Years from now, when Arkansas has a stable, deep-rooted population of born-and-raised Latinos, and the issue of who is "legally" or "illegally" in this state has largely been settled by time, one thing is for sure: People will still speak the name of Msgr. Scott Friend in the reverent tones usually reserved for a saint.
Ordained as a priest 25 years ago last month, Friend is that kind of guy, and has led that kind of life. Stricken with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago (his doctor told him he should have retired seven years back, but he keeps plugging away in near-constant fatigue and pain), Friend still hums with charisma and enthusiasm. It shows in the good works he has done all over the state, especially in the Hispanic community.
Call the Catholic parish in DeQueen, or in Rogers, or in Springdale, or Camden, or at the predominately-Hispanic St. Edward Church in Little Rock, and ask about him. Within just a few phone calls, you'll more than likely hear at least one story that's apt to get your eyes a little misty: Hispanic parishioners speaking in spotty English about marriages and children saved from ruin; Father Scott making midnight trips to fix broken air conditioners and broken people; Father Scott knocking on the doors of ramshackle trailers in the hot Arkansas sun and telling the scruffy Latino laborers who appeared in the doorway that they were welcome at the church; Father Scott coming in the dark to sit with the sick, and the troubled, and the dying.
He really listens, they'll tell you. He cares.
In short, when Arkansas's Hispanics come into their own as a force in this state, there are going to be a few things with Scott Friend's name on them. For now, as the vocations director for the Little Rock diocese — the office that recruits and shepherds new seminary students toward the priesthood — he's helping shape what the future of Catholicism (and maybe the cause of social justice in general) will look like in Arkansas. As for the rest of you, Catholic or not, he's got a message: If you consider yourself a Christian and refuse to feel love and compassion for your Hispanic neighbors just because they don't look like you or come from the same place as you do, you're doing nothing less than turning your back on God Almighty.
A kid from Southwest
Not only does the Lord work in mysterious ways, He tends to have a pretty good sense of humor. It's not surprising then that Scott Friend was raised in Southwest Little Rock, which is now home to the majority of the city's Hispanic population.
The child of dentist Dr. Max Friend and his wife, Betty, Friend said he learned a lot about hope from his mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia just before Friend's older brother was born. Though doctors warned the Friends not to have any more children after Betty's diagnosis, Betty eventually became pregnant with Scott, who was born in June 1961 and grew up in the Cloverdale neighborhood.
"I remember she would pray everyday for about an hour," Friend said. "She was a great symbol of hope to me, because for an hour a day, she went to a place inside her where she didn't have a disease. In that place, she was free, and she knew that she was more than that disease."
Friend took his first communion at St. Theresa Catholic Church on Baseline. By the time he was a teen-ager, however, he'd started to drift away from the church. He went to the University of Arkansas, but after three years of living the life of your average college student, he felt an emptiness inside him. Two and a half years after his last confession, he went to the local Catholic church. As penance, the priest told him to read the Bible every day for a month. It was during that month that Friend says God spoke to him, and asked him if he was ready. You already know how that particular conversation went. Friend started seminary school in the autumn of 1982.
In the second year of seminary, Friend's life took another turn when he met Father Joseph Biltz. By then, Biltz — director of the Arkansas diocese's Office of Peace and Justice — was an old lion in the realm of social issues and peace, working tirelessly for causes ranging from worker rights to the abolition of nuclear arms. Biltz had taken part in pickets around nuclear missile silos in Arkansas, and would be arrested in Washington in July 1985 while protesting apartheid outside the South African Embassy. In the summer of 1984, Biltz sent Friend to work at a labor union he helped oversee in Warren, that worked with migrant farm workers from the surrounding tomato farms. There, Friend found a love for the Hispanic people he met, and felt the sting of his inability to speak Spanish.
"In the evenings, we'd have people come over," he said. "I was on the outside of the group, because I couldn't speak Spanish. It was getting translated, but they were having a great time and telling stories, and I was missing out on that. I was like: 'Man, I'm missing out on something very joyful here.' It was something really exciting. ... Just watching the people the way that they were, I wanted to be a part of that."
Deacon Marcelino Luna, now a director of Hispanic ministries at the diocese in Little Rock, met Friend at St. Luke Catholic Church in Warren, before Friend was ordained as a priest. A former undocumented laborer who said he "did it all" in his younger days — picking tomatoes, planting trees, catching chickens — Luna lived in Warren for 17 years. He said that Friend's willingness to seek out Hispanics and make them feel welcome pushed him to become more involved in the church.
"It meant a lot more than what it does now, today," Luna said. "To see him come to the places where we lived and talk to us, it would really light up the day. I remember that we were really in a situation where we didn't have anybody to talk to. To have a visit from this guy — who would come in and talk to us, make us laugh and make jokes and invite us to Mass — it really meant a lot."
After returning to the seminary from South Arkansas, Friend eventually enrolled in a Spanish-language-immersion program in San Antonio, Texas, where he submerged himself in Latino culture. "It wasn't just the language that I needed to understand," he said. "It was also the cultural traditions and history — this whole different world. I realized I was going to have to learn that."
While in San Antonio, Friend visited refugee camps for Central and South Americans on the U.S./Mexico border, and chatted with fellow seminarians who had worked in Latin America — much of which, in the mid-1980s, was engulfed in political turmoil. The experience was enough that he considered joining an order that would send him to do missionary work in South America or Mexico, but a little voice inside his head nudged him back in the direction of his home state. He was ordained in June 1987, and has worked in Arkansas ever since.
"Something kept me here," Friend said. "I didn't have the push to go all the way through with [becoming a missionary]. Something kept drawing me back here, saying that there was going to be something important here in Arkansas."
A trunk-lid ministry, and learning to walk on water
In May 1989, after a few years in his first assignment at Our Lady of Holy Souls Catholic Church in Little Rock, Friend was reassigned as pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church in Camden. At the same time, the bishop named him director of Hispanic ministry, a post that covered the whole state.
"I was about 28," Friend said. "I wasn't really sure of what I needed to do. The bishop was like: 'direct the ministry.' "
There had been other priests who worked with Hispanics in Arkansas, reaching out to migrant farm labor. Even so, the Church knew a more permanent Latino tide was soon to swell. "In 1983, the Bishops came out with a document called 'The Hispanic Presence,' " Friend said. "They started talking about how they were predicting that by the year 2000, half the Catholic churches in the United States were going to be majority Hispanic. ... By 2001, if those trends continued, then Hispanics would be the majority of the church."
Friend took his new post seriously. Crisscrossing Arkansas and rolling over 3,000 miles a month onto his car's odometer, the young, good-looking priest with the surfer's shock of blond hair oversaw the creation of Spanish-language Masses at churches in Texarkana, DeQueen, Warren, Hot Springs, Camden and others, inviting Hispanics to Mass wherever he found them and generally practicing good, old-fashioned shoe-leather evangelism.
"It was fun," he said. "I really enjoyed that. In business or sales, they call it cold calling. You're knocking on doors, and you never know who you're going to meet."
Friend found himself in some risky situations in those days, often venturing far back into the sticks to find undocumented workers. He recalls one day when was knocking on doors in the South Arkansas sawmill town of Urbana and came upon an old house.
"There must have been 15 or 20 guys living in this house," he said, laughing. "They're looking at me, and I remember being a little troubled inside. I told them, 'I'm a Catholic priest, and wanted to see if you guys want to have Mass.' It's really interesting that I became good friends with a lot of those guys."
Friend was transferred from Camden to Texarkana for a while, then was sent to the Church of St. Edward in Little Rock in 1992, where he started conducting Spanish Mass.
During those early years as director of Hispanic ministry, Friend said the Catholic Church in Arkansas was beginning to choose a different path than the church in some neighboring states, taking it as a mission to reach out to Hispanics. "While we had priests coming in from other places like Mexico, our look at it was: We want you to copy us, not do it for us," Friend said. "It made a big difference. We were realizing that these folks are part of our church. We have to tend to them. We can't say: 'You immigrated here, so you're somebody else's problem. We'll bring in priests and they can take care of you.' That wasn't what we did. We really decided that we've got to minister to these folks."
In 1994, Friend was transferred to St. Barbara Catholic Church in DeQueen, where he spent a little over five years. When he got there, it was a parish in trouble. "They had very few people coming to church," he said. "The Hispanics weren't coming, and there had been some real conflicts between the Anglos and the Hispanics there at the parish. When I got there, I found out they'd brought in only $20,000 the whole year in collections, and spent $27,000. ... I'm not a major economist, but I know you can't keep doing stuff like that."
Friend fell back on his old tactic of pounding the pavement, knocking on doors. Soon, what had been a sleepy church with only around 30 regularly-attending Hispanics was at standing-room capacity. "We had to really rebuild the whole parish plant," he said. "We were getting 600 or 700 people in the church, so we had to add 10 tons of air conditioning just to keep the place bearable. It was amazing."
In addition to his duties shepherding the souls of St. Barbara's to salvation, Friend became everything from marriage counselor to first responder for the Hispanic community in DeQueen. One summer, for example, a Latino family who had just bought an old house called him in the middle of the night to tell him their air conditioning went out.
"I thought: 'What do you want me to do about that?' That was my first reaction. Sorry," he said with a laugh. "I started to look up in the phone book, but then I said: I'll just come over. They were going through this problem, and you've got to accompany them in the problem. So I went there, and looked at it. I checked the circuit breaker, and after that, that's the end of my HVAC ability. ... I tripped the switch and it came back on. After that, it was: 'Padre knows how to fix air conditioning!' "
One of the parishioners at DeQueen whose life was touched by Friend in a more substantial way was Jesus Rubio. Rubio's father had abandoned his family when he was very young, something that he said contributed to him "living evil" by the time he moved to DeQueen after 10 years in Texas. After hearing about the energetic new priest at St. Barbara, Rubio went to church once or twice, then stayed out one Sunday to play soccer.
"In the afternoon about 5 o'clock I saw somebody coming to the house in a car," Rubio said. "I saw a white man, and I said, 'Oh God, who is it?' That was Father Scott. He asked me, " 'What'sa matter with you? Why didn't you come to church?' I can't lie to him. I told him I wanted to play soccer."
Fearing another house call from Father Friend, Rubio became a regular churchgoer, a decision that he said has changed his life and made him a better husband and father. Friend is the godfather of one of Rubio's children, and he calls Friend nothing less than a miracle worker. "For me, he's not really just a priest," Rubio said. "I can say he's really my father. ... He's a man who knows how to come to you. He's a man who knows how to talk to you. He knows how to try to help you all the time. He never says no. All the time, no matter what the time, he's there for you."
Friend is still making a difference in Rubio's life. Three years ago, his teenage son was teased so relentlessly for his weight at school that he developed anorexia, going from 230 pounds to 97.
"I went to the doctors, and never had anybody to help," Rubio said, crying to the point he could barely talk. "So I called [Friend] and I told him: 'Father, I need some help.' And he told me: 'What do you got?' And I told him: 'My son, he is going to die'... He talked to him from 9 o'clock to 4 o'clock that day, all day long. He gave all of the time to talk to him. And, thank God, my son is OK now. Father Scott is not a priest. He's my father. He can do some miracles. I don't know why."
Leaving DeQueen in 1999, Friend returned to St. Edward in Little Rock for a year and a half, then shipped out to St. Rafael Catholic Church in Springdale. Over the next few years, Friend had a front-pew seat to the Hispanic tidal wave that washed over Northwest Arkansas in the 2000s. "It was unbelievable the explosion of growth," he said. "We ended up giving two, then three Spanish Masses. We already had three English Masses. We were growing sometimes by hundreds of families a month. In that four years' time, the population doubled."
The church had 5,500 parishioners when Friend got there, and had grown to over 11,000 when he left (today, it's the biggest Catholic parish in the state, pushing north of 18,000 active parishioners). It was common for four priests to begin hearing confessions on Saturdays at 9 a.m., Friend said, and not get finished until noon. He had to rent the convention center in Springdale to do the first communion ceremony for the parish's children. When they performed the mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe, 3,000 people were in attendance. "It was so packed it scared me," he said. "I thought, I hope nothing catches on fire here, because we're going to be in big trouble if that happens."
In 2002, the same year he was named monsignor, Friend went to the doctor to check out a numbness in his feet and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the central nervous system. He takes medication for it, but is still in near-constant pain and battles fatigue, especially when he's forced to stand for any length of time.
His disease means he could be blinded or crippled at literally any moment. A lesion on one of the nerves that controls his heartbeat could kill him stone dead with just as little warning. Still, he sees his illness as a blessing, one that not only helps him understand the suffering of the sick, but which has helped him change the way he sees himself and his calling. Living with MS, Friend said, means he has no guarantee that tomorrow is going to be like today. It is, he points out, the way everybody lives, even if they don't have a constant reminder of that fact like he does.
"I have to trust completely in the Lord. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to live with this disease," Friend said. "It's what allows me to know that there's more than just being able to walk, and there's more than just being able to see, or anything else you can lose with MS. I've got a soul, and it's a soul that's immortal. It's the essence of who I am, and God dwells at the center of it. That's where I've had to learn to live. That's how you walk on water."
The Cosmic Coyote
Even though MS can be exacerbated by stress and fatigue, both of which come with the territory in a mega-parish like Springdale, Friend stayed at St. Rafael as pastor until 2005, when he returned to Little Rock and a post as vocations director for the diocese of Little Rock and vicar general, a position that's second only to the bishop.
Father Jason Tyler, the current pastor at St. Edward Church in Little Rock, said the impact of the groundwork laid by Friend 20 years ago can still be seen all over the state. "More than half of the Catholics in Arkansas are Hispanic now," Tyler said. "But it also goes beyond that, because that same level of dedication as well as seeking a personal touch is showing forth in the way he's worked with seminarians. He's been vocations director for awhile now and we're coming up around 40 seminarians, which is huge given the small number of Catholics that we have in Arkansas."
Friend said that the church in Arkansas hasn't hit the ceiling of Hispanic growth, with the diocese still working to build the infrastructure needed to absorb it. Two new Catholic churches, one in Danville and another in Glenwood, both 100 percent Hispanic, were started in 2006, the first new parishes in the state in recent memory. The church is also building sanctuaries bigger, Friend said, knowing that even if congregations can't fill all the pews today, it's only a matter of time. Beyond that, Friend has noticed one of the most moving and subtle signs that the Hispanic population of Arkansas is in for the long haul. "I've started noticing that when families have people die, they're burying them here," he said. "That's when I knew folks were here to stay."
Part of dealing with the Hispanic influx has been dealing with the human side of things — particularly white parishioners who feel as if they're being squeezed out of long-established parishes. While many white church members want to be "pioneers" and reach out to Hispanics, Friend said, it's a more lengthy process or a breaking point for others.
"A lot of it is fear," he said. "People get afraid that things are being taken away from us, or that people are taking over. Usually what I've found in a parish were that people were OK with it until what they call in psychology the JND — the Just Noticeable Difference — the moment when there was just one too many [Hispanics] and people started getting uncomfortable."
Friend says that he tried to be a bridge between cultures to help Anglo parishioners deal with the changes and their fears, a goal he helps inspire in the seminarians he ushers toward the priesthood.
"At the bottom line, it's an issue of conversion," he said, "because what you're really trying to do is get people to love like God does. Racism is a serious sin, but what it also is is a resistance to loving like God loves. You can't have hatred for a whole group of people and think you're being Christian. ... Really your hatred isn't against the person, it's against the God that made them, and you're going to have to deal with that at some point. Better to open your heart now than wait."
One of Friend's go-to eye-openers while speaking to groups is to ask how many of them want to go to heaven. After everybody raises their hands and puts them down, he then asks how many of them think they've lived a good enough life that they deserve to go to heaven. At that, the hands inevitably stay down.
"Then I say, 'If you want to go to heaven but you don't deserve to go to heaven, then when you get there, you're going to be an illegal immigrant,' " Friend said. "Since you're going to be illegal, you're going to have to find somebody to sneak you in. The person who can get you across the border in Mexico is called a 'coyote,' so you're going to need a Cosmic Coyote. Who's that going to be? The answer, of course, is Christ." How can you expect God to welcome you into heaven then, Friend asks, if you can't do the same for the Hispanics who are here now?
While Msgr. Friend accepts that America is legally within its rights to secure the borders, he said that being a country of means demands that we find more humane ways of dealing with the issue of undocumented immigration. He asks Anglos to consider what they would do if they and their families were trapped in the poverty and hopelessness that can be found in many corners of Latin America. He also reminds them that the United States is supposedly a country that values risk-taking and resourcefulness above all else, and that those willing to risk everything — even death or jail — for a better life definitely fit that bill.
"If you grew up in a place where there's no hope for your kids, you're going to leave there and find something," he said. "Anybody who loves just a bit is going to make a choice to leave. That's something we really need to understand: People who immigrate, it's bad for the country that loses them, because the people who are willing to leave are innovative, they're willing to take a risk, they're people who are resourceful. Those are the folks who immigrate here, and it ain't easy."