner is visible, so that it reads “zation: equal labor rights.” “You have no idea how many people come here daily,” Feliciano adds.
It’s only then that I realize the wall that’s covering the rest of the banner, the wall that separates the church from the offices in the back, is only a makeshift screen, with little sliding hinges hanging down from the ceiling. Mass and sacraments at the mission might follow those of churches elsewhere, but things are different beyond that. The mission’s social work informs its spiritual community; it can’t be separated by anything more than a makeshift wall.
What goes on in those back rooms creates a shared sense of purpose. It’s the first thing most people bring up when they describe the church: the legal aid, the fight to get people transplants, the simple presence of an open set of doors. That feeling that someone is doing something, that something is at least going on, is potent in itself. It means something here. It defines this place.
“The last hope of the community is God,” Landaverde says. “A God who is working all the time with them, a God who is with the poor.”
This is what distinguishes a church that doesn’t look nice. “Most of the time you go to church you just pray; pray and go home,” Feliciano says. It’s not like that here.
After Mass this past Sunday, two-dozen people gathered around a table that had been set up in the back hall. They filled their plates from large trays of chicken, rice, and sweet bread, then filled the seats around the table as though it had been set aside for dining purposes alone. Warm Spanish coursed through the room. More than a few people encouraged me to take some food, though most had no idea who I was or why I was even there.
“People get along real well here,” Marco, who is thirteen and plays guitar in the chorus, says. He and Father Luis, the associate pastor at the mission, start playing music about halfway through the meal. Father Luis sings (and talks) with a resounding, amicable voice. He sports a curt grey beard, and his deep eyes dance. Soon others are singing along, Landaverde included.
On the bulletin board behind him are some papers printed from the website of the United American Catholic Church, with the heading “A New Way to Be Catholic.” The dates on the corner of each page indicate they were printed just two days earlier.
“A new way to be Catholic?” the papers ask. “What does that mean? We like to think of it as progressive, thinking, believing and doing…Sunday Mass and huge stone buildings have their place, but what really makes us [a] church is the going out into the world and being Christ to the people we meet. To all the people we meet.”
Later, when there are only a few scraps of chicken left on the table, Landaverde picks up Father Luis’s guitar and begins to play. The guitar is covered with a smattering of stickers and insignias: one from the Human Rights Council, one from the NATO protests, and another that says “Tolerance.” Near the middle, flanking the strings, is the red, white, and blue crest of the Anglican church, just beginning to fade.