Busted: Fr. Gilbert Martinez, CSP

One Paulist's journey from park ranger to priest to immigration-rights activist

Park Ranger and Pastor are not career paths that would seem to overlap much, but it was Paulist Father Gilbert Martinez’s work at the Grand Canyon that led him to the priesthood. After spending several years working as a National Park Ranger in the heart of one of the most awesome natural wonders on earth, the California native felt the call. Though he isn’t normally given to such lofty expressions of spirituality, Martinez looks back at his years of work—often alone in the quiet of the natural world—as a time when he was able to listen to God talk. His experiences in this cathedral of nature led him back to his Catholic faith and, eventually, the priesthood.

While he is still drawn to the beauty of the outdoors, the one-time resident of the Grand Canyon now makes his home among the concrete canyons of New York City. Fr. Gil, as he is often called, took over as pastor at the Paulist Fathers’ mother church, St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, in late 2006. In the short time since his arrival there, he has energized the community with a variety of new initiatives that have helped St. Pauls to emerge as a growing hub of spiritual, intellectual and social life in New York City.

Preachers and Pugilists

Over the first six months of 2007, the Upper West Side church has been the site of talks by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa the “Preacher to the Papal Household” as well as controversial British theologian James Alison. In that time, St. Paul’s has also hosted a month-long exhibition of secular New York City artists entitled “Who, What, Where, When, Why is God?” as well as Golden Glove Boxing exhibitions in the church basement that draw heavily from the parish’s Hispanic population.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, has been his involvement with the “New Sanctuary” movement in New York. The interdenominational group’s mission to bring a faith perspective to the issue of immigration was announced at a press conference at St. Paul’s that was covered nationally. As both a person of Mexican-American and Native American ancestry and a pastor who has worked with the Border Patrol for the humane treatment of illegal aliens in Arizona, Fr. Martinez brings a unique perspective to one one of the most contentious issues in America today.

BustedHalo: Can you tell us a little about what life was like as a Ranger and how you discovered that you wanted to be a priest?

Fr. Gilbert Martinez: Yeah it is an unusual path and it was an exciting one. I really miss my life as a Park Ranger because it was so varied and diverse. We used to fight forest fires one day, the next day we’d be on a search and rescue for someone at the bottom of the Grand Canyon—I worked at the Grand Canyon National Park for the most part—and other days giving talks and tours about the geology of the Canyon, it was so varied and diverse and it was really wonderful and exciting. You know being in a helicopter or in a fire truck chasing down a fire, it was very exciting, I enjoyed it immensely. I still miss it. I miss my horse! I miss a lot of things and a lot of people but, I really miss my horse, Shorty! (laughs). We used to use horses to repair fences—boundary fences, which was pretty exciting.

BH: We don’t really have a sense here on the east coast of how big a job it is being a National Park Ranger. I would think the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and places like that—these are big jobs—what’s that like?

GM: Oh it’s amazing. Partly because the setting is incredible, it’s beautiful. You have 5 to 6 million people visiting a park per year—at the Grand Canyon particularly—and the level of activity is incredible from hiking to backpacking. There are a lot of medical emergencies, many people with health problems, a lot of crime, drunk driving, bar fights just the works you know! And of course the forest fires. One of the things about the Grand Canyon—people don’t realize is that it’s at 7,000 feet elevation on the south rim, 9000 feet on the north rim and these are forests that burn quite a bit during the summer time. So we had all those issues.

I did two tours at cottonwood camp, which was halfway down the canyon actually on the north side. So I’d work 9 days and then was off 5 days. I saw a lot of tourists in the evening but during the day it was a lot by myself—hiking and touring, checking springs, monitoring some wildlife, archeological sites, and also handling a lot of emergencies it was really amazing.

BH: Sounds like you had a great life. What took you away from all that?

GM: You know that’s the hardest question, it really is, because for me, it always sounds a little high fallutin’ to say, “Well God called me.” But that’s what happened. My experience was exactly that. God called me through people and through spending time alone. I think in a way if there’s any way to get a spirituality it’s to be out in the natural world and to just be quiet. And when you’re quiet, God talks. I think it’s easier in many ways to just pray a lot of words and then this way you don’t have to listen to God talking back at you. But I know that’s what happened to me, I had a couple of experiences that were really formative for me and that got me on the road.

“I think in a way if there’s any way to get a spirituality it’s to be out in the natural world and to just be quiet. And when you’re quiet, God talks. I think it’s easier in many ways to just pray a lot of words and then this way you don’t have to listen to God talking back at you.”

I was working on the north rim and a woman actually had a heart attack at Grand Lodge at the North Rim and I was the paramedic on duty so I went to go attend her but in the middle of an incredible snowstorm up on the north rim. The north rim closes from October to May just because the snow packs can sometimes be 20 or 30 feet. But in any case, I went to go attend her and I was on the radio with a doctor down in Kanabe, Utah and he told me “You have to get that woman off that 9000-foot elevation and down to a lower elevation.” It was snowing really badly and so another ranger and I took this woman down in an ambulance. I sat in the back with her and was driving the ambulance. We talked for 4 and a half hours because we were traveling at 5 or 10 mph down these roads. She was a holocaust survivor in Hungary. She told me her entire story! It was amazing. I was rapt listening to her. I didn’t speak five words to her except, “I need to take your blood pressure now. I need to hear your heart now” you know that sort of thing but I never really talked to her.

And then as we were transferring her to another ambulance at a lower elevation, she just grabbed me by the hair and pulled me to her face and said “You should be a priest!” It was amazing. I had started to think about what my life was about what my spirituality was about—clearly I’m seeing God here in this incredible world—this natural world and through different people. All I prayed for was “God, am I on the right path?” and then this Hungarian, Jewish holocaust survivor tells me I should be a priest. That was in 1986.

BH: She didn’t even know you were Catholic, right?

GM: No. We hadn’t had that conversation. We weren’t allowed to have those conversations—absolutely not, so we couldn’t talk about faith or any of that stuff. And I wasn’t even going to mass at that time because if I did have to go to mass I’d have to hike to the South Rim which is about 18 miles one way. So I rarely went to mass in those days. But after that I started going! (laughs)

BH: How did you find the Paulists?

GM: I met the Paulists at UC-Berkeley where I studied conservation and natural resources. I actually worked at the Newman Hall there in the homeless shower program—where we gave the homeless a chance to shower up. You know the first time I went to mass there I’ll never forget it because I heard a sermon and it was really about my life and I had never heard that before I had just always went to go get communion, because in my family we had to go. But it was very exciting to be with the Paulists that way. But I ended up leaving the church for about 10 years. I became a Marxist-Leninist—we weren’t Marxists we were Marxist-Leninists (laughs). Part of it was just exploring. I mean you read Marx and it’s like this incredible vision from the Acts of the Apostles where they held everything in common. And I thought “oh, that’s God!” It was Berkeley and it was the 70s. It was crazy.

BH: You’re Mexican-American and Native American as well. Can you talk about what that was like growing up?

GM: Yeah that’s interesting. My mother is Native American—she was Apache but her tribe was displaced in the probably early 1900s down to southern New Mexico to a Pueblo group. So my mother grew up on the reservation. My earliest memories are visiting my grandmother on the reservation along with all the ceremonies that we used to participate in—the dancing and the great devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe that they had there. There was a way that the natives were able to use Guadalupe as an access to Catholic spirituality. So no one ever went to mass but they certainly went to Guadalupe (laughs). That was the important thing.

BH: The apache weren’t a Pueblo people were they?

GM: No that was one of the conflicts for my mom and my grandmother is that they were brought to this Pueblo reservation. It’s like saying ‘All Asian people are the same’ or ‘All Hispanics are the same’ or all Europeans are the same—the cultures are fairly different. So my Grandmother was a little on the outs except that she married the chief of the Pueblos. So it was pretty interesting. So my mother is Apache but grew up on the Pueblo reservation. My father was Mexican but second generation. His father, my grandfather was born in Durango, Colorado but he was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My grandfather was heavily recruited to come and work on the railroads and on the highway projects in California during the First World War so he did that. That’s why we’ve been talking about immigration lately…it’s just that one of those things is that there’s just a great pool and there’s some very specific kind of recruitment that goes on in Mexico to bring people to the United States to work.

BH: Speaking of which, CNN and a number of other news organizations recently parked in front of the church you are pastor for, St. Paul the Apostle in New York for a press conference you and representatives from other faith traditions held on the New Sanctuary Movement. Can you talk about what that is and how you got involved?

GM: Actually I got involved through a duty call I got here at St Paul’s. We had a young man come in who is gay from an Asian country and he was about to be deported. And as a gay person in his home country he would be automatically imprisoned for at least two years and would not survive…according to him and I checked out this through some of the gay and lesbian organizations that work on this issue and they said that once they’re in prison they’re lucky to survive. So anyway I just got involved in talking to a lot of groups that I thought could help this young man and we were able to! And that led into talking to people who were involved with organizing the New Sanctuary Movement…which uses the name from the 1980s sanctuary movement that provided physical sanctuary for people from Central America countries where there were a lot of civil wars at the time back in the 1980s. The new Sanctuary Movement is based on that, but its primary focus here is to provide or to begin a public dialogue more from a faith perspective on the issue of immigration. Most of what we hear is just a lot of sound bytes and a lot of nasty stuff about law enforcement and breaking the law without any context for …well, U.S. history for one (laughs). But also for many other aspects of immigration which is really an incredibly complex issue, it’s really not that simple.