by Martha Gies
I ask theology professor Rene Sanchez one question: how does he teach Theology 105, the basic required intro course, now that there is such ethnic and religious diversity on The Bluff?
Because, he says, everyone who teaches it on The Bluff begins with the idea that every student, regardless of their tradition, asks certain questions: “Why am I here? What makes us human? What is the purpose of my life? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen? To us these are theological questions,” says Sanchez. “I use the Augustinian priest John Shea’s great line: ‘Faith is not believing in something that you cannot see; rather it is responding to something that you cannot deny.’ “I ask my students, ‘So what are the things we cannot deny? And my experience has been that students are fairly receptive. My experience has also been that other faiths — and I have a lot of Muslim students — are very respectful. The Muslim kids really understand religious respect.”
Long before he came to the University 5 years ago, long before many years teaching at Moreau High School in Hayward, California, he came out of El Paso’s notorious Segundo Barrio, an impoverished immigrant community squeezed up against the border, where his father picked cotton and the family lived in a house with no windows. He moved with his parents as they followed opportunities for work, to New Mexico, to Tucson’s Anita Barrio, where the family finally had running water. Here Rene began first grade at Davis Elementary, today a bicultural magnet school — but back in the late sixties, Rene and his friends were beaten for speaking Spanish.
In 1969, when they moved north to Santa Rosa at the invitation of his mother’s family, there was work in an apple cannery. Here his family at last made a true home. Rene thrived in school, but he has carried with him memories of the suffering he saw in those immigrant neighborhoods of the Southwest, the hopelessness, the drugs, the suicides. He has tenderly nursed his memories of the young men and women who never made it out of poverty’s despair, and he brings their stories into the classroom.
At Santa Rosa’s Piner High School, after arguing brilliantly in a student mock trial, Sanchez was offered a full ride to college and law school by a senior partner of the local law firm that mentored the classroom law project. But Sanchez no longer wanted to follow his older sister Alicia into law. “I remember looking at this man, face to face, and telling him no. And they were like, ‘Are you insane, kid? We’re offering you the world.’” But it wasn’t the world he wanted; he wanted to be a healer.
“I look back now and I think I was looking for some kind of peace or serenity, he says. He quotes St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”
He became a youth minister at Resurrection Parish. He discovered Father Richard McBrien’s superb book Catholicism. “I would read a paragraph or two on a thinker, and if I really liked him, I would go to the library and check out a book. So I read Augustine and Aquinas and Rahner,” and then Marx and Jung and Michael Parenti, and Marie-Dominique Chenu, the French Dominican who taught Schillebeeckx and Yves Congar. Self-taught and theology-smitten, Sanchez didn’t go back to college until he was 27. At Holy Names College he earned a BA in history and religious studies, and then began teaching at Moreau High, which is named for the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau.
Then on to Notre Dame and Boston College, where he “came to realize we don’t understand what love is. We tend to want to impose a kind of artificial one-ness, a unity through uniformity, and not look at distinctions and particularities. So as an example, let’s say a racial discourse: the idea of I don’t see color: That’s a problem! I understand where it comes from, but it’s a problem. Unfortunately the Christian mistake frequently has been to impose our view of love on the Other. In social ethics, which is what I specialize in, it means learning the history of the Other. If we are Christian and we say we love the undocumented migrant, but we don’t know about the history of the United States in relation to Latin America, we do not love the undocumented migrant. So we must learn that history. And then go back to our communities of origin and translate for our people the messages and the wisdom given to us by the Other.”
“I can’t tell you what justice is, but I can tell you what it’s not,” he says to his students. “If I’m just looking out just for Rene Sanchez, that’s not Christian. If I’m looking out just for Chicanos, that’s not love either. And Catholic justice can never be about just us Catholics. When I look at politicians now, I don’t ask what they’re going to do for Chicanos; instead, I ask, What are they going to do for women? Young people? Gay, lesbian, transgender? The elderly? I’ve got to care about the communities that I don’t belong to. I’ve got to worry about The Others. My teaching philosophy begins and ends, in a very real sense, with loving my students. I know it may sound simple, but it is an absolute necessity. Without love, everything else is of little value…”