Robert Bridwell

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This interview was conducted by interviewer Alexandra Graham with interviewee Deacon Robert (Bob) Bridwell. The main focus of the interview is Deacon Bridwell’s responsibilities at St. Stephen Catholic Church. Much of his work in the church surrounds immigration services. He tells us about the services St. Stephen’s provides as well as what projects he personally works on. He shares about his long career of city planning and activism and talks about how demographic changes in Lee County (the county where he resides) have reshaped the needs of community members and therefore what services he works with. He talks about the biggest challenges facing immigrant families (majority Hispanic/Latino) in rural North Carolina and how his church is working to provide solutions and resources for those problems. He also discusses his involvement in the Building Integrated Communities initiative, a collaboration with the City of Sanford, Lee County, and the Latino Migration Project at UNC Chapel Hill. The interview, which took place in Deacon Bridwell’s office at St. Stephen Catholic Church, lasted about 37 minutes. Outside of his office, construction was going on to build a new addition to the church. There were construction noises throughout the interview, but it does not interfere with the ability to hear what was said.



Alexandra Graham: I almost forgot to ask you. Do you have any Hispanic members of staff at the church?
Robert Bridwell: Yes, absolutely. Especially with a parish this size. It has a large Hispanic population. We have a Hispanic minister. [inaudible]. A full-time staff member. We have two other deacons besides myself who are Hispanic deacons. The church administrative assistant and interpreter and girl we rely on completely is Hispanic. We, there’s a lot—she gives us a lot of assistance in interpreting. And just a lot of our groups are very involved in working with Hispanic programs. Our youth minister who’s not Hispanic, I mean, most of her population that she works with are Hispanic children. And our faith formation director here, the majority of the children that she works with are Hispanic. So, you know, we have a full-service Hispanic program that’s going on here. Probably could expand it like most churches could. But we spend a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to serve their needs.
AG: Thanks again, Deacon.
RB: Sure thing. Today, to a large extent, we’re ones that were characterized by very substantial rural population with a few good, decent size cities. Not a lot. And then that’s transitioned obviously traumatically over the years where, you know, we have a very large and dynamic metropolitan areas. But those rural areas are still pretty much rural. Especially when I lived in eastern North Carolina where the Hispanic population, the Latino population, were pretty much restricted to farmworkers, migrant workers that were coming up from Mexico. And that’s what I experienced until I came to Sanford, when I came here from Rocky Mount. Both from a Catholic standpoint and also as a public servant. Most of the experiences I had with the Hispanic population were migrant workers who were working on large farms in Nash County and Edgecombe County. When I came here, they were just starting to have that first wave of Hispanics that were coming here to work in nonagricultural industries. They were coming to work for the poultry houses that had been recruiting them heavily throughout Mexico. And for Tyson foods here in Sanford who’s responsible for making taco shells. And some of the other industries like Cody got Cosmex manufacturers that were also stating to recruit them. When I first came to Sanford in Lee County, still was not really aware that much of the Hispanic population. My first inclination was at church. We were in our previous location then, and the Hispanic wave of population coming into the area integrating, migrating into the community had just started. All of a sudden it seemed like overnight the church was packed in the Spanish mass. And they only had one back then. And they had to add a second one. And then more families seemed to appear. So, I started to think and notice from my standpoint of being the community’s planner, when we started looking at the demographics. So, it was 2002, so the census data was just starting to come in. In nineteen--in the last census--the 1990 census, the Hispanic population was probably less than two percent of the total population. By the time of the 2000 census, that had jumped up dramatically to the extent that probably over eighteen percent of the county population was Hispanic and a little higher percentage of the city population--. About 20 percent. About 1 out of 5. And we were starting to see that at the church. That’s when we said at church that we needed to do something to accommodate the population and we started looking at plans for a larger parish community here. The same thing was happening at work. The city and the county were starting to recognize that they had this huge influx of population but until we started analyzing the data we didn’t even realize what that meant. [Coughs]. So, we were starting to get phone calls from the school system asking for data because their school-age population was literally exploding. And that occurred very, very dramatically during the first decade of the new century until 2010 where we saw all these people really filling up everywhere we went. To the school system, to where we were seeing in housing, the demand for services. This church where we had to literally invent a Hispanic program here because all of a sudden, we had more Hispanics in the church than we had Anglos. And Anglo being a real roughly defined term. So, we had to kind of reinvent everything here going forward to try to address a population that largely did not speak English and had very specific needs as to what they were demanding. So that was a pretty unusual thing to work with and I had never really had that kind of experience. But I had a very sincere interest having grown up in the South during the year of, from going to segregation and the integration of schools, and working on various issues when I was a student trying to understand that. And seeing the same kind of issues starting to crop up with this whole new population coming in. I was having, as a professional, and as a Christian, trying to make adjustments. How do I approach this? How do I look at this population? Gosh, I wasn’t really sure what to do or how to respond appropriately.
AG: Thank you. So, you have a really long career as the director of planning. How have you been involved in planning for demographic changes such as this throughout your career?
RB: Well again, early in my career it was trying to make sure we were trying to address the various demographic segments in our communities. You know, a lot of time as city planners we do that from an age and income standpoint. And then, obviously during an era that I grew up in, an area of desegregation, we were also trying to make sure that the government was responsive of all of its citizens’ populations. And, including those of race. That is always a real challenge when you start to intersperse a political philosophies and orientations of governing and all the various aspects that create the dynamics of any community. But from a planning standpoint, our job, my job was the make sure that all the services and that people need for their daily lives, you know, whether it be water and sewer, or adequate schools or recreation facilities, that all these populations were adequately served and to make sure that we understood the dynamics that were going on with the various demographics of the community. Black white, young, old, rich poor. You know, whatever it needs to serve that community. When the Hispanic population started to come in, we started looking at another dynamic of people who need extra services because they were literally being integrated into a community as immigrants pretty much like what my grandparents went through and what my mother went through. Which they were integrated into this country from Ireland. So, trying to understand those dynamics and specific services was really, really important. Added to that, the growth of the Hispanic population in this community and many communities was just huge and expansive through almost two decades. Then, all of a sudden, the recession hit and it all kind of went [noise] stopped. I don't know that we saw a real reverse of Hispanics. We didn't see a lot of Hispanics moving away from this community after the recession hit in 2008, but we've seen, certainly saw April slowdown. One of the things that, that kept striking me is, is the dynamics that hits any immigrant population is that they're not static. They don't stay the same. And especially with the Hispanic population because we had all this massive amount of people who came into this community. Largely with, with little skills. Very little English, limited education, limited understanding of how a community like this operates and how they could get their needs fulfilled. All that was started at that point and then started the transition because they started having children. And it doesn't take long for children, little children to become big children and big children become adults. So literally today we're going through that transition of, of folks that are coming in as immigrants. Many of them are undocumented to having children. A lot of the DACA kids that we, that we worked with through the years to them also becoming American kids. But being born here such to the point, a couple of, about three months ago, I did a sermon here one Sunday speaking to the Anglo community. And I asked them to raise their hands, how many were from Lee County. And of course, from a community like this and a Catholic community, just a sprinkling of hands were raised at that mass. And I told them that if I were to go to the Spanish mass and asked the same question, probably half of the people in there would have raised their hands if they were born and raised in Lee County. So, the significant dynamics of the Hispanic--. Of the immigrant population becoming Americanized, Anglicized, was becoming pretty evident. To this day that you can go to the English mass in, there are large number of Hispanic families that now go to the English mass rather than a Spanish mass. Kind of rambled on that but--.
AG: No, that’s very interesting information. So--.
AG: When did you become a deacon of St. Stephens and how long have you been a part of this community? And could you tell us a little bit of what your role is at the church?
RB: About ten years ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to go back to my original calling because I had thought I was going to be a priest. And the opportunity to become an ordained Catholic Deacon became available. And I waited for the first class that I could apply. A deacon in the Catholic church is so goes through similar training that that of a Catholic priest would go through except for not--. Or we stop at a point that that precedes becoming a priest. We were ordained as deacons and all priests ordained as deacons before they're priests. So, I entered into the formation for the diaconate program in 2009 and was in formation for five years as a deacon. And during that period of time, I think that's when I became more intensely interested in serving the Hispanic population here because one of my assignments was to serve at the Hispanic masses. So that's when I started doing that. I also became very involved with the priesthood we were assigned shortly thereafter, who came in here not only to serve the religious and spiritual needs of the parish, but also had been trained in assisting in their immigration needs as well. The pastor here is a certified immigration specialist. So, I started working with him during my training as a deacon, also being trained to assist people in their in their immigration needs as well. So, in 2014, I had two things happen in my life. One is I retired from public service after 45 years. And the second thing is I was ordained a Catholic deacon all along with 14 other men. And that's when I started my clerical career here. So, serving this parish as a deacon and also helping and assisting with the immigration services ward here in this parish.
AG: So, what are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in this role?
RB: My number one challenge was language. I am not skilled in language at all, so that is always has been and continues to be a struggle. But probably one of the more difficult things is to try to work in situations that are intimidating. And I don't mean intimidating physically. I mean because I don't, I'm not sure that I always have the skills necessary to help. One of those is in the area of immigration work where I work with families that are applying for U-visas. And as you'll probably ask me later on, that involves people that have been the subject or the targets of crime. And some of the stories in some of the work in dealing with that has been hard on me. I'm dealing with the tragedies [inaudible] on some of these families. So that's probably been one of the bigger challenges. That and the language and, sometimes feeling inadequate to serve the multiple needs of a lot of these families that have lots of things that they need help on. Not just one, but my ultimate need is to serve their spiritual needs. So, I try to keep going back to that and then just trying to reach out and using some of the skills that I may have from other parts of my life.
AG: How many Spanish speaking parishes are there?
RB: There is a bunch. This is a community of roughly 6,500. Over 4,000 of that population are Hispanic. So, we're probably two thirds Hispanic at this parish. Yeah. And I'm not alone in that. We have two priests here. The Pastor does speak Spanish, as I mentioned. And we have two Hispanic deacons as well. And we also have another deacon that works within the Anglo community. But you're going to ask some more questions on that later on that, aren't you? And I’ll just delay that. Give you an answer to that.
AG: Could you tell us a little bit more about how St. Stephens has been supportive to immigrants in Lee County? So, this could be, what kinds of services does the church offer to immigrants? Maybe legal resources? You could tell us a little bit more about the U-Visa program or DACA workshops.
RB: Well, we've been really, really involved in that. Like I said, with the priest that came here, came here up here from down in your neck of the woods from Shalom. When he was down here with St. Brandon's, [inaudible] was certified as an immigration specialist before he came up here. So, when they came to this community, then there's two priests that came here from the order that they represent. They had some special skillsets that this community really, really needed. As I said, the depth of the Hispanic population in this area was very, very significant, not only in the parish, but throughout the region. The priest Father Robert Ippolito was also engaged with Catholic charities. So. we're serving more on a regional basis and not just the parish community. So, we've done a number of things. One of the first massive things that was done was the original DACA applications. This parish held multiple workshops trying to assist the, those young people in that process and probably has close to 1200 that we worked with, the not just in his parish but throughout the region. And they’ll come as far away as southeastern North Carolina, and as far as Charlotte. So, we're certainly a larger--. But most of them are concentrated here within this multi county area. So, we've done an extensive amount of work on, on DACA. Which until the, the president’s order, was a very significant part of the work that I've been doing. Then we've also been doing a lot of U-Visa work and I think we have a real expertise here and we get people from all over the diocese come to this location. And we also, the pastor has another office in Raleigh, so we end up servicing a lot of them. And my role in that is I--. My primary role in that is helping with the paperwork that goes along with the U-Visa applications and writing the transmittal letter. And the transmittal letter is a very formal document that shows how the application has met all the requirements of the U-Visa program, especially including the local law enforcement involvement. But I also have to write the stories. The stories of what the victims had been through. And again, that's probably the most difficult thing that I've had to deal with is writing notes. But we also do all full range of immigration services, including change of status, alien registration, the citizenship classes. We hold citizenship classes here and work with the applications. We do a variety of things. Most of that is done by Father Ippolito who is the certified representative. But we also have tried very hard to respond to some of the special crisis's that the Latino population has gone through. One of those for instances, we've held workshops on power of attorneys. We've held workshops on, well, you know, what do you do if large numbers of parents are removed from their children, much like we're experiencing right at this moment. And trying to help them with the legal aspects of that and the support aspects of that of trying to work through those very difficult situations and sometimes just responding to rumors. I know that the father was gone while one week and I was doing some work in Raleigh and I got a phone call from one of our parishioners that ICE was doing raids at Walmart. So, I drop whatever I was doing and raced all the way back to the parish to find out what was going on. In the meantime, calling my friends at local law enforcement here who have always been very helpful by the way. And in discovering that was just a rumor was something put out on, on one of the Hispanic radio stations. And it ended up being false alarm, but we were trying to respond because it was so significantly not only affect this parish, but all the Hispanic community that we feel responsible for because at the end of the day as Catholics, social justice is one of our principles that we stay very focused on.
AG: Thank you. So, what are, apart from some of the things that you've already mentioned, some of the biggest challenges that persists for local immigrants and their families?
RB: Well, we worked quite extensively with UNC on a process called the Latino Migration Project. That was a three-year study. That study resulted from my discovering what they were doing and making an application. And we had that study done here. We learned many, many things. I learned many things. I believe city government, county government, learned many things on the needs of the Hispanic population. The needs shouldn't be surprising to most people because the Hispanic population, the families want what any family wants. They want safety and security. They want the dignity of having a job, of having a job that they can afford to raise their families with. So, you know, we need to stay focused on that regardless of what happens on the national scene. We feel like we have an obligation to those families, to those people trying to achieve what any American citizen would want. And increasingly that's who these people are and that's to find a life for themselves and satisfy the needs of themselves and their family. So that's what I try to keep my attention focused on is how do we do that? Not in a static way, but in a change way? How do we provide for their needs as they make those transitions? Many of the Hispanic population, you know, came here to work and have jobs now are getting elderly and I don't think anybody's doing an adequate job of trying to address their needs, especially if they're undocumented because they have no way of having those needs addressed. There's no social security. There's no Medicaid for them. But there's going to be this massive population that are just going to continue to fall through the cracks. But then there are the families and the young children and how do we meet their needs? The DACA kids. Many of whom are very successful in high school are being accepted to colleges and having--. Are being forced to pay these massive tuitions that they can’t afford and trying to make a life for themselves and wanting to become Americans. And right now, everything's being closed off to them. So, so those are just some of the things that keep me up at night. I'm sure keeps them Father Ippolito up. And all the people here. We have a Hispanic--. Right next door is our Hispanic minister who that's what her job is. Is trying to serve those needs. So, you know, there is a pretty, pretty challenging things, especially in an environment we have today.
AG: Okay. Have you seen any large changes in the way that people are feeling about maybe security since the election or any instances of family separation?
RB: We fortunately have not had any real family separation here, likes it’s being experienced on the border. No, that's just not, has not been a massive problem. It's not that it isn't a problem because it's always potentially there. The biggest thing that’s going on right now is just the incredible anxiety and uncertainty of people just don't know what's going to happen. And there is nothing that's happening right now and nothing that I see in the foreseeable future that seems to be heading towards any kind of resolution. I mean, I, it's really hard for people. It's hard for me when I, when I can't find a resolution or when I see conflict that I, I can't resolve it. And I am, you know, an older middle-class white guy with all the privileges that go with that. And how would you feel if, if every day of your life you didn't, you didn't even know if somebody was going to knock on your door and take you away. And your children are going to be left here. I mean that's hard to live with and it just is so disconcerting. One of the things that is happening in this community is that, and that I'm very proud of, is this is a community that has a lot of compassion and that people are concerned about that and they're trying to be supportive. They're trying to be supportive at the governmental level, at the civic level. Not just this church, but all the churches. They understand those issues and are trying to be whatever help they can be. But at the end of the day, if I don't know what's going to happen to me, if someone knocks on my door. That's a horrible way to live and it's just so sad and injustice.
AG: Moving topics a little bit. Could you tell us a little bit about the Building Integrated Communities project in Siler City and how you’ve been involved with that?
RB: I have not been directly involved in that project. Of course, I was very involved in the one here in Sanford and Lee County, but we're trying to serve as a resource for them in Siler City. It's not going to be as a larger community as this one was here, but they're going to have many of the same issues that are going on. Coincidentally, I also work with the St. Julia Catholic church in Siler City. And so, I'm having those conversations with that parish as well. And the former police chief and I are friends. So, we've had many conversations and there are some wonderful people in Siler city. Both in the Hispanic community and the Anglo community. I'm very involved with the boys and Girls Club for Sanford and Lee County and Chatham County, including Siler City, which has a very active boys and girls club. So, we're trying to also use those kinds of mechanisms to try to feed into whatever [inaudible] they have going forward. But I have a pretty good feeling about Siler City because they are a very open and receptive community. That's not always boasted upon or promoted too much outside of small communities like ours, but it's very important. And I think the compassion that any community has is very important.
AG: Could you tell me a bit about the Building Integrated Communities project in Sanford?
RB: It was a wonderful program. Again, before I retired and while I was in formation for the Deaconate program, I made the application for the project. At that time there was only a few communities who had been through it. Winston-Salem and Greenville stick out in my mind. I think there were a couple of others. But we were one of the very first ones. And when Jessica Lee White and Dr. Gill came to us and we talked about the program, we just use that as a jumping point to try to get into issues that we thought were extremely important. And we had some real successes. The research that took place that we were very much involved in. Having a very active geographic information system program here. We were very, very able to supply a lot of the information we need it for the research. To have those public meetings for the Hispanic population probably for the first time really had a chance to come and speak about their needs, especially to appointed and elected officials to, the police chief and the sheriff and social services, the schools. It was just really nice to see. Let them have that opportunity to speak about their needs. So that was a very interesting process and I think some folks were surprised. The first thing that surprised me was the number of Hispanics who were willing to come out and talk. Again, you know, a lot of them were under the fear of deportation or being recorded or having--. But they were coming out sometimes a little reluctantly, but they were coming out in this environment that we tried to keep a feeling of trust and confidence and speaking about their needs. So, we had, I think, a lot of success in that the formation of the Hispanic Council here which has been very active. It was very helpful. The mayor was extremely supportive. Coming to speak at these events who came and spoke at an event one day where there was, gosh, several hundred people inside our church to speak to them, saying that the community, the city, wanted to help support their needs and be responsive to them. The police department coming and saying we want to help you. We don't want to just, you know, catch you driving without a license. So, or the lawyers coming in and talking about, you know, how to do powers of attorney. So, we had a lot of success during that process, both within the formal structure of the Latino Migration Project, but also add on things. Just ways to support the needs that they might have. One of our churches across town, the United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, created a program called El Refugio, which they got a grant from Duke and they were trying to serve Hispanic needs. The community college was very specific in trying to serve a lot of needs. So, all those things that happened during that process. And were all very successful and I'm very proud of the success that we had. But we also had some failures. One of the needs that we kept hearing over and over and over again was because the undocumented population are denied the ability to get a driver's license. They couldn't do simple things like go to the bank and cash a check or, you know, go to the grocery store and show an id or anything that everybody else is pretty comfortable with. And we tried really, really hard to develop a local ID program here, which like they've done in other communities. So, they were very successful in doing it in Burlington. Asheboro, I believe was successful in doing it. We couldn't get the first base here. There was--. It was about this time that the legislature was passing, trying to pass a bill that the disallowed any kind of local IDs. We just had a lot of resistance and were never able to get that done. And I was disappointed that that couldn't happen and still think is something that we should do. But the other biggest disappointment. I'm going to say is a disappointment. The Latino population, they need to become more and more engaged. Quickly. Because they are so significant. And we're talking about people who are citizens now. A significant percentage of our population are Hispanic. They need to be running for public office. You know, being an Irish American, you know, I knew that's what they, my family, our folks did in places like Boston and Philadelphia and New York. And the Latino population here has got to do the same thing. They've got to become engaged in the civic activities and political activities in one of these communities so that they are adequately represented and can speak for themselves.
AG: Could you tell me a little bit more about the positive outcomes and maybe the lasting effects of that BIC program? Things that you still see today?
RB: I think the very seeds, the mustard seeds, to use a religious term, of that process of that small little seeds is that they will start taking that process of being integrated into these communities and letting it blossom to become again engaged. This is not something that's going to happen overnight, but because of this project, I think a leadership structure is now being established within the Hispanic community. I think that that the recognition of the entire community, the Anglo community, the community at large, are recognizing that the Hispanic population is not only here but important. I know that a number of elected officials realize how important that population is. Our business community understands that if that population wasn't here, this community would take a significant economic hit. So that feeling of mutual need and mutual support, I think starting with this product and has grown pretty significantly since, since the project started and continues to grow every day.
AG: Thank you. That's most of what I have prepared. But is there anything else that you'd like to add? Maybe about the church or the community or anything in your career that you've experienced?
RB: I have gotten a lot of satisfaction in not only working on this project but also working in this community, both as a public servant and also as a member of the clergy. It has added dimensions to my life, you know, I'm almost 70 years old that I didn't really expect to happen in my life. So, it's been a very satisfying, very gratifying. But it's also made me more aware of what has always attracted me to my own faith. And that's that Catholic social justice that probably got birthed to me in the very early part of my life when I looked around and saw so much injustice in a country that promises justice and equality. It gave me the opportunity to say I need to be a part of it. And here at the end of my career, later in my life, I'm having the ability to fulfill a lot of things that started out when, gosh, when I was a teenager. And it's been very important to me and very gratifying.
AG: Thank you very much.
RB: You’re welcome very much.