Power to the Parish

Father Jose Luis Menendez of Wynwood takes the church to the people and the people to the streets

On a recent afternoon, residents going about their business on NW Second Avenue were likely to have encountered Father Jose Luis Menendez and two of his parishioners hanging banners from light posts. "Welcome to Wynwood," read the banners, which had been paid for with money donated by local entrepreneurs. Tiny details in Father Menendez's ambitious plans for his parish, the banners lent the thoroughfare an old-fashioned feel.

It wasn't long before the priest was accosted by some of his less reputable parishioners, barflies and drug dealers, men who probably had never set foot in Corpus Christi or the Misi centsn San Juan Bautista but who recognized Menendez. "Padre," they called urgently, reaching toward him. "Bendicenos." "Bless us." The priest quietly complied.

Ram centsn Ramos, a Little Haiti shopkeeper who has worked alongside Menendez in many community projects, will tell you such occurrences are the norm. "One time I said, 'Father, here comes a drunk, don't do that, he's wasting your time.' But he says no, he's not. The father puts his hand on the man's head and prays for him. He prays for two or three minutes. He says, 'Dios perdona este ser' and 'ayudele a recuperarse' A things like that." Moreover, concludes Ramos: "He really believes it could happen."

Nevertheless, within a matter of days of Menendez's labors, the lamppost banners near the San Juan Bautista mission had been torn down.

Jose Luis Menendez came to the Corpus Christi Catholic Church at 3220 NW Seventh Avenue nearly six years ago, in March of 1988. It was not a good time to be a priest in any inner-city parish, but it must have been the right time for Corpus Christi. With the advent of Menendez, many say, the community regrouped and began a spiritual, social, and economic renaissance that, although it is still far from flowering, continues. Perhaps his success is due in part to the confluence of social currents, augmented by the force of many souls coming together in time with the same purpose. But that is not to imply the 46-year-old Menendez is any ordinary priest. Like no other single person in recent memory, his admirers say, he has become the voice of Wynwood. Its image, too; Menendez is one of the principal figures to whom the media turn when there is news in the neighborhood. And lately, for a change, at least a little of the news has been good.

When he arrived at Corpus Christi, Menendez knew little about the parish, save that it was poor. What confronted him was a church and its school in disrepair. The 35-year-old yellow-brick house of worship had long ago lost its luster. Lizards ran among cracks in the concrete walkways and found their way inside the church, where the carpet was as thin as the attendance at Mass. Most worrisome of all, the populace seemed resigned to its powerlessness.

"Whoever's sent here, it's like sending them off to purgatory," declares Wynwood resident William Ramos, a former Corpus Christi altar boy who is now a social worker. "But Father Jose Luis has been the most active, most dynamic, most inspiring of all the priests in Corpus Christi."

Alonzo Menendez, the priest's eldest brother who has lived in Miami on and off since the early Seventies, recalls: "He didn't know how he was going to evolve within the parameters of being a parish priest. It wasn't something he knew he was going to do. But he has galvanized that community, given a voice to disenfranchised people. It was something that needed doing for a long time." (Alonzo Menendez has some galvanic experience on his own resume: In 1974 he was one of the first Cuban-Americans to run for state political office, failing in his bid for the Florida House. After running -- and losing -- again in 1976 he joined in a federal class-action lawsuit that helped motivate the establishment statewide of single-member voting districts in 1982.)

The way Jose Luis Menendez remembers it, he was prodded into a community-activist role before he felt ready. He'd barely settled into his office at the Corpus Christi rectory when the Archdiocese of Miami made it clear he was to be an active participant in PACT (People Acting for Community Together), an interdenominational coalition of inner-city churches founded in 1989. "I was just new here," recalls Menendez, his downturned eyes crinkling at the edges as he runs his hand along the sofa's arm in a small office overflowing with books about Cuba, politics, art, and theology. "The last thing I want to do is be inserted into social politics when I don't know what I'm going to do with the religion part."

But he went to the PACT meetings. At the time, the group was working to shut down crackhouses in the area, but there were plenty of issues to be addressed besides drugs -- crime, irregular trash pickup and illegal dumping, lack of streetlights, and a steady stream of the city's effluvia, who flowed into Wynwood and neighboring Edgewater and Allapattah via facilities and programs for the disadvantaged or criminal. Property values decreased and bred despair among even the most entrenched residents. "Some people wonder how a priest can oppose a homeless house," Menendez offers. "The problem here is more of what we have already. We're not against these programs, but why do they all have to come to the same place?

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