Rocio Rios/Catholic Sentinel
Nona Carrasco holds a sign Feb. 5 as part of human shield to protect St. Peter Church, which suffered verbal attacks the previous week: "We who are united cannot be divided."
Rocio Rios/Catholic Sentinel
Nona Carrasco holds a sign Feb. 5 as part of human shield to protect St. Peter Church, which suffered verbal attacks the previous week: "We who are united cannot be divided."

Father Raúl Marquez had never seen anything like it. Eight men walked to the front door of St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland Jan. 29 and began bellowing during the Spanish Mass. Dressed like hunters, they accused worshipers of not being true Christians, questioned the sexual morals of the women and harangued the congregation for being made up of immigrants.

The harmony that naturally comes from Mass was shattered. The community, already living in fear because of federal immigration policy proposals, was shocked.

“All that Sunday I felt upset and didn't understand,” says Father Marquez, a Colombian native who has been pastor of St. Peter for five years. “How I was going to be happy while I heard and remembered the verbal insult? I was looking for an answer.”

The gospel reading of the day said, in part, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you.”

The following Sunday, Feb. 5, an answer to the priest’s question came and the fear was soothed as more than 300 people formed a human shield in front of St. Peter Church during Masses. News of the previous week’s attack had gone out on social media, drawing the crowd that stood in silence, holding signs.    

"I didn't expect this outpouring of love for us,” said Alberto González, an Oaxaca native who has been a member of St. Peter for 18 months. “This time is very difficult for us and here we are surrounded by love of all of the American people, who came to show they are here, we are one, we are one community.”

With tears in his eyes, González says he has not felt supported until now. At first, he thought the large group of white people had come to hurl more invective, but then he saw they had come to protect their brothers and sisters.

“This is solidarity,” González said. “This is love.”

Parishioners got a lesson in non-violent response to harassment. A table of coffee and sweets was put up near the front door of the church for protectors who came out despite chilly rain.

Joining Father Marquez in a sign of support were Father Ron Millican from nearby Our Lady of Sorrows Church and Rev. Elizabeth Larson from St Mark Lutheran Church.

“I wanted to come here and hug each person,” Rev. Larson said. 

Father Millican invited his parishioners to come and show support. “We need to be together,” he said. “It is very sad that it takes something like this to make us come together. But it is beautiful — the outpouring of support for the dignity of everyone.”

Nona Carrasco was one of those outside who got completely wet. “This is my community,” Carrasco said. “I don't stand for bigotry. I will stand for my community and this is what we do.”

Also in the crowd was Matt Cato, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

Father Márquez received hundreds of messages of support, the very first a letter from Archbishop Alexander Sample, who told the people he stands with them.

After Mass, Father Marquez walked out to thank supporters. He could barely move as people hugged him and asked for his blessing.

“This is the time to live the Gospel radically by praying for those men and their few sympathizers and to intentionally forgive them,” the priest said.