Colorado immigrants collateral damage in Catholic culture war

Nicole Mosher, executive director of Durango-based nonprofit immigrant-aid organization Compañeros, is weighing how to keep her organization running effectively in light of the surprising news that the anti-poverty Catholic organization that supplies half of Companeros’ annual budget will likely end that support due to Compañeros’ indirect association with gay-rights group One Colorado.

Following publication last Thursday of a New York Times story on the likely split, Mosher told the Colorado Independent that a liaison for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) informed her at the end of February that “it had been made aware of the fact” that One Colorado had partnered with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), which Compañeros had helped start up in 2002 as a founding member. In addition to supporting larger social justice and equality efforts, One Colorado is leading lobbying efforts in the state to pass a same-sex civil unions bill. Mosher said that Joe Mahoney, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Pueblo diocese, told her that if Compañeros wished to retain its CCHD grant, it would have to withdraw from the coalition.

The Catholic Campaign has given roughly $30,000 a year to Compañeros for the last two and a half years, a vital amount of money given the bare-bones operation Mosher runs with volunteers and occasional college interns. Yet, Mosher said, she and her board could not justify continuing to take the cash if it meant parting ways with CIRC.

“Our mission is to help immigrants and to inform the larger community about immigrant issues. We depend on CIRC.” Mosher said that withdrawing from the coalition would be doing a disservice to the people Compañeros exists to support.

“Without the coalition, we would be cut off from an enormously valuable resource. We are geographically isolated. We’re surrounded by 12,000-foot [mountain] passes. If we weren’t part of CIRC, we would lose that connection. We wouldn’t know what’s going on with other immigrant communities. We wouldn’t know what was going on at the capitol with immigrant policies… We couldn’t organize on behalf of our community members.”

Mosher said Compañeros signed its current CCHD grant agreement last year and received half of the funds in the fall. The other half, $15,000, was scheduled to cover the period January to June.

“We haven’t seen that money,” she said. “I think they’ll tell us it isn’t coming based on non-compliance with the terms of the grant agreement. They’ll say our membership in CIRC has us doing something contrary to the moral teachings of the Church.”

Mosher said the loss of the money will “affect everything,” down to basics like paying the rent and utility and phone bills.

Mosher is the only paid Compañeros staffer, so she will probably begin making budget cuts by trimming her $33,000-a-year salary. She is also weighing whether or not to scale back hours of operation, but she already did that, earlier this year, and now it’s tax time, so people are flocking into her office looking for help with paperwork and translation.

A one-stop shop

“We serve some gay immigrants. We serve some gay Catholic immigrants, too, because helping immigrants is what we do.”

Compañeros serves thousands of foreign-born immigrants spread across five Colorado counties– Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan. In fact, its reach likely goes beyond Colorado, because it’s the only organization of its kind for hundreds of miles in any direction in the sprawling, high-desert Four Corners region of the country, a region that draws immigrants to work in the tourism, construction and agricultural industries.

Mosher explains that Compañeros recently changed its name, adding “Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center” to the name to reflect the fact that the organization serves not only Latinos but also the growing number of people who are coming to the region from all over the world.

Compañeros this year has helped immigrants from China, Eastern Europe, the Himalayas, Indonesia, Ireland, the Island of Malta and Norway, Mosher said.

She describes the organization as a one-stop shop.

“We do a lot of education about how to comply with U.S. laws, about traffic laws, about civil rights, about constitutional rights. We give free tax assistance. We make a lot of referrals to medical and legal experts… We help parents understand school systems, how to navigate hospitals and courts. We connect victims of sexual assault with the help they need, deal with domestic violence, help find affordable housing and talk about energy efficiency. We provide information on adult education opportunities.”

No one called

Mosher said Compañeros does not subscribe to a gay-rights agenda and that she would have explained that to CCHD, except that no one at CCHD ever asked her about the organization’s stand on gay rights.

“We serve some gay immigrants. We serve some gay Catholic immigrants, too, because helping immigrants is what we do,” she said. “We don’t have a gay-rights agenda. We have an immigrant-rights agenda.”

“Honestly, we weren’t concerned about One Colorado joining CIRC because the fact is we support all immigrants. That’s what we do. We don’t pick and choose like that. We never thought we were violating our grant agreement.”

Messages left with Mahoney, CCHD’s liason in Pueblo, asking for details about the conversations he had with Mosher and with CCHD about One Colorado and Compañeros have so far gone unanswered.

“The news that our grant was in jeopardy seemed to come out of nowhere,” Mosher said. “There were no red flags. I was never told the source of the information or where they got it.

The ‘Ten Commitments’

For Catholic Church watchers, the Compañeros story will come as little surprise.

CCHD, a Church initiative based on the 1967 “people’s development” encyclical issued by Pope Paul IV, underwent an intense “review and renewal” process in 2010, tied to mounting accusations that “particular organizations [funded by CCHD] are taking actions… that conflict with Catholic teaching,” according to the report issued on the process after it was completed (pdf).

The result of the review was that CCHD implemented a program based around “Ten Commitments” that would act as a road map for the organization to assure critics it was being “faithful to the Gospel, its Catholic identity and its mission.”

In effect, CCHD was caught in a cultural tug of war, its Vatican II-era progressive mission eyed warily by Catholic groups (here and here) increasingly aligned with the U.S. Christian right. Thread throughout the 2010 report are direct and indirect references to abortion, birth control and the sanctity of marriage.

The authors of the report write that the aim of the Ten Commitments program was to “develop more specific ethical guidance to help the Bishops carry out CCHD’s policy of prohibiting funding to groups which are part of coalitions that act in conflict with fundamental Catholic moral and social teaching. Establish new structures, including ongoing consultation with moral theologians and a CCHD Review Board, to help bishops address moral issues involving organizational relationships and coalitions which may seek some common goals, but possibly also raise serious questions on what is morally permissible cooperation and collaboration and what is not.”

An earlier request

In fact, the Catholic Campaign’s “Ten Commitments” program spurred changes at Compañeros in the past.

Mosher said that when she arrived at the organization in 2010, CCHD asked her to break with progressive nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, which had housed Compañeros for years, taking in donations for Compañeros and often paying some of its bills. Representatives from CCHD explained it was seeking to avoid giving money to so-called pass-through organizations, whose activities it might not choose to support, if even just by association.

Despite the unattractive prospect of losing the support of the San Juan Citizens Alliance and having to undertake the involved process of making Compañeros its own tax-exempt 501c3 organization, Mosher said the offer was difficult to turn down.

“With CCHD, we had the prospect of receiving up to $50,000 a year for six years. You then take two years off and can reapply for the same amount,” she said.

Now that CCHD and Compañeros look to be parting ways, Mosher is seeking other sources of funding. She notes that, in the wake of the New York Times story, groups have rushed to ask their supporters to donate to Compañeros. Those groups include One Colorado, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, CIRC and Catholics United.

“I just keep thinking that I don’t want to lose sight of why we’re here. We’re not turning anyone away,” said Mosher. “They come sometimes looking for more than we can give. We have to keep rising to meet the demand.

“We’ll be doing local fundraisers and the Durango community is very generous. Immigrant families will give back.”

[ Image: Templar Crosses at the Serres Church via Ben Hammott ]