Priest Wishes Diocese Would Care More : Migrant Aid: Father Michael Diehl's outspoken efforts to help immigrant laborers have not always made life easy.


If He walked the earth today, says Father Michael Diehl, there is no question that Jesus Christ would be here in San Diego County: amid the migrant encampments of Encinitas, Carlsbad, Poway and other communities, where thousands of immigrant laborers reside in holes and makeshift shacks, often alongside prosperous suburban developments.

And, says the priest, He would frequent the area's bustling street corners, shrouded last week in early morning fog, where the men gather in the hope that motorists will stop and offer sorely needed employment.

"Jesus Christ would never have condoned this," Diehl says, just having completed another exhausting morning of driving the area's roads, handing out food and clothing to the assembled immigrant men seeking work.

For years, Padre Miguel, as he is universally known, has ministered to the job-seekers from Mexico and Central America. Now 71, the blue-eyed, silver-haired World War II Navy flier still indefatigably makes his early rounds of the street corners, prompting smiles from the waiting men thankful for breakfast and a friendly face.

The veteran priest is also outspoken about his belief that the Roman Catholic Church could--and should--be doing more to assist migrants throughout the San Diego Diocese, which is now one of mankind's major migratory byways, bridging the Third World and the developed world. "The church should be out there with them," Diehl says again and again. "Jesus Christ is there." Father Diehl is there. For years, he has provided food, clothing and spiritual assistance to the migrants. He also says occasional masses in the fields, along with arranging sundry other services, from visits to doctors, to rides, to loans. He is currently attached to St. John's parish in Encinitas.

To obtain food and other goods, he has tapped a variety of sources, including the luxurious Champagne Bakery in Encinitas, which provides him with boxes of luscious day-old fruit tarts, croissants, eclairs and other delicacies.

Despite his work and that of other Catholic priests and lay people, Diehl sees official church complacency and failure to reach out to Latinos as a reason that Protestant sects and evangelicals have made such inroads among Roman Catholic worshipers, both in the United States and Latin America.

In San Diego, Diehl, who speaks Spanish, has agitated for more Spanish-language Masses and more classes in Spanish in the Catholic elementary schools. "The Mexican community has never been made to feel at home here," he says, as he negotiates his sedan along northern San Diego roads, having already given away most of the food he had packed into the car.

One of his current projects is a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico and all Latin America, at St. John's church in Encinitas. At his insistence, he says, the shrine will be situated inside the main church and not in a separate chapel--a frequent placement that he views as an affront to the immigrant and Latino community.

"My heart bleeds for these people," Padre Miguel says of the migrant workers. "This is such an injustice, what is done to them. We're such an affluent society, and yet we treat these people as though they were dirt."

His outspokenness and determination--and his emphasis on social justice--have not always made life easy for him, particularly among prosperous Catholics in conservative San Diego, where there is considerable resentment of the migrant population. Diehl recalls a run-in three years ago with a Carlsbad policeman who cited him for leaving his car in a no-parking zone while he was distributing food to immigrant workers gathered along a curb.

"He (the officer) yelled at me that I was a disgrace to the cloth," Padre Miguel recalls, now back at the same spot, again handing out food. "I had to pay a $35 fine for giving a man a sandwich."

He is not afraid to confront employers and others who harass and short-change the migrant workers--a frequent complaint. Not held in high esteem is a Carlsbad restaurant owner whose store fronts on a major migrant gathering place. The owner is widely disliked for his sneering treatment of the laborers.

"I'm sure he's a good Catholic," Padre Miguel muttered facetiously of the man as he lingered outside the restaurant, chatting with the job-seekers.

One Encinitas parishioner, apparently not in agreement with the social-justice content of some of Diehl's sermons, will not receive Communion from Diehl, preferring to wait for a deacon to pass out the consecrated hosts. "He's rich; he plays golf," Diehl explains about the man. "Some people just hate me, but I can't help that."

The priest, like his charges, has also had run-ins with U.S. immigration authorities. On Palm Sunday, 1986, the Border Patrol arrested him and charged him as a smuggler because two undocumented Mexican men were riding in his car. Father Miguel says he was only giving them a ride after they had been robbed and beaten up. Nonetheless, he was taken into custody, strip-searched and confined for the evening in the patrol's detention facility in San Ysidro.

"The only thing Father Diehl is guilty of is being a nice guy," a Border Patrol agent said later, according to court papers.

Charges were eventually dropped, but authorities seized Diehl's car, a gift from the Latino community, and haven't returned it.

Diehl's hard-charging personality--some say stubbornness and refusal to compromise--have clearly turned off some people, including some who are sympathetic to his work. Ozvaldo Venzor, an Encinitas resident who heads a group called Friends of the Undocumented, said he gave up trying to work with the father.

"He does his thing, but it's always got to be done his way," Venzor said. (Diehl said the two did not get along.)

Because of his strong will and independent bent, some fellow priests and community workers say Padre Miguel can be difficult to work with. "He does a great job, but he wants to do things his own way," said one priest. "He's isolated, a one-man show. But that's his style."

Church authorities have not always appreciated his straightforward approach; but they have apparently recognized his value. For his part, Diehl acknowledges that he lacks some of the political acumen that is needed to weed one's way through church and government bureaucracies. What he does best is perform good works, which has always been a central component of Christianity.

"I just can't be a politician," explains Diehl, frustrated by the realization of his limits. "I'm a man of God. I live in His presence. That's what's important."

Indeed, one is never far removed from the spiritual element when speaking with Diehl, or listening to one of his sermons. His animated conversation is laced with references to Christ, to love, to the Scriptures and to his widely varied religious reading. He tries to pray three to four hours a day. One day a week, he spends an afternoon praying by himself in a room in Tijuana. (Trim, fit and ever-energetic, he says he also finds a different kind of release in regular jogging and swimming, despite his longtime asthma.) He recalls religious retreats with awe. When jailed by the Border Patrol, he says, Christ spoke to him.

"One thing I'm not," Diehl says, "is a social worker."

A humanist and not a politician, he says he is suspect of the philosophy of the followers of the doctrine known as liberation theology, whose views on revolution and the redistribution of income have put them at odds with the church hierarchy. Despite his maverick positions, Diehl speaks of the need for obedience among priests; he holds Pope Paul II in high esteem.

How did he come to be a priest with his peculiar vocation? Through the military. Diehl, a German-American and Catholic native of western Pennsylvania, where his parents ran a restaurant and bar, was an early pilot for Pan American Airlines, guiding the water-landing clipper ships in those still-embryonic days of trans-Atlantic aviation. (He says he learned to fly from a correspondence course.) But he felt unsatisfied.

When World War II broke out, he became a Navy flier. While stationed in Corpus Christi, he says, he was struck by the second-class treatment of people of Mexican ancestry, whom he had never met before.

"Before I left Corpus Christi, I said that one day I would work with these people," he recalls, seated now in his office in Encinitas, where the walls are decorated with images of the Virgin and other religious likenesses from Mexico, where he just spent a month's vacation.

Later, in Dallas, he met a priest whose work left a deep impression on him, prompting him to consider a religious life. After the war, Diehl studied at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and entered the seminary. Once ordained, he was posted to a parish along the U.S.-Mexico border in Douglas, Ariz., fulfilling his premonition in Corpus Christi. He later spent five years as a missionary in South America. He has been in the San Diego area since 1972.

Now nearing retirement, he contemplates spiritual studies and trips, particularly to Mexico. Before leaving, though, he says, he will see to construction of the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. "It's going inside the church," he says definitively. "I'm making sure of that."

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