He’s part theological phenomenon, part social justice champion, part stand-up comedian.
Rene Sanchez, visiting professor of theology at the University of Portland, grew up with parents who made their living picking in the fields of north-central California. Now holder of a PhD from Boston College, Sanchez has never forgotten his working class roots.
Central to his vision of the world are memories of standing before the field foreman, who would select the families who would work that day. The small boy noticed that the men whose families were skipped seemed to curl in on themselves, as if their chests were crushed by shame. Later, in biblical studies, he learned the Hebrew word anawim, used in the Old Testament to refer to the poor. One translation is “caved in.”
“That is the feeling you get when you are not just poor, but exploited,” says Sanchez, 53. “All the dignity gets shattered. You get pulverized and you have to rebuild.”
His father came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1950s as part of the Bracero worker program. The elder Sanchez had only an eighth grade education, but loved the life of the mind, reading novels by the Brontes and Dostoevski. Educating his children was a high priority. The mother was a hard-working, rosary-saying proponent of faith. Sanchez, with dual influences of intellect and faith, was born in El Paso, Texas before the family moved to Arizona and then to California, eventually settling in Santa Rosa.
Teachers who saw the boy’s keen mind encouraged him. Meanwhile, he earned a reputation as a friendly class clown.
“I always felt like a nerd and an idiot in high school but now I am finding I did things for people I didn’t realize,” Sanchez says. “I read my high school yearbook recently and people wrote things like, ‘You were the only person who was good to me.’ God bless that. I guess my parents raised me right.”
Unsure of his path, he dropped out of junior college. He recalls the day — gathering his books and walking several miles home — as a sort of zen spiritual embarkation. Unfortunately, the mood was broken when he remembered he had driven to school and needed a ride back to get his car.
He tried his hand at day care, insulation installing and other odd jobs. About this time, he felt an urge to attend Mass again and visited Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa. Before long, he was teaching religious education at church and loving it. When a youth ministry job opened in Ukiah, he took it, green behind the ears as he was. When officials explained that he would have two weeks of paid vacation, he told them he did not understand what they meant. “I asked them, ‘You mean I will get paid for two weeks of work but I don’t need to show up?’”
When he got his first real paycheck, he did what a lot of 20-year-olds would do; he drove to the beach and spent the whole check staying at a cheap hotel, eating Mexican food and sitting on the beach. Unlike his peers, he also bought a stack of books on Catholic theology.
Parishes and campus Newman Centers began inviting the perky speaker to address groups on topics of faith and life. Finally, someone suggested that he get a degree and become a teacher. He took the advice and at age 27 enrolled at Holy Names University in Oakland. It was a small Catholic school where, if you were ill, the nuns would call and offer to bring you a bowl of soup. “My experience of Catholicism has always been about a tight-knit family,” Sanchez says.
He became a high school teacher, a job he would continue for 15 years. Officials at Moreau High in Hayward, Calif. gave him a chance to get a master’s degree from Notre Dame and he jumped on it.
“To me, Notre Dame is like Catholicism on steroids,” he says. “I love it.” Professors encouraged him to continue on to doctoral studies, especially when they found him poring over heavy duty theology the afternoon after his master’s degree final exams. Because he was working full time, it took him 11 years to get the degree, which he completed this year.
Causes close to his heart are immigration reform and justice for laborers. He thinks the labor movement needs to remain strong to create justice. He also keeps an eye out for racial bias in education.
His motto for building a better world: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
His teaching style is personal and emotional and sometimes comic. At times, his voice will quiver when he discusses oppressed peoples.
While students who critique him say he tends to lecture too much about his opinion, entries on the Rate My Professors website are largely positive. “Just speak up and don’t surf on your laptop,” one reviewer said. “Honestly, if you didn’t like him, you are an idiot.”
Nancy Pyburn, a graduate student in UP’s master of arts in pastoral ministry program calls Sanchez “one of the most authentic people I have ever met.” She says his efforts to expose students to new points of view works.
“He encourages growth and learning on a personal level rarely experienced in the classroom,” Pyburn says.
Larry Loumena, on track to be ordained a permanent deacon, appreciated Sanchez’s fire in the classroom and his faithfulness to Catholic teaching.
“His enthusiasm was contagious,” says Loumena, a member of St. Joseph the Worker Parish. “Rene taught from personal experience and brought many difficult issues to the forefront and into perspective.”
Sanchez recalls a childhood day in a prune plum orchard in Arizona. He was supposed to pick fruit, but kept eating his take. That left his system in an uproar and he had to make frequent trips to the bushes. His disappointed father told him he was doing the family no good and should go wait in the truck.
Ever since, Sanchez has wanted to do good and be useful. He looks at his new PhD as a tool to help further the gospel, especially its call for human dignity and justice.