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The bilingual bishop 

Taylor to ‘speak very clearly’in support of ‘God-given rights’

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Rev. Anthony Taylor, the Oklahoma priest who next week will be ordained the seventh bishop of Arkansas, will tell you he's “a calm person.”

His eyes, despite their steady gaze, appear slightly off-kilter. It is the priest's mouth that unifies his features. When Taylor smiles, a broad, even playful, grin spreads easily beneath his straight gray mustache. When he is serious, the line of his mouth conveys nothing so much as calm determination.

“I tend to be forthright,” he says. “I try to build bridges. I try to speak as plainly as I can.”

Taylor speaks with equal assurance in English and in Spanish. And when he speaks, it is often “on behalf of those who don't have a voice, to make sure that their concerns are brought to the table.”

Sacred Heart parish in Oklahoma City, where Taylor has been pastor for the past five years, and where he sits for this interview, is 95 percent Hispanic. Of the nine masses offered there each weekend, seven are in Spanish, one is in English, and one is said in both languages.

Taylor's appointment as bishop for Arkansas reflects a recognition by Catholic officials that the church in this state has increasingly begun to look like Taylor's Sacred Heart parish.

Between 1990 and 2000, Arkansas's non-native Hispanic population swelled from 4,300 to more than 42,000. Census figures released this month show how vigorously that trend has continued. The total Hispanic population in Arkansas now stands at roughly 150,000.          

Catholics here represent a small minority of the church-going population, though their numbers have increased by more than 65 percent in the past 20 years, to about 117,000. About half of that number are Hispanic immigrants.

While some Protestant churches in the U.S. have grown as a result of immigration from Mexico and Latin American countries, no denomination has been as profoundly affected as the Roman Catholic Church. As Taylor prepares to assume leadership of an organization that is experiencing both a resurgence and growing pains from absorbing so many immigrants, he says that he hopes the Arkansas diocese will “help shape the discussion” about immigration in the state, and that the example set in Arkansas might inform the national debate.

Taylor's first words to Arkansas, at the announcement of his appointment as bishop, were in Spanish: “El humilde heredará la tierra.” “The humble shall inherit the earth.”

He continued, in English, to explain: “Jesus' preferential love of the poor and marginalized was courageous, not timid, and so must we also be if we are to be his faithful servants.”

Taylor went on to say that, while individual priests in the Arkansas diocese had spoken out about immigration issues (see sidebar), administrators here have generally avoided the issue. That would change, he said, adding: “I certainly speak out very clearly about what the gospel says about human dignity and human rights.”

Last year, Taylor joined the archbishop of Oklahoma City and nine other priests in signing a “pledge of resistance” to Oklahoma's HB 1804, a law that suspends or revokes business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to transport or shelter them.

In a statement of “defiance” addressed to Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, the archbishop and priests wrote: “Our faith tradition instructs us to do good to all peoples. There is no exemption clause for those persons who do not have documentation of their citizenship status. We will not show partiality to those who are in need of humanitarian assistance.”

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