The recent service among old oak trees in Visalia's Mooney Grove Park was one of nine stops on a yearlong "mobile Mass" tour to rural communities in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
The clothing and location are unusual for the bishop, who normally celebrates Mass in the large, ornate St. John's Cathedral in downtown Fresno.
In Mooney Grove, he points out the beauty of a statue of a Native American warrior riding a horse and talks about how tribes in the central San Joaquin Valley have long considered the land here sacred — and that he does, too.
This gesture is a nice surprise for Johnny Luna, a Native American listening to the bishop's homily.
"When he said that, I smiled," Luna says.
He says it "felt good" to hear because Native American history is seldom discussed or recorded.
The mobile Masses highlight local history and struggles facing people who are "sometimes forgotten or hidden from view," says Monsignor Raymond Dreiling, vicar general for the diocese.
It's also a way for the diocese to celebrate its 50th anniversary by getting back to its missionary roots. Clergy once preached to rural communities via "chapel cars."
Church leaders have revived that practice with a new mobile chapel — a retrofitted trailer pulled by a truck. The words "siempre adelante" painted on its side mean "always forward" — the motto of Saint Junípero Serra in the 1700s when he founded a string of Catholic missions in California.
The mobile chapel, unveiled in December, should be put to good use in a diocese that covers eight counties. It was taken earlier this year to Manzanar National Historic Site in the eastern Sierra, the location of an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Survivors of the camp attended the somber service. There were 200 Catholics interned there just because they had Japanese surnames, Ochoa says.
"We certainly shamefacedly have to pick up the pieces and say, 'Never again,' " Ochoa says. "Never again should that happen."
Protecting DACA youth
The church may not have directly caused that injustice or other dark chapters in history, but it still was part of a society that did, Dreiling says, and that's important to acknowledge and to ask for forgiveness.
"There's been a change of heart," Dreiling says. "The church now stands very vocal and officially opposed to discrimination in all its forms."
In that spirit, the Catholic Bishops of California issued a statement in September urging immigration reform for those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and their families. Dreiling estimates about 70 percent of approximately 1.3 million registered Catholics in the Diocese of Fresno are Hispanic.
"DACA students are not the so-called 'bad hombres,' an insidious label used to instill fear in others and feed the racism and nativism that unfortunately is rearing its ugly head in our cities," the statement reads. "Far from it, DACA-eligible youth are high school graduates, in school or working on their GED. Many are now in college. They may be honorably discharged members of the armed services. No one convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor (or three misdemeanors) can apply for DACA."
After the Mass at Mooney Grove, Ochoa talked about push-back on that statement.
"People say, 'Oh you bishops are involved in politics.' This is not politics," Ochoa says. "This is the doctrine of social justice that we'll continue to proclaim."
He says there's a "mean spirit alive and well" in society today and unless people speak about Gospel values, others will buy into the "whole enchilada" and not say anything about it.
Breaking down barriers
The doctrine of social justice continued during a mobile Mass at Fresno's Kearney Park on Sept. 19.
Dreiling started by talking about how Kearney once was considered "the most beautiful park west of the Mississippi River" — 200-plus acres owned by Martin Kearney, who helped establish the prosperous raisin industry in the central San Joaquin Valley. A large mansion in the park was meant to be housing for servants once Kearney's palace was completed, which never happened.
"But there's another side to this story," Dreiling continues, "that we cannot and must not shy away from or allow to stay hidden from our view. All this that we see around us — the plants, the trees, this park, the 11-mile drive known as Kearney Boulevard, the historical mansion that I mentioned earlier, the land and all the economic development that has sustained us — all this did not happen on its own. The vast majority of the efforts to make it happen was accomplished by the backbreaking work of laborers.
"Young and old, men, women and children, mostly immigrants from China and from Latin America. If you drove to the park down Kearney Boulevard, I hope you noticed all the palm trees and oleanders. These were not planted by machines. They were planted, one-by-one, by Chinese laborers. Called in those days 'coolies' who worked in the blazing heat of the summer to earn about 10 cents a day — 10 cents a day. And when their work was done, without a thank you, they were deported back to China.
"And of course, we know the struggle of Latino farm workers, and their many times unappreciated contributions to the wealth and the progress of our Valley. We cannot and must not forget them or honor them, too."
Dreiling's homily is in line with direction from Pope Francis for the Catholic Church to "accompany" those who are suffering. Dreiling knows many of the Chinese laborers, Native Americans, and Japanese Americans that he talked about were not likely Catholic, but that doesn't matter.
What does matter, Dreiling says, is this: Breaking down "real or imagined barriers that enslave people again or hide them from view or shame them as worthless or having no dignity."