Father John Direen, Pastor at St Joseph The Worker Church in Berkeley
Father John Direen, Pastor at St Joseph The Worker Church in Berkeley

Two weeks after more than 100 people protested against Reverend John Direen outside St. Joseph The Worker Church while he conducted mass inside, Direen disputed many of the accusations leveled against him in an interview with Berkeleyside.

While Direen acknowledged he has made some unpopular moves —  including closing meeting spaces and laying off staff — he said the changes have been driven by an urgent need to cut costs in a parish carrying a $1.1 million debt rather than being an attempt to push his own conservative agenda.

“When I came to St. Joseph two years ago I quickly realized we were facing a crisis,” he said. “We owed money to the diocese and to a variety of vendors, and we were being threatened by lawsuits.” Much of the debt was incurred by retrofitting work done at the church and it was compounded by decreased donations from a congregation in the midst of an economic recession.

Direen has laid off six church staffers in total, the latest a month ago when a cook and office manager were let go. All of the people involved were popular, he said, but he works to ensure they are all employable elsewhere.

Direen denies the charge that he has closed down any of the parish’s committees or working groups. A statement posted by St. Joseph on the Oakland Diocese website, responding to media reports and public outcry, echoes his statement. It reads: “Contrary to recent commentary, no ministries or committees at St. Joseph the Worker have been disbanded, dismissed or displaced”.

To try to raise income, Direen said, he turned the church’s main meeting room into a gift shop, but he said there are three other places in the church where groups can meet.

The unrest at the Berkeley church is being seen as a battle between religious conservatism represented by Direen and a more progressive ideology espoused by the parishioners who have been carrying on the church’s long tradition of social justice work, particularly among immigrant communities. (About half of St. Joseph’s parishioners are Hispanic, with the rest made up of African-Americans, Filipinos, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Anglo-Americans.)

Direen accepts that there is some truth to this. “There has been angst in the community over my teaching,” he said, describing his approach as preaching the entirety of the Catholic doctrine. “Some of the protestor representatives said they don’t like my homilies — that they are not nurturing. Some people are not as comfortable with the church’s teachings as I am.”

St. Joseph is one of 19 local churches that make up Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, or BOCA. Father Direen believes BOCA members have been instrumental in organizing the recent protests at St. Joseph’s. “There are a couple of people at BOCA who are very vocal, very good at organizing,” he said.

His views are reiterated by Mike Brown, Director of Communication and Community Relations for the Diocese of Oakland. “The protests were made up of leaders of BOCA, parishioners and non-parishioners, Catholics and non-Catholics,” he told Berkeleyside.

However in a June 28 letter to Bishop of Oakland Salvatore Cordileone (referenced on the Diocese of Oakland online statement), BOCA’s Executive Director, Reverend Michael McBride, said BOCA “declined multiple requests to join the community protest”.

One central issue concerns abortion. Direen preaches the Catholic Church’s “pro-life” stand and supports the Gabriel Project at St. Joseph’s which helps women with unwanted pregnancies to deliver their babies. Hector Cortez, one of whose roles at the church is coordinator for Project Gabriel, said this work “would have been impossible to do in the past because there was a choice for abortion”.

Demonstrators outside St. Joseph’s on June 19. Photo: Tracey Taylor

But perhaps the most contentious issue surrounds Rev. George Crespin, known to many as Father Jorge, who has lived at St. Joseph for more than 30 years despite retiring five years ago, and has a loyal following in the parish. Although retired, he has continued to conduct sermons as well as weddings and quinceañeras at the church.

Earlier this month Direen asked Crespin to leave the church by June 30, much to the dismay of some members of the congregation, including Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, president of the Berkeley School Board, and a member of St. Joseph’s parish. Leyva-Cutler told The Catholic Voice: “The departure of Father Crespin leaves the Berkeley community without one of its more visible advocates for education. We’re losing someone very familiar with our community and with Latino families.”

Direen said he experienced a lack of cooperation from Father Crespin and it was causing many pastoral difficulties. “There is a lot of love in the community for Father Crespin and I respect that, but the situation had become a little bit tense,” he said.

Direen says Crespin was organizing the parishioners against him, at one point holding a mass in which he suggested to members of the congregation that they should look for another parish.

The church’s online statement says some of these difficulties included Crespin’s failure to observe the necessary steps to insure the valid and licit celebration of the sacraments, especially marriage, and “a refusal to follow parish procedures in the scheduling of sacraments and other special ceremonies (baptisms, weddings, quinceañera celebrations, etc.) and in the preparation of people for these sacraments.”

St. Joseph The Worker Church on Addison Street

“I wish him well, but it is healthy for the parish for him to leave,” Direen said of Crespin.

Another concern among protesters was that Direen might close St. Joseph as they had heard his previous two churches had shut down. According to Direen, his previous position was at Oakland’s St. Andrew-St. Joseph parish, and the Diocese had already begun a process to consider the eventual merger that took place between that parish and the Cathedral parish.

“I take responsibility for the way I talked about this,” Direen said. “I told the parish, in Spanish, that ‘I don’t want to close the parish’. What I was trying to say is that I have no intention of closing the parish.” One of the criticisms leveled at Direen is that he is not a fluent Spanish speaker.

Direen is hoping that now that Crespin has left, the conflict at the heart of the church will resolve itself, or at least simmer down.

“After the big protest there have been a couple of smaller ones with fewer people. Collections have not been affected much. People want to see the parish thrive,” he said. ” I believe in working with people to help them understand the church.”

Related:
In Berkeley, a church congregation is dismayed [06.20.11]

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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23 Comments

  1. JESUS IS FAIR AND JUST not some kind of war mongers like the attitudes of the protesters–I can’t imagine why they would do such a thing. Preserve the dignity of the church, a sanctuary of peace and calmness, and not to become an expression of your activism and hostility.

  2. The protestors are not being willfully dishonest – as others have pointed out, he did not form the first finance committee — reestablished it after a lapse, but he wasn’t the first. With regard to the finance committee, he did, however, cause unnecessary upset to the parish by first standing up at a June ’10 Mass to give a brief but alarming announcement about the dire state of the parish and the urgent need for volunteers to form a finance committee immediately, and then leaving for two weeks’ vacation. (Not that he’s never entitled to take a vacation, but the timing was… not optimal.)

    The parish council, as I understand it, was formed by his predecessor, Fr. Stephan Kappler.

    It’s also worth noting that Fr. Crespin had offered to resign and move out twice, immediately upon Fr. Kappler’s appointment and immediately upon Fr. Direen’s appointment. Both men turned down his offer and told him he was free to stay as long as he liked. And since I left a few months ago, I can’t speak to very recent homilies (with the exception of his very last one), but I certainly never heard Fr. Crespin disparaging Fr. Direen in any homilies that I can recall. Even when I met privately with him a year and a half ago to voice my own frustration and spiritual anguish, he said not one word against the man.

    The one thing he has consistently talked about, because it’s central to his faith and his vision of the Church in the world, is the promise and possibility of Vatican II, and what it means to say that we, all of us, ARE the Church, laity and clergy alike. He’s bent over backward, repeatedly, to emphasize that it’s our responsibility as Church members not to treat these struggles as personality conflicts or choosing sides based on liking this guy or that. You must adhere to the vision of faith that you believe to be true, and fight for that vision, regardless of who you like or don’t like on either side of the question.  And he has said this knowing full well that some of his listeners are furiously opposed to his vision. But it’s what he believes and what he’ll stick to and stand up for, even on behalf of the people who disagree utterly with him.

  3. Quick answer – I haven’t seen *anything* in any of the protestors’
    materials about abortion (it’s worth noting that the Latino community
    has been a major actor in the protests, and the Latino community tends
    to be, if anything, more socially conservative than less). The
    protesting parishioners, just like all the other members of this and
    every other parish and secular community across the US, support
    legalized abortion, and oppose it, and support it with restrictions, and
    are troubled and conflicted and don’t know what to think. They’re like
    everyone else, a cross-section of belief and opinion and conscientious,
    discerning range of response to and acquiescence with official Church
    doctrine. The social justice committee certainly did not promote
    abortion.

     

    Prevent other parishioners from engaging in pro-life activities?
    That’s a little trickier. There certainly used to be very little in the
    way of open abortion activism, either pro or anti. I don’t know that
    much need was perceived for it — given that it’s currently legal in the
    US, that banning it in other countries hasn’t seemed to do much for the
    dignity of mothers or children or do much of anything but increase the
    burdens and sorrows of the very poor (in direct conflict with the
    Church’s stated preferential option for the poor), and that it’s
    toxically divisive, the parish mostly just didn’t deal with it at all.
    Unfortunately, there are plenty of poor families, homeless vets, unions
    under attack, budget-starved schools, death row prisoners just across
    the Richmond bridge, poorly-served victims’ families, and social
    injustice victims of every possible description just within a few miles’
    radius of the parish that the social justice committee could have
    worked itself to death twenty times over trying to minister to the
    community before it had the free time and energy to tackle the
    radioactive issue of abortion.

     

    That lack of dealing has certainly been corrected for —
    overcorrected, really, because practically everything else has been
    shortchanged (except for permanent donation barrels for a local food and clothing
    bank, which I’m not discounting in the least; they’re long overdue and desperately
    needed – they’re just not enough).

     

    I honestly cannot for the life of me figure out where Fr. Direen got
    the idea that abortion is a key issue in all this. A difficult, painful
    matter for a lot of people, but the central reason for the upset and the
    protests? All those good Central and South American blue collar
    families, three generations deep, crowded into the meeting room at the
    Finnish Hall and spilling out into all the aisles and the lobby, week
    after week, are there because they’re so angry about him being pro-life?
    I mean, really?

     

    To twist a Joey quote (because there is no situation on earth for
    which you can’t find an appropriate “Friends” quote), that’s so far out
    of left field he can’t even SEE left field from there. Left field is
    like a dot to him!
     

  4. He did not organize the first finance council in the history of St Joseph – get your facts straight!

  5. Saint Joseph the Worker; I know this small parish. I have visited it several times and was impressed. They have a nice (older) church building and good social outreach.

    Abolish the church council? Hmm; don’t know how well that will go over in Berkeley; probably will set some local emotions high. Hopefully the good nature of the local Berkeley folks and some more emotionally mature heads will prevail.

    I recall one of our local priests when I was a kid did exactly that – dismissed the parish council. When he arrived, he called the parish council together, thanked them for their service to the parish, and since he felt (and explained) that he was more than able to oversee the parish by himself, dismissed them accordingly.

    While some folks (mostly those who liked running for office and being on councils) huffed and puffed, or sniffed that the priest was some sort of horrible throwback, most people frankly did not notice. Eventually people got to know the new priest and came to admire and like him.

    The bishop in that area normally re-assigns priests every ten years or so and accordingly, after ten years, that particular priest was moved. We had a nice farewell mass and gathering etc. A new priest arrived and asked that the parish elect a council to help him tend the practical affairs of the parish. Per his request, elections we held and a new council established to help him run the parish.

    It all worked out fine. Each priest has his own personality, syle and preferences, and each should be allowed to run the parish as he sees fit.

  6. Parishioners who learn english would become independent of their ‘special advocates’. I appreciate their concern.

  7. “Cabal? When you don’t like it, it’s a cabal. When you do, it’s a movement.”

    And when the church deems it straying from their mission – it’s gone. 

    And that’s the beauty of this story. The church does not negotiate with opportunists, or clergy who improvise on God’s teachings. No crowd with handwritten placards or silk screened T-shirts is going change that. This foot stamping, by the protestors (protestants?) and their former pastor doesn’t show much humility.

  8. God Bless You, Lhasa7, if you think that Fr. Bill O’Donnell, Fr. George Crespin and Fr. Stephan Kappler were “exclusive” and that Fr. Direen is “inclusive”.   You are terribly misguided, but God Bless You.

  9. God Bless You, Lhasa7, if you think that Fr. Bill O’Donnell, Fr. George Crespin and Fr. Stephan Kappler were “exclusive” and that Fr. Direen is “inclusive”.   You are terribly misguided, but God Bless You.

  10. “The first finance council in the history of St. Joseph’s”.  This is getting pretty wild.  Perhaps Fr. Direen would like to, and certainly Should, personally correct this misapprehension, and set the record straight?  Or will he let it stand, and encourage such wild falsehoods?

    Does Fr. Direen personally contend that he set up the first finance council in the history of St. Joseph’s?

  11. Call it what you want, it still smacks of exclusivity and the patronizing condescension of Berkeley’s self-appointed commissars. And no, you aren’t going to hang a racism smear on me, thanks.

  12.  I’m also a little curious to read that one of the central issues is abortion, and Fr Direen’s support for the Gabriel Project.

    Do the protesting parishioners oppose the Gabriel Project?  Do they support legalized abortion?  Were they using the social justice committee at St Joseph to promote abortion?  Were they preventing other parishioners from engaging in pro-life activities?

  13. After reading the diocesan statement, all I have to say is that I am extremely disappointed with the protestors.

    When the first protest occurred, the protesting parishioners claimed that Fr Direen had disbanded the parish council and finance council.  Now we learn that not only does St Joseph still have both councils, but that there was never a finance council before he arrived, and he in fact organized the first finance council in the history of St Joseph’s.

    That is not a question of two people have differing interpretations of the same fact.  That is a case of the protestors being willfully dishonest in order to undermine Fr Direen.  Very disappointing.

  14. Cabal? When you don’t like it, it’s a cabal. When you do, it’s a movement. Your statement and whining over Spanish-speakers is perhaps indicative of where you are coming from.

  15. This would be just another in a long list of public (or quasi-public) entities whose resources were being co-opted by our local activists for political gain – But the Catholic Church, while a little lethargic, has dealt with small time improvisers many times before.

    for the full story see:

    http://www.oakdiocese.org/REV_SJW_FINAL2.pdf

  16. God bless Reverend John Direen.  Please let us all fervently pray for him.  He is doing what Jesus would do.  I am afraid doing that today often goes against the diocese and the “progressive” people.  Jesus was not progressive.  Being a Catholic and truly walking in the teachings of the Church is one and the same as walking in the teachings of Jesus Christ, the One Who is Truth.  Walk and worship in Spirit and in Truth.

  17. I look at it this way:

    Both governmental structures share in common certain “logics”, so to speak.   For example, both have a concept of hierarchies of command.   They two share certain ideas about how to manage such a hierarchy (e.g., forming / breaking commissions and committees).    The “rules” of both governments – long before the present crisis in either – manage the flow and control of governmental power using similar techniques.   They also share a common broader context to which each must respond (e.g., the current economic crisis).   Because they start with somewhat analogous power structures, and exist in the same context, it’s not “surprising” (though, yes, “fascinating”) that they respond in somewhat analogous ways.

    The techniques of governing that they use, and the logics by which government is discussed are similar in the two cases for, I guess you could say, “genealogical” reasons (in roughly the sense of Foucault):   The techniques of governing are inventions traceable in history.  Adjustments to the logics of thinking about government are historic innovations.   Church(es) and state as we know them today grew out of a common matrix in which those techniques and logics arose.   The ancestors of the present churches pollinated the present states and vice versa.

    So, aha, sharing so many “genes” they react in similar ways to similar contemporary crises.

    It’s fascinating how, during the dry months, so many species of plants on the hills all turn brown, too.

    The specificity of their differences is also fascinating.

  18. I find it absolutely fascinating how the strife at St. Joseph the Worker seems a microcosm of Berkeley at large. I don’t mean to imply that the two situations are perfect parallels, nor do I intend to say who’s right in either situation, but some of the similarities are striking. You have an outspoken “progressive” population that feels at odds with current leadership; unpopular cuts precipitated by financial duress; and even an elimination of committees which mirrors the city’s potential consolidation of commissions.

  19. As a non-Spanish speaker who has lived near St. Joseph the Worker for years but who has felt decidedly unwelcome on account of the “social justice” cabal in power, I feel a debt of gratitude to Father Direen for helping to redirect the parish’s energies to the spiritual needs of the local population.