Deacon Mario Tamaya baptizes a baby at St. Nicholas Church, at 806 N. Ridge Ave. in Evanston. (Photo by Jean Clough)

In 1996, 18-year-old Mario Ramos, a popular member of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston, shot and killed another teen-ager under orders from a street gang. The incident galvanized the church’s Latino community, which makes up about 15 percent of the 1,300-member congregation. St. Nicholas formed a committee to discuss ways to prevent other kids from following Ramos’ fate. Mario Tamayo was asked to head it.

Tamayo, a 54-year-old accountant, has lived in Evanston since moving from Mexico in 1973, and knows Ramos and his family. “I wanted to do something for the community to help us heal,” he said.

It was the start of a journey for Tamayo. With his pastor’s support, he entered a program to become a church deacon in 2001.

Catholic deacons are ordained clergy who participate in mass, administer communion and counsel parishioners. Unlike priests, they can’t give last rites or offer absolution after hearing confession. But they are allowed to marry. Tamayo and his wife, Juanita, have been married 23 years.

He sees his work in the church as a means of nurturing and fighting for Evanston’s Latino community. Like other Catholics, he is concerned about recent revelations that some U.S. priests have sexually abused parishioners. Tamayo sat down with The Chicago Reporter and shared some thoughts on his ministry.

How do you view the [Catholic] Church and its role in the community?

St. Nicholas Church for [Evanston Hispanics] has been the center of the community. When we need something, we go there. No matter [what the issue is], we [at the church] try to help–”if it’s a sacrament, or you’re looking for an apartment to rent, or you need information regarding immigration. This is what it means for me now to be Catholic: You’re not focused on just praying; you are focused on the interaction with the community.

What do you hope to accomplish for your community?

We are afraid to ask for what we think is right for us, our civil rights. So I would like to see this kind of boldness in the Hispanic community.

Maybe sometimes we don’t fight because we are a community that’s still so close to Mexico. There are a lot of illegal people. And when you are in this country illegally, then you are afraid.

But I think things are changing because more people now are becoming legal and U.S. citizens.

I want to serve my people like an alderman so that they know I’m going to fight for their rights. And [I want to] make the Evanston community see that we have Hispanic people with an education–”that we are not only the people who cut the grass, or the people who clean the tables in the restaurants. We have doctors. We have lawyers. We have professional people.

Recent headlines have chronicled the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. What are your concerns?

The whole world is changing. And also, I think, the Catholic Church needs to change. They have shown this–”I think they’re more open [now] because they welcome everyone. You know they don’t care if you are gay, they don’t care if you are straight, they don’t care if you’re black and they don’t care if you are [an] illegal [immigrant]. So, with the same openness, they need to allow the priest to be married.

What’s more shocking to you–”that sexual abuse has happened so often, or that it’s been covered up?

For me, it’s not shocking. For one, they are human beings. Sadly, children are getting abused around the world.

Right now, the focus is on the priest because [people] think the priest is God. The priest is not God. He’s a human being who decided to follow the word of Jesus Christ. He’s going to fail the same way as I’m going to fail at times, because he’s not perfect. And we need, in this kind of situation, not to judge only what they did wrong, but to ask, “Why [did] they do it?” and try to help.

What would you like to see the church do?

What I would like to do is to have the priest be able to have a wife. When I come home, I have a wife, like a best friend or a partner, and the priest right now doesn’t have that. He’s all alone.

And maybe the Catholic Church, in the education they give to us, needs to be more open. They need to talk about sexuality. Also, don’t abuse the power that you have. Don’t use your power to manipulate people. Lastly, we are a part of the human race, and, in the human race, you have good people and bad people, no matter where you are or where you go.

I feel like [this crisis] is a call from God, to ask us if we really believe in the Catholic Church or we just believe in the men.

Let’s put serving the people first, because the people are the church. It’s not the priest. It’s not the pope. The body of Christ is us. We are all called to do the same thing, and that is to help one another.