‘If they come for you, they come for me’: A ‘dreamer’ priest faces deportation — and a divided congregation

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 United States.

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 debate so contentious that it threatens to shut down the government. One side believes that anyone who broke the law to come here in the first place 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.

From undocumented to ordained

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

After a car crash in Pineda’s tiny home town 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. Pineda picked up on the theme of God’s saving grace in his story early on. “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. At church, though, the priests he consulted told him that he could not become one of them because he was undocumented and could not legally work in the United States.

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 that 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.

Seeing an ‘illegal’ at the altar

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 under 60 percent of Catholics in America, lean strongly Republican — 60 percent voted for President Trump, more than had voted for any Republican in the past 16 years, while 37 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, according to Pew Research Center data.

Meanwhile, 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 dreamers to stay in the country. Last week, with the deadline to either strike a deal or shut down the government coming up this Friday, the bishops published their latest statement: “As a nation, we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to Dreamers.”

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 that 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.

“I would build the wall,” declares Andy Smith on Monday, right after sitting down with a cup of coffee from the cathedral kitchen that is named in his honor. Smith’s photo is right there, in a frame, recognizing him for his dedicated service as the church sacristan. “We’re a sovereign country. We have a right to protect our borders. I would end chain migration, and I would definitely do away with the lottery.”

He’s in agreement with the president, whose rhetoric Smith finds amusing.

But when it comes to immigrants who are already in the United States, and especially to DACA, Smith changes his tune. “They’re taking care of business and their families, and they’re already here. And the dreamers probably are the best of the lot. They’re young. They’re educated. Like Father Rey,” he says.

The 79-year-old sacristan’s embrace of the priest, and his leap from learning about the priest’s status to supporting broader protections for the country’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, resembles the stories told by many church members.

Jackie Marcinko, a religion teacher in the school attached to the cathedral, doesn’t like to talk about politics — she and her husband don’t even tell each other who they’ve voted for, since she leans left and he leans right. But Pineda’s status has shaken her to action. She wrote her first emails ever to a member of Congress, to urge both of Georgia’s Republican senators to protect Dreamers. When she saw a friend tweet that DACA was illegal, she fired back a message. “This is hitting home for me,” she recalls writing. “One of these dreamers is one of my priests.”

When he first became a priest, Pineda thought his most important ministry would be working with immigrants like himself. That’s a large part of his work at the cathedral. But after a year and a half at the cathedral, he thinks his work with families who have never met a dreamer is just as crucial.

“What God was asking of me was to work with the nonimmigrant community, to be able to spread some light on this issue and be able to hopefully change hearts,” he says. “Putting a face to it, and also being their priest, is a good place to be.”

Allen Kinzly, 35, became friends with the priest because of their shared enthusiasm for Atlanta United, the city’s soccer team.

Kinzly had voted for Trump. He felt he would be better for the economy and the military than Clinton would. But now, he’s a strong believer in protections for dreamers like his friend. “It is because of my relationship and my friendship with Father Rey,” he says.

Flipping through photos on his phone, Kinzly, a video producer for the archdiocese’s communications office, finds snapshots of Pineda hanging out one night after a soccer game. The priest, in a jersey and shorts instead of his clerical garb, suddenly grabbed the 20-foot-tall flagpole in the bed of Kinzly’s red pickup, and waved the huge star-spangled banner through the air. Kinzly took photo after photo.

With four days left for Congress to work out a deal or shut down the government, Kinzly stared at the photos from that night. “He’s just as American as me and you.”

A priest who shares their struggle

Five miles away 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 that 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.’ ”

The Catholic Church has been more cautious in offering direct aid to people at risk of deportation than some churches across the country, which have volunteered to be sanctuary spaces to protect people from immigration agents. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has encouraged priests and lay leaders to support immigrant neighbors in such situations. But it’s up to each bishop whether to declare their churches sanctuaries.

In Atlanta, Archbishop Wilton Gregory decided against it, saying the church couldn’t guarantee that it would be able to shelter anyone from the law.

So the help that Pineda offers is mostly spiritual — a listening ear, a word of encouragement.

On Sunday, when he delivered a homily in Spanish after Trump’s reported comments about immigrants from “shithole” countries, 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 although she tells customers at the clothing store she works in that they shouldn’t worry about their immigration status, when she goes home at night she’s terrified.

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.

Chiqui Esteban contributed to this report.