We sat in the patio of the Episcopal Church of Yauco as the slender young priest, Padre Pedro del Valle Tirado, delivered his sermon. His Afro-style hair topped fine features that were clean-shaven, except for a bushy moustache. Spanish words shot forth with earnest intensity to the little circle of devoted parishioners. Padre Pedro had been locked out of the church after his dismissal by the Episcopal Court. He was no longer authorized to perform the sacrament, but the Dame la Mano (Give me your hand) greeting of peace, the spirited singing, the jovial interchange of pleasantries between Padre Pedro and his "flock" bespoke the warmth of a loving extended family. Having no children of her own, his wife, Dolly, mothered the children in the congregation, and cradled a restless baby in her arms. Since our host in Yauco, Guillermo, was Episcopalian, we attended services with him. Though we could not understand the sermons, we liked the lively young priest and the warmth of the ritual.
Soon after, Padre Pedro and Dolly found themselves locked out of the parish house, as well. As their belongings were moved out, they set up housekeeping on the sidewalk in front of the church. There they camped for fifty-seven days at what came to be known as "Villa Colchón" (Mattress City), a part of the militant resistance against the dismissal shared by an angry congregation.
Tension had been mounting for some years between the young priest and his bishop, with accusations slung back and forth. Finally, the Padre was tried by the Ecclesiastic Court, charged with being undisciplined, disobedient, and having broken canonical laws. Church members surrounded the Court with protest posters: "The Church belongs to the people and thus should be based on love so that the spirit of Justice may prevail." Signs were hung in the church and inscribed on its walls.
As a result of Padre Pedro's militancy, he was dismissed from teaching his course on the New Testament at the Interamerican University of San Germán. Dolly, however, retained her position as counselor.
A native of Mayagüez, Padre Pedro had graduated from the Interamerican University. After four years of religious training at a seminar in Carolina, he was prepared to fulfill his commitment to not only preach the Gospel, but to witness to it in action.
He had grown up in poverty. Deserted by his father, his mother had worked in a factory to support the three children. To further his education, he had to work at the docks from the age of sixteen. He then felt it his mission to administer to the poor.
Foremost in his philosophy was the urgency of liberation, both personal and national: personal liberation to allow for the fulfillment of one's potential, to be free from hunger, from inadequate housing, from oppression; national liberation of Puerto Rico from its colonial status. On this latter issue, though most of the Episcopal priests of Puerto Rico might have agreed, Padre Pedro was the most outspoken.
By July of 1984, Padre Pedro and Dolly were to celebrate the first anniversary of their eviction. They had found an empty, dilapidated building in the downtown area, suitable for a church home. Through the generosity and hard work of those remaining with Padre Pedro, and fund-raising through the sale of pasteles, the church emerged: Iglesia Episcopal del Pueblo. The finishing touch was a crucifix, formed from two branches of the guenepa tree in the backyard.
Supporters poured in from all over Puerto Rico for the celebration. Nationalists Irvin Flores and Oscar Collazo were there in support. Rafael Cancel read the scripture from the Old Testament. The celebration was a joyful one.
The Church, by now, had been incorporated as part of the Iglesia Episcopal del Pueblo of Latin America. Activities had begun: a motion picture on Nicaragua, a pantomime for the children, music for adolescents, workshops in sewing and journalism, weekly Bible discussions. Padre Pedro's followers included people he had helped get out of jail, people he had pulled out of the drug habit or from prostitution, or found money for to cure some illness. They found in the church a fountain of services, and respect for people as human beings. Almost all were poor or unemployed.
The congregation, meeting first in homes, had begun the task of revising the liturgy.
We believe in God, Father Liberator of the people Who has made a good and rich world for everybody and Who hates the usurper who appropriates for himself, condemns to a misery not merited innumerable human beings.
We believe in Jesus, Who declared Himself sent by the Father Who was born of a woman of the people, assuming the condition of worker among workers, Who incarnated Himself among the subjugated of the earth declaring them blessed and equal to Him; Who condemned with harsh words the exploiters, Who was denounced as subversive in the established order....
We believe that there will be a historical justice in which all and each one of us will be judged in accordance with our works of oppression or liberation....
We believe in the Community of believers who united in the Spirit of Love will be strengthened to prepare a better humanity in which there will be no aggressors nor victims of aggression and in which oppression and war will no longer exist.
The liturgy included prayers for patriots struggling for the independence of their country, such as Isabel Rosado.
The publication, Voces was created to deal with Puerto Rican traditions, history and culture, the theology of liberation, concern for political prisoners. The purpose, as Padre Pedro stated, was to stimulate dialogue on the humanization of society, to rescue such values as valor, sacrifice, responsibility, exaltation of life.
Padre Pedro envisions a congregation sharing the joys and sorrows of their brothers and sisters. "Nothing bothers and sickens us more than the existence of human beings exploited and victimized by an unjust order, or by a church embodied only in the existing economy, served by a clergy myopic and deaf before the plaint of the poor," Padre Pedro once wrote. "We must translate words into action ... through fighting, but most especially through loving.
"Peace supposes a love so big for another human being, that one is willing to give up his life for him. While the rich continue oppressing the poor, there will be no peace; while there is repression, persecution, invasion in Puerto Rican homes, there will be no peace; while our country continues to be invaded by U.S. imperialism, there will be no peace," he concludes.
"With regard to violence," Padre Pedro asserts, "We are trying to recapture what God, Father of the people, has given for all Puerto Ricans. Therefore, our acts are not violent; violent are those who use federal funds to buy the conscience and the votes of those who suffer; violent are those who exploit and humiliate the poor and arrest them, as happened August 30, 1985."
Dolly writes to us that their church is involved in educating their people and alerting them to the dangers of militarism in Puerto Rico. "We are opposed to the use of Puerto Rico as a go- between for the invasions of the United States against Latin American and Caribbean countries, and the use of Puerto Rico as an arsenal of nuclear weapons. We, as Christians, oppose this."
When Padre Pedro is accused of being political, he replies, "We are in the politics of love, of fraternity and peace. If this is being political, then for this, King of Gods, political I am."