By Jerry Duggan
After working his way to professional success as an architect, Fr. Rafael Garcia, SJ, found that his true calling in life is ministering to immigrant communities with needs similar to the one he grew up in.
Father Garcia was nine years old when his family fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba and settled in Miami. His family’s first few years in the U.S. were difficult. Father Garcia’s father was unable to leave Cuba, and they had little money. Despite lacking transportation and having to adapt to a new culture, a strong work ethic got them through these times.
As a young man, Fr. Garcia gravitated toward the field of architecture. In ninth grade, a graphics course with a great teacher sparked his interest. That summer, he was offered a part-time job after school at an architect’s office.
After graduating from public high school, Fr. Garcia enrolled in community college before transferring to the University of Miami to pursue a degree in architecture. As he succeeded professionally, something else was going on in the background of his life.
A group of Fr. Garcia’s colleagues were part of a Christian Life Community (CLC). CLCs are groups of lay men and women who anchor their faith life on Ignatian Spirituality. He first went to the Thursday evening Mass and gathering at the invitation of the architect whom he worked for after high school. The more Fr. Garcia got involved, the more he found community and grew in the faith. In time, he received the long overdue Sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation and became active in the Church. Still, he loved his career as an architect and felt otherwise fulfilled.
When a major architecture project was postponed, Fr. Garcia unexpectedly had the time to take a long-desired pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, he felt a call to the priesthood that marked his life.
“I don’t really know how to explain what I felt, because it was so different than anything else I’ve felt,” he said. Months later in Miami during a yearly retreat, he felt confirmed in his call.
“I knew I had to take action,” he said.
Father Garcia consulted his friend and CLC director, a Jesuit priest, who encouraged Fr. Garcia to apply to the Society of Jesus. Father Garcia did, and entered the novitiate in 1983 at the age of 30.
During his formation years, one unique experience was to direct the construction of a mission-style psychiatric hospital for impoverished persons in the Tijuana, Mexico, area. Father Garcia designed the building, a project of which he first became aware as a novice. The hospital opened in 1998, and he still stays in touch with many in Tijuana, though the hospital closed in 2018, due to financial hardships.
Father Garcia was ordained a priest in 1993.
“I didn’t really know what was in store for me,” he explained.
In fall 1993, Fr. Garcia was assigned as associate pastor at a then-Jesuit parish in Tampa, Fla. He also coordinated the parish religious education program and served as chaplain at the parish school.
After a year, Fr. Garcia was named pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, the historic Jesuit parish located a few blocks from the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas. Father Garcia fell in love with the parish community and his ministry to the predominately poor, immigrant community. He stayed there for 13 years.
“My assignment at Sacred Heart was so much more than an assignment,” he recounts. “It was a life-changing experience to work with people who had so little but were so generous in spirit and with profound faith.”
Father Garcia worked with families in need every day, providing them with pastoral care and moral support. Being an immigrant himself, Fr. Garcia found this work particularly rewarding.
“I was honored to lead that faith community for so many years,” he said.
During his time in El Paso, Fr. Garcia also served in diocesan ministries and was involved in activities to preserve the neighborhood – el segundo barrio – from destruction.
After a yearlong sabbatical, in 2008 Fr. Garcia was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., where he served as pastor for five and a half years. Here, he served a sizable population and, eventually, ministered at a nearby immigrant detention center. A Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) community began during his time as pastor, and the parish has a large parochial school. So, the responsibilities were many. But, the People of God and the staff were wonderful to work with.
Father Garcia next served as pastor at St. Francis Xavier in Kansas City, Mo., another fulfilling assignment. Many committed and progressive parishioners keep this parish alive and seeking justice. There, he was introduced to a migrant farm worker community in Lexington, Mo., a rural community an hour east of the parish. Father Garcia, a group of students from neighboring Rockhurst University, and parishioners provided pastoral care to this group, many of whom had no spiritual “home” in the U.S. Welcoming these people into the faith was particularly fulfilling for Fr. Garcia.
“Many of them were embarrassed about not being confirmed, or not regularly attending Mass,” he explained. “I told them that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and that I lived that experience myself.” Their celebrations for the sacraments of initiation were particularly joyful, vibrant occasions.
In 2016, Fr. Garcia returned to El Paso, working in pastoral care at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers and two residential detention centers for unaccompanied minors. The faith and resilience of the detainees, young or old, suffering from family separation, impacted and humbled Fr. Garcia.
“There are a lot of narratives out there about migrants coming to take American jobs, or bringing crime or disease with them,” he explained. “In my experience, these narratives are not true. These people are forced to leave their homes and are just looking for somewhere safe to go and to save their families. The least we can do is empathize with that human concern.”
Father Garcia was again named pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, in July 2020. Since his initial assignment at the parish, much has changed, but more remains the same.
“Families who I knew years ago have had their children grow up, and many have come and gone, but the needs in this community are still great,” he said.
From his everyday interactions with parishioners, to visits to detention centers along the border, Fr. Garcia seeks to bring the good news of Christ to everyone he encounters. Yet, he feels he often receives more. As Ignatius taught, love is lived “in giving and receiving.”
“I came to the U.S. as a child, a refugee, with my mother and brother, so I can relate to the struggles these good people go through, which is typically is far worse than what I endured,” he explained. “The migrant/immigrant people I serve in various contexts are strong, resilient people of faith. I’m blessed to serve as pastor in this community. Through them, I’ve been confirmed in my true calling in life.”