This Pentecost: Have confidence in the power of love

Rosa Campos. Photo courtesy of the Campos family.

This year, Jesus’ Ascension, Mother’s Day and Pentecost are back-to-back Sundays. As I reflect on the role which mothers, grandmothers, tías/aunts, and madrinas/godmothers have had in my life, I am reminded of something Pope Francis said at the start of this year on World Peace Day: “The world, too, needs to look to mothers and to women in order to find peace, to emerge from the spiral of violence and hatred, and once more see things with genuinely human eyes and hearts.” 

This week, I want to lift up the memory of a diaconal woman, mother and grandmother who passed away on Holy Thursday and who was like a soul mother to me and to many in her extraordinary ability to see with genuinely human eyes – even in the face of violence.

The last time I saw Rosa Campos was on Ash Wednesday when I visited her at her daughter’s home east of Los Angeles and gave them both ashes. At age 73, Rosa was battling an illness, and I wanted to express my profound gratitude for the witness of her courageous life. I gifted her a copy of the book Catholic Women Preach, Cycle B, because in that volume is a reflection I had written about the time she’d sparked a conversion in my own ability to see and feel the shape of God’s heart. 

The year was 2007, and I had moved into the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. For years I had been in the habit of watching the 11 pm news, even though it meant the final images of my day were too often stories of murders, desolate family members who had lost loved ones, and police efforts to apprehend the perpetrator. Gang members were portrayed as monsters, less than human. It was a frightening ongoing story of urban violence that hit close to home, when three weeks after I moved into my new apartment, a teenager was gunned down by a rival gang at a park a couple of blocks away. 

Nearby Dolores Mission Parish responded by organizing an outdoor Mass for the community on the spot where Jonathan had been killed — to be a force for good, to re-claim this spot as holy ground and to accompany his grieving friends and family members. I remember some of the elder women of our community who were blessing the palms of his friends’ hands during the sign of peace, offering consolation.

A week later the church organized another outdoor Mass a few blocks away across into the rival gang territory. I went to this liturgy as well, but started to have grave doubts about being there as I looked at the face of an angry young man who was mad-dogging the priest and staring all of us down from one of the nearby apartments. I wondered if violence might suddenly erupt. 

“Why are we here?!?!” I asked incredulously as I leaned towards Rosa. Serenely she answered me in Spanish, “Porque todos son nuestros hijos, los que son matados y los que matan.” (Because they’re all our children – those that get killed and those that kill.)

It’s hard to describe the peace, conviction, and quiet courage which Rosa conveyed in those few words. She took my fear-filled heart and guided me to see a larger truth – the community’s children were all our children. Where I saw a threat, she saw a hurting young man who merited the presence of his neighbors praying and singing for him and all the families and trying to inject hope where there was a lethal absence of it. It was as if she was saying, together we will figure out how to transform anger into peace if we remain firmly rooted in this truth that we belong to one another, all part of the same human family. 

I wanted Rosa’s ability to see the shape of God’s heart. I wanted to see that angry young man with the eyes of kinship, no separation between us. As I stood there with quivering knees, Rosa lent me her courage to stand presente at the margins along with all the women and men who gathered that evening in prayer. 

Described as an icon of Boyle Heights, this is the steady witness Rosa shared for decades with Dolores Mission parishioners, her neighbors, and thousands of visitors. Born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Rosa immigrated to Los Angeles as a teenager, and she and her husband raised six children in the public housing projects in Boyle Heights where she lived for more than five decades. She was one of the founding members of Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission, a non-profit that focuses on community building, safety, civic engagement and leadership development. As a response to rampant gang violence, she and other courageous diaconal women and mothers at Dolores Mission helped Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle SJ begin the ministry efforts that would become Homeboy Industries, now the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world. Recently, Fr. Greg received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. 

After Rosa’s passing, Fr. Greg described her as a mystic for her singular ability to see the face of Christ in the homeless, in the gang members, in everyone. “She proclaimed the Gospel and its values with her life,” said Fr. Greg at her Mass of Resurrection April 6. “She had confidence in love, in the power of love.”

Most afternoons as school let out, Rosa could be seen standing outside in her green Camino Seguro t-shirt lending her watchful eyes to ensure that school kids could walk safely back home.

During my years at the parish, she and I collaborated on organizing many classes and workshops to support immigrant parents with the vital work of parenting. “Zero violencia,” Rosa would say, forming the number zero with her fingers. She believed it was possible to raise children without corporal punishment and wanted to equip parents with the listening skills to be able to do so. Dolores Mission and Homeboys became places of pilgrimage for high school and college students seeking immersion experiences for how to put their faith into action. Over the years, Rosa led thousands of visiting students on walking tours through the neighborhood, and helped them name the stirrings in their own hearts for putting their faith into action.

After her passing, I found out that she asked her granddaughter Maria to read her the entire Catholic Women Preach book in her final weeks of life. It moves me immensely to imagine Rosa being consoled with the Word of God being broken open by the faith stories of other women in the voice of her granddaughter. 

As we prepare for the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I hope that Rosa Campos’ witness connects with our own yearnings for the kind of impact we as Catholics can have in the world when we believe that the Holy Spirit accompanies us into places of struggle, and even violence. The wind of the Spirit helps us to transcend our fears so that we can see with genuinely human eyes and hearts and act with confidence in the power of love. St. Phoebe pray for us!

Ellie Hidalgo

Ellie Hidalgo

Ellie Hidalgo is co-director of Discerning Deacons.

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Organization
“We raised so much awareness from our event, of both the ongoing Synod and of St. Phoebe and her ministry. Together, we learned of the power of the intercession of St. Phoebe, and how significant her feast day can be to carry the message of women’s roles in the Church.”
The Church of St. Francis Xavier
New York, NY
Organization
“The most meaningful parts of our celebration together included a standing ovation following the witness reflection, the power and strength of the reflection itself, and the procession at the start of mass. In the procession, young women carried in and presented symbols of St. Phoebe including an icon, the commission of St. Paul, a deacon’s stole and a pitcher of water to symbolize our shared baptism.”
St. Barnabas Parish
Chicago, IL
Witness
“Preaching on the Feast of St. Phoebe, and supporting and training other women to preach, was a joyful and invigorating experience. It is beautiful to see women claim the truth that they are called and gifted, and equally beautiful to see the People of God’s receptivity to women’s preaching, ministry, and leadership.”
Rhonda Miska
St. Phoebe Day Witness at St. Thomas More Catholic Community in St. Paul, MN; Founder and Co-convener of the Catholic Women's Preaching Circle; Catholic Women Preach Advisory Board Member

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