BARRIO LOGAN – Young people love to hang out, dance and ride their cars.
Father Richard Brown gave them what they loved – along with a few words about God. In turn, they loved him, followed him in record numbers, even gang members.
He’s been connecting with young people for seven decades — and he’s not done yet. Though slowed by arthritis that makes it hard to walk, the 89-year-old celebrates Mass every morning at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. And he keeps a busy social calendar despite officially retiring years ago.
His is a love story. It’s about a priest who loves people, regardless of ethnic origin, age or social standing. It’s about a parish that loves its legendary leader. And it’s about a neighborhood that loves arguably its most recognizable friend.
His story is relevant today as the Catholic Church scrambles from Rome to community parishes everywhere to figure out how to bring young people through their doors.
That’s precisely what Father Brown was called to do in 1968, when he was first assigned to be assistant pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe, serving Spanish-speaking families.
That assignment came naturally to him. A San Diego native, he had graduated from St. Augustine High in 1944 and earned a master’s in theology from Gonzaga University after a stint in the Merchant Marine. After being ordained a Jesuit priest in 1958, he taught English, Spanish and Hispanic culture in Los Angeles. He then worked for five years in Mexico City, where he formed the Club San Ignacio de Loyola, which become one of the most popular youth centers in the region.
Father Brown would serve at the parish for 37 years, alongside Father Jaime Rasura. He organized young Catholics there like never before, began celebrations that became revered traditions and literally touched generations of people whose faith is grounded in Barrio Logan.
Hundreds of these individuals will gather June 18 at a dinner to honor his 70 years of Jesuit service – and to raise funds for scholarships for his beloved cause, Our Lady’s School.
Adela Garibay was 17 years old when Father Brown arrived. Her family was a member of the congregation and she volunteered at the parish office.
“Here was this priest in shorts,” she recalled. “He was so relaxed, so different than we were used to.”
The parish groups for Latino youth regularly drew 10 to 15 individuals.
“He recognized that there was a whole group of people who were disengaged,” she said, and got to work.
In 1969, he established a church chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), a diocesan program to attract young people that in turn was part of an initiative from the U.S. Catholic Conference. He invited Garibay to join.
“First, we just had 50 members, then 100, then 200,” Garibay said. “Sometimes we would pack the Century Room at the El Cortez Hotel for dances with 1,000 members.”
Father Brown ran the CYO like a club, offering weekly social activities for the members. These included parties once a month in the church hall, dances on boats, such as the Bahia Belle, outings to Disneyland and even trips to Hawaii. Club members held events to raise funds for these activities.
“Some people still tell me that was the most fun they ever had,” recalled Father Brown.
He spoke to the youngsters about God but not in the traditional way, she said, like quoting Bible verses.
“He taught us about living the way God wanted us to live and to enjoy it,” she recalled. “And to not be upset that maybe we weren’t perfect. He would tell us to work at it.”
She recalled what he told the members at one early CYO meeting.
“The Church is not perfect. We’ve had serious problems. We have had bad priests and bad popes but we have come through all of that.”
He would tell each person that God gave them a talent and that it was up to them to discover what that was and to use it.
At one point, Father Brown asked Garibay to lead the organization. She doubted she could. He told her that it was within her to be a leader.
She trusted him and would go on to lead the organization for 10 years.
“The CYO was the rock on which I was built. All of my leadership skills, my ability to be a team member, the confidence that was instilled, all that stuff came from CYO and Father Brown.”
Today, Adela Garcia, as she’s called after marrying, is a retired executive from IBM and one of the best known activists in the region. She’s co-chair of the dinner to honor the father.
She lists name after name of individuals who say Father Brown transformed their life. “The love for this man spans family, after family, after family.”
Father Brown had a gift for understanding the Latino culture “better than we did,” she said.
He recognized the importance of cars to Hispanics, for instance. When lowrider club members wanted to participate in the first procession of vehicles to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe the father organized in 1971, he welcomed them.
That parade would become an annual tradition that attracts thousands of participants each December who march, dance or drive from San Diego City College to the Civic Center. Father Brown also began the annual tradition of blessing the lowriders each spring, a custom that continues on Chicano Park Day.
In 1970 Rachel Ortiz helped to found Barrio Station, a center for youth at risk of joining gangs of falling prey to drugs and crime. A lowrider club recommended she meet Father Brown.
She did and invited him to join Barrio Station’s inaugural board of directors. He’s been a member ever since, and now, some 46 years later, serves as board president. He has stood alongside Ortiz as she advocated over the decades for support of the center, including speaking at City Hall.
Ortiz credits Father Brown with working outside of the church walls to connect with residents, including gang members
“He would walk the neighborhood and have no fear,” he recalled. “He would talk to a lot of dangerous kids that no one else wanted to waste their time on.”
Ortiz considers Father Brown like family.
“He is like a father to me. We’re very, very close. I can talk to him about anything,” she said.
“He will always be our ‘Padre del barrio.’ He is a natural-born leader. He is our spiritual leader. He is a father to all of us.”
The Southern Cross