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Father Luis Olivares: Faith Politics and the Origins of the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles

by Mario Garcia

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

This is the amazing untold story of the Los Angeles sanctuary movement’s champion, Father Luis Olivares who was a faith-driven leader for social justice. The story tracks Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees who made the hazardous journey to the United States seeking asylum from political repression and violence in their home states. Instead of being welcomed by the “country of immigrants,” they were put off by the Reagan administration, which supported the governments from which they fled. To counter this policy, a powerful, a powerful sanctuary movement rose up to provide safe havens in churches and synagogues for thousands of Central American refugees. Based on previously unexplored archives and over ninety oral histories, this compelling biography traces the life of a complex and constantly evolving individual, from Olivares’s humble beginnings in San Antonio, Texas, to his close friendship with legendary civil rights leader Cesar Chavez and his historic leadership of the United Neighborhoods Organization and the sanctuary movement. This book of 502 pages is dedicated to the cause of the Sanctuary movement and the major priest who heralded it, Father Luis Olivares. His legacy was that he did what he felt he had to do to help people. He did this after his conversion with the farmworkers. He did this through his leadership in UNO. He certainly did it in the sanctuary movement at La Placita. I think he was most proud of what he accomplished at La Placita because this was something that he initiated and embraced, whereas few other pastors of a Catholic parish would have done the same. This was different from working with Chavez and the UFW because that movement was already well-organized and had an established leadership. It was also different from the UN, which had its affiliation with the Industrial Areas Foundation. He was proud of his work with both groups and he learned much from these experiences, but the sanctuary was his. From the very commencement of the Central American influx into Los Angeles, Olivares embraced the refugees. It was Olivares who declared in 1985 La Placita to be a public sanctuary for the refugees and then two years later did what no other sanctuary movement in the country had done or would do—he expanded sanctuary to undocumented Mexican immigrants. These were the highlights of his ministry, and they were supplemented by his work with other groups protesting U.S. day laborers and to help organize Latino workers into the union movement. This was his ministry and he was proud of it. It was his way to live the Gospel message and to transform what being a priest was all about.

Father Luis was told by his order prior to the revelation of his illness that he had to leave La Placita, Olivares felt disappointed, frustrated, and even angry that his work would not go on. He blamed himself for not preparing better for the continuation of the movement. It is possible that during his dying days he still felt some of these emotions. But Father Luis was wrong. His influence, his work with the unwanted and the poor, his acceptance of the stranger in our midst, his sheltering of the homeless, protecting persecuted, promoting of peace and justice, he's reminding us that AIDS victims are also God’s children, and his courageous effort to transform the Church into one of the people and for the people go on. The goon in the lives of the refugees and immigrants whom he helped; they go on in the work of the refugees and immigrants whom he helped; they go on in the work of community activities; they go on even today at La Placita and in new faith-based movements among Latinos and others in Los Angeles. Father Luis still lives in the memories and in the deeds of all these people, directly and indirectly. Father Luis, the prophet, still speaks out. He is still present. “In these struggles, Olivares paid a high price. He was excluded from becoming the Provincial of his order and he ultimately was removed as pastor at La Placita. He received many death threats and navigated ups and downs in his work. But despite these obstacles and challenges, Olivares never wavered in his mission. He showed courage, commitment, and integrity in meeting these challenges. And then there was his wonderful humor, which he used to make others feel at ease and to salve the difficult moments. These same qualities he exhibited in facing death from AIDS. In life and in death, he stood as a symbol of leadership standing up to the forces of repression and exploitation. We need such leadership standing up to the forces of repression and exploitation. We need such leadership today and such examples in our own trying times.”

This is a wonderfully written text that really inspires one to live in the light of the Lord. It is filled with hope in a trying time for the sanctuary movement. In closing, here is a video on Father Luis

Fr Luis Olivares and Sanctuary

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