Former Catholic priest and advocate for immigrants joins Episcopal church

Richard Estrada, 72, has made a name for himself in Los Angeles. He founded the first homeless shelter for immigrant youth in the city, planned the historic immigration march of 2006, and provided thousands of gallons of water to those crossing the border, dying of fatigue.

Now a former Catholic priest, Estrada recently decided to join the Episcopal church.

Estrada's concerns and motives fall with the 52 percent of Catholics who favor gay marriage and the 70 percent who favor ordination of women as clergy without special requirements. He told the Los Angeles Times that he felt "the pain of his gay and lesbian parishioners who were ashamed of their sexuality, and of women who he felt were treated as second-class citizens." Estrada joined the Episcopal church in August, partly because women, gays and lesbians are allowed to serve as priests and bishops.

As Estrada waited to hear whether or not the Episcopal church would give him a congregation, tens of thousands of children began to flee toward the border to escape violence in Central America. And like many times before, he responded: Estrada traveled to Tapachula, Mexico, along the Guatemala border, marching to raise awareness of the challenges these young immigrants faced. He attended city hall meetings and worked with nonprofits in Los Angeles, ensuring the city was prepared with adequate social services for the children.

In the 1980s, Estrada and other priests at La Placita -- the small downtown church where he ministered -- offered the chapel to hundreds of Central American refugees fleeing civil war. Amid heated debates regarding immigration control, with federal authorities accusing priests of encouraging illegal behavior, Estrada handcuffed himself to the immigration building, calling for the release of those detained. He was arrested for the first of four times for civil disobedience.

Despite having a priesthood filled with controversy and firsthand action since his ordination in 1978, Estrada said he still feels he has more to give.

"I should be retiring, not starting a new career," he told the Los Angeles Times. "But I had to be true to myself. God is putting me places. He or she is in charge."

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is]

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