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August 10, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 14   •   Oakland, CA
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At the end if the day’s presentation, Vincent Medina Jr., with microphone, invited members of his family to join him as he read a poem in the Chochneyo language. From left, Corrine Gould, Ruth Orta, Andrew Galvan and Louis Trevino.

Serra: Saint, Sinner forum draws heat from both sides

What began as a presentation on the canonization of Junipero Serra, founding father of the California mission system, was met by protesters who were invited to the table and ended leaving the leader of the religious community that sponsored it "profoundly grateful and profoundly challenged."

The presentation — "Serra: Saint and Sinner" by Ohlone Chochenyo Indians Andrew Galvan and his cousin, Vincent Media Jr., who serve as curator and assistant curator, respectively, at Mission Dolores in San Francisco — grew into a wider-ranging discussion.

In addition to more than 100 registered participants for the July 25 event sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose's' Center for Education and Spirituality, about 10 protesters, many holding signs, joined the conversation.

"Don't call me an Indian," one woman called from the back of the room when Galvan sought to acknowledge the native people in the room.

"Welcome to our land, where our ancestors lived and died, and we are still here today," said Medina. "We're not just still here but we're thriving today, reclaiming things that people thought for generations were gone: our languages, our stories, our religions, our sacred sites our names and our identities."

He offered the "Our Father" in Chochenyo, the native language of the Ohlones who lived on the Mission San Jose land.

Galvan gave a short biography of the Spanish-born Serra, who at age 15, after reading the life story of St. Francis of Solano, decided he wanted to be a missionary. Two decades would pass before that wish was granted. After 17 years as a missionary in Mexico, he crossed into what would become California. Serra established nine missions before dying at Carmel in 1784.

The calls for Serra's sainthood began a year later, said Galvan, who has been working on the cause for canonization for half his life. "It took me to the Vatican 16 times," he said.

He recounted the visit on July 3, 1983, when Father Noel Moholy presented a 400-page document to Pope John Paul II.

"The Holy Father told him, 'You must insist, you must insist, you must insist,'" Galvan said. To Galvan, he said, "You must pray, you must pray, you must pray."

Galvan's prayers were answered Jan. 15, when Pope Francis said he would canonize Serra during his trip to the United States this fall.

"I know him. I study him. I pray to him," Galvan said of Serra. "He brought Christ into our world."

Serra's legacy, Galvan said, was "to bring the Gospel message to people who had never heard it before."

But Serra's legacy has a different meaning for his cousin and colleague, Medina.

Being a Chochenyo Ohlone and Catholic is, Medina said, "a confusing place to be."

"We know they suffered," he said of his ancestors who lived and worked at Mission San Jose, "but in that place my family also became Catholic. They adopted this Catholic religion, whether by choice or by force, and it stuck with my family. It shows we don't have to be one or the other to be either Catholic. We can be something in this intersection, which shows an evolving and rich community."

"My mother was a native," said Ruth Orta, a Newark resident who attends Mass with the Dominican Sisters, who taught her mother. "I speak as an elder," she said.

"This person that they want to make a saint," she said, "was cause for annihilation of a lot of people and most of our culture. Even if they make this man a saint, we don't have to pray to him. I'm a Catholic. I am going to pray to those I feel the people I know who can save me, and help me, and guide me. Jesus Christ is the one I believe in."

His canonization won't shake her faith, she said. "I'm Catholic, I'll still be Catholic. The church is a church, my faith is me, and that's what I am."

Kim DeOcampo said the hurt goes deeper. "We can never heal and reconcile with the canonization of Serra," she said.

She compared the effect of Serra's canonization on native people to the Confederate flag on black people. "Black people don't like to be reminded of kidnapping, slavery and torture," she said. "Neither do we."

DeOcampo, of the Tuolumne Band of Miwok, advocates for the removal of offensive mascots from schools, and for land, water and burial rights for native people, said she was baptized a Catholic, but has turned her back on the Church.

"I still believe in Jesus," she said. She cited the Church's "indifference toward two-spirit (LGBT) people" and its stand on women's reproductive issues.

Steps toward reconciliation, Medina said, might include free admission to the missions their ancestors built, as well as opportunities for native cultural and ceremonial observances.

As the gathering came to a conclusion, Sister Reina Perea, OP, stepped up to the open microphone.

"I'm so sorry," she said.

Sister Gloria Marie Jones, OP, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, echoed her words.

"Today I believe we have come to realize the sacredness of this space has been fed not only by the faith that was planted here but by the pain, the sorrow and the hurt that has watered this soil as well," she said.

"I end this day with a new challenge of how do we in creative ways walk together with our Ohlone brothers and sisters and allow this space to once again support the beauty of your culture, your language, your gifts," she said.

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