Friday, November 19, 2010

Jesus Rivera

Getting together with Jesus Rivera for lunch is one of my favorite activities. Read on and you'll find out why. A couple of months ago we met at Arcos Restaurante, a "Mexican oasis" on Broadway in Fells Point.

In addition to tasty, authentic food, reasonable prices, good service, and a beautiful atrium/courtyard area, Arcos boasts an awesome portrait of Frida Kahlo. I took a couple of photographs of Jesus looking up at Frida with a half-bemused, half-flirtatious expression. It was a great pic.

Unfortunately, you won't see it here, because I somehow managed to lose it among the four computers and random bits of portable memory that comprise the sum total of my creative output. So this Unsung Baltimore profile is sans photos, at least until the next time Jesus and I get together over pollo rostisado and chile en nogada.


Jesus Rivera cuts something of a dashing figure. The handsome 57-year-old has a wide, expressive brow, an easy grin, and smiling eyes. He dresses stylishly and enjoys dining out, particularly at the Mexican and Central American restaurants that have become destination eateries in Fells Point. He loves taking walks in his Charles Village neighborhood. He can be found at the Waverly Market each Saturday. In conversation, he is affable, relaxed, and attentive. When he speaks of his wife, he positively beams.

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that he spent most of his adult life as a celibate Catholic priest.

"Some people kid that I went into seminary at age 14 because I have 13 brothers and sisters," jokes Rivera, who grew up in Lorain, Ohio, about 30 miles west of Cleveland. "The truth is that I wanted to see more than Lorain. But nobody told me that Catholic priests don't get married!"

Large families were very much the norm for Rivera's parents, who moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland in the 1950's.

"My dad was number nine of 10 kids," says Rivera. "My abuelo had a large finca [plot of farmland], but dad was told that he wouldn't inherit. My mom was twelfth out of 14 kids! It was after World War II; Puerto Ricans fought, so things started opening up. Most people went to New York. My dad moved to New Jersey at first, but he heard about a USX job in Lorain, so they moved there."

They weren't the only ones. Lorain boasted a sizable Puerto Rican population even in the fifties and sixties. Rivera and his siblings grew up in the midst of a tight-knit community, the center of which was the local Catholic church.

"Sacred Heart Church was where I kept my culture," Rivera says. "The priest spoke Spanish, the songs were in Spanish, everything was in Spanish." This mingling of religious identity and cultural identity was responsible, to a certain extent at least, for his early interest in becoming a priest.

"Faith was a huge part of it, of course," he reflects. "It still is. I love the Word of God. I love serving God's people."

After 13 years in the seminary, Rivera entered the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, an order of Vincentian priests dedicated to serving "the poor and abandoned." As a Spanish speaker, Rivera found himself traveling often to Mexico and other parts of Latin America on mission work. He did this work diligently and with enthusiasm, and rose quickly through the order's ranks.

"I became the senior vice-president of the congregation," he says. "My job was, when one of our brothers got 'sick,' I would go to where they were and take care of them."

Rivera explains that by 'sick,' he is not referring to somatic medical conditions that could be treated at the local emergency room. Instead, the word was used by the order as code for "depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, homosexuality, child abuse, priests with families."

Rivera's heart went out to his 'sick' brothers, and he did what he could to help them with their problems. But he eventually became disillusioned with the church's emphasis on sweeping such problems under the rug, rather than addressing them head-on.

"I began to ask myself, what is it about our system that is making our brothers sick?" He smiles ruefully. "But that's just not a question that you ask in the Catholic Church."

That conflict, between his duty to suffering priests and his duty to church policy, began to take a toll on Rivera.

"I became seriously depressed myself and got counseling" from a layperson who was not part of the church. "After one year, I allowed myself to ask a question: is the Catholic priesthood really my vocation?"

His counselor helped him resolve this quandary by asking Rivera what being a priest meant to him.

"I said that for me, being a priest was about loving God and loving God's people."

The counselor then asked Rivera if he could continue to do those things without wearing a Roman collar. A short time after that, Rivera decided to leave the priesthood.

"I thought about going into real estate," chuckles Rivera. "I mean, after all, what does a guy who's been a priest for 24 years do?"

In 2005, he was introduced by friends in Pittsburgh to a woman who owned a set of instructional tapes on becoming a real estate agent. Her name was Leigh Kramer and she lived in Baltimore. "We hit it off," murmurs Rivera, smiling fondly.

He held onto her business card and thought often about contacting her to borrow those tapes, until one morning during his daily prayer, when he experienced an epiphany of sorts. "Call it whatever you will: spirit, God, the universe," says Rivera, his eyes growing wide at the memory. "I heard a clear voice that said, 'go meet her!'"

Acting on this newfound conviction, Rivera traveled to Baltimore and looked Ms. Kramer up. Then he asked her out.

"I was a real rookie," he says, somewhat embarrassed. "I hadn't been out on a date. I wasn't sure what you're supposed to do!"

Whatever he did clearly worked, because Rivera and Kramer got married not too long after that second meeting.

But if falling in love with Leigh happened with extraordinary speed and clarity, falling in love with Baltimore came more slowly for Rivera.

"There are obvious dividing lines here," he remarks. "If I walk to the left of my house, it's very beautiful. If I walk right and south, I see lots of crime, lots of poverty."

Rivera expresses frustration at these deep divisions in the city's social fabric. "Baltimore is so territorial! You stay on your side, I stay on my side, that kind of thing. All of us - Latinos, Blacks, Whites -- why are we in different groups? How can we connect?"

These questions led Rivera to become involved with the Latino Providers Network, a coalition of local nonprofit organizations and businesses interested in serving Baltimore's growing Hispanic population, and in bridging the gaps between Latinos and other members of the Baltimore community.

"I'm interested in finding ways to bring Latinos and African-Americans together," says Rivera, who recently stepped down as LPN's executive director to pursue other career goals. While he acknowledges the fault lines that exist between the two communities, Rivera is committed to exploring ways to find common ground.

"A lot of people feel that Latinos are stealing jobs, but the way that employers pick up Latino workers so they can pay them less is unjust for Latinos as well as African-Americans."

He is confident that LPN can work together with community partners like Morgan State University to have the tough but necessary conversations that need to take place. "I like to do things slowly, instead of 'let's have a meeting and get it over with,'" he says.

In addition to his activities with LPN, Rivera works as a life coach and as a counselor at Adelante Familia, where he counsels men who have perpetrated domestic abuse. "In a way, what I'm doing now [at Adelante] is very similar to what I was doing as a missionary," he muses. "I'm helping my sick brothers."

He has found another parallel with his former life. Along with a number of other married former priests, Rivera is a member of Rent-A-Priest, a national network of ordained Catholic clergy who perform a range of pastoral duties, though they are not sanctioned to do so by the Catholic Church.

"I've performed nine weddings this year," enthuses Rivera. He cites Hebrews 6 -- "you are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek" -- with emphasis on the word 'forever.' He also remembers what he told his former counselor: that being a priest is about loving God and loving God's people.

"I love being alone in quiet prayer every morning," he says. "I also love being with people, especially kids and families. And I love my time with my wife."

"It's all about inviting people in and helping them to connect," Rivera says with a smile. "I love for people to be involved."

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