Monday, March 2, 2009

Hoosier Priest helps Hispanic community

Hispanic community has steadfast advocate in the Rev. Tom Fox
Hoosier priest is steadfast advocate for area Hispanics
By Robert King Indy Star March 2, 2009

The Rev. Tom Fox doesn't ask parishioners at his Spanish Masses whether they are living in America legally. He doesn't care.

To those angered by illegal border crossings, Fox poses a simple question: If your family was starving and you had no job, wouldn't you do the same?

And when he considers the disparities between rich and poor, Fox wonders whether maybe a little redistribution of wealth would be a good thing. After all, he says, hasn't wealth been redistributed to the rich and powerful for long enough?

Few of these views would ever win Fox elected office. Even his own sister calls him a communist. But Fox has won something more important to him: the hearts of hundreds of Hispanic Catholics whom the 73-year-old priest serves across Central Indiana.

His reach extends far beyond that, though. He helped organize a 2006 march that sent 20,000 Hispanics into the streets of Indianapolis in a call for immigration reform. He's gone to jail for janitors seeking better wages. And, a little more than a year from his likely retirement, he continues to speak to lawmakers on behalf of Indiana's immigrants.

"I think he's a saint," said Nydia Spencer, a native of El Salvador who lives in Columbus, Ind.

A native Hoosier, the priest decided midlife to learn Spanish. Now he is fluent, even picking up nuances of regional Mexican dialects. To Hispanic Catholics in Columbus, Shelbyville, Seymour and Greensburg, Fox has become the voice of the church -- a tangible sign that, though they are far from home, the church still speaks their language.

But his work in speaking out to the powerful has perhaps resonated the most.

When efforts by janitors to win better wages stalled, Fox joined a handful of other clergy in a sit-in at Market Tower. They parked themselves in the lobby until police hauled them away.

While in the holding tank, he heard confessions from his fellow inmates.

Last week, Fox testified before a Senate committee on the ground-level implications of the latest immigration bill, which would suspend state business licenses of employers who, on three separate occasions, knowingly hire undocumented workers.

"He brings the experience of the immigrant to the legislature," said Glenn Tebbe, a lobbyist for the Indiana Catholic Conference, which represents the state's Catholic dioceses. "Whereas many of them can't come and testify for themselves . . . he can."
Unforgettable scene

Fox didn't come to his social activism easily.

Born in Indianapolis, he grew up the son of a businessman who didn't much care for union leaders. But Fox had an uncle who was a Franciscan priest, an order whose namesake was devoted to the poor and the oppressed. At 21, he entered the life of the friars, and their vow of poverty resonates with him still.

"Jesus chose a way of poverty to show us his love," he said. "St. Francis didn't want to see anyone that was poorer than him. He would give away his cloak to somebody who didn't have a cloak."

But his decision 25 years into his ministry to take on the challenge of learning Spanish nearly cost him his life.

Fox immersed himself in the language by moving in 1987 to El Salvador, where there was an ongoing civil war. When fighting flared up near his parish, the church became a haven for refugees, an island in a war zone.

"I felt we were very near death," he said. After fighting subsided, Fox and another friar emerged to find devastation, death and burning bodies.

"That's something you don't forget."

The U.S. backed El Salvador's military government over left-wing guerrillas, which Fox believes was a mistake. He thinks the people of El Salvador would have been better served by socialists than a military dictator.

Two decades later, Fox is still putting his deeply held views on social justice ahead of the prevailing American political winds.

The prospect of amnesty for undocumented immigrants -- granting them citizenship despite their illegal entry -- sends some folks into conniptions. But Fox said amnesty is already a useful, time-honored facet of American society. Four years ago, Gov. Mitch Daniels granted amnesty to delinquent taxpayers.

So what does Father Tom think is really at work?

"I don't like to say it, but I think it becomes a real white-power type of thing," he said. "We just become very uncomfortable that our country isn't going to be as predominantly white as it once was."
An admirable foe

Needless to say, Fox's views have their critics.

David Bego, president and chief executive of Executive Management Services, whose employees clean hundreds of offices in Indianapolis, said Fox's efforts to help janitors unionize arose from good intentions but bad information.

A Catholic himself, Bego said janitors with his company resisted unionization because they are happy on their jobs and earn more than they might under a union contract. He said Fox and the others swallowed every argument union organizers fed them.

Still, Bego said Fox can't be faulted for being "pro-people."

"It is admirable what he does," Bego said. "He believes what he believes."

State Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, the most ardent proponent for tougher immigration law enforcement in Indiana, said the argument that economic needs should essentially erase national borders is fraught with negative consequences.

"I think that attitude breeds erosion for the respect of the rule of law, which creates other social problems."

Delph rejects as "ridiculous" the idea that support for tougher enforcement has something to do with wanting white power. "I think it is an extremist allegation that is designed to try and gin up opposition to defeat a legitimate proposal."

It was Fox's Franciscan order that, in 1875, founded his home parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Their mission: serve a growing population of German immigrants. The friars would make circuits of Central Indiana, bringing the church to newcomers in their own language.

Nearly 135 years later, Fox covers some of the same ground, taking the Gospel to a people waiting to hear the message in their own tongue.

"I see it," he said, "as following the tradition."
Call Star reporter Robert King at (317) 444-6089.

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