BY: DENNIS P. GONZALES, PhD
Editor's Note: We welcome Dennis Gonzales to the group of CHA's editorial contributors. Dennis assumed his position of senior director of mission innovation and integration services in January of 2020 and prepared the first of what will be his regular column for the May-June issue of Health Progress. As the magazine has moved to an online format only during the coronavirus pandemic, we're pleased to have Dennis introduce himself to you here.
Hello friends. After years of eagerly awaiting each issue as a mission leader in the field, I am excited to be writing my first article in Health Progress as a CHA employee. Although I have come to know many of you in the health systems over time, allow me to introduce myself formally. My name is Dennis Gonzales, and I am privileged to serve as CHA's new senior director for mission innovation and integration. This is the role previously held by Brian Smith, who has been promoted to vice president for mission and sponsorship. I began in this role in January 2020, and I am already off to a fast and furious beginning. My thanks to Brian and Sr. Mary for giving me this amazing opportunity to serve the ministry at the national level. I am humbled by their trust and committed to supporting our CHA members as we strive to serve God's people.
My path to CHA has been a winding one, indeed. Yet, I now find myself in a mission role in Catholic health care where I am blessed to work with leaders and caregivers from across the United States who are answering Jesus' call to serve the most vulnerable in our society. Honestly – I never imagined I would have this opportunity. Like many of you, I "wandered" into a ministry leadership role not fully knowing what was in store for me. As my great grandmother used to say, "No one would ever do anything if they knew what they were in for!" I hope you will allow me to share some of my story with you, as we begin our journey together as partners in the ministry.
I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at St. Vincent's Hospital (now CHRISTUS St. Vincent). Interestingly enough, it was a Sister of Charity who delivered me, telling my mom that "this one is going to be a priest!" Well, not exactly, but I did end up working in Catholic ministries, both education and health care, much of my life. My parents were very young, so my grandparents played a major role in raising me, especially my grandmothers. In Hispanic families, the abuelas are unquestionably the matriarchs and revered leaders of the family. This was certainly true in my case, as my grandmother Gonzales (we all called her Granny) made sure that I attended Catholic elementary and high school, first with the Sisters of Loretto and then the De La Salle Christian Brothers. As the cost was significant for my young family, it would not have been possible without the love and generosity of my grandparents. To this day, I am eternally grateful to them. They are now with God, but I know that they continue to pray for me and cheer me on.
Growing up in Santa Fe, I didn't give much thought to the obvious fact that I was Hispanic. The population was, and still is, majority Hispanic. The majority of my classmates and teachers were Hispanic, and in conversation, Spanish was mixed in with English regularly. We called this language "Spanglish," and I dare say it is still spoken today! While English was clearly our first and primary language, my generation was encouraged, and even required, to learn Spanish. I enjoyed it so much, I minored in Spanish Literature. My parents, on the other hand, were forbidden from speaking Spanish at school throughout the 1950s and '60s. The push was to be more "American," so Spanish was frowned upon as foreign or even inferior. Looking back, it doesn't really make sense. Santa Fe, like many cities and missions in the South and Southwest, is a very old city – for the United States, anyway. It was founded in 1610 by the Spanish conquistadores and was already a thriving city in Nueva Espana (New Spain) when the Americans were "discovering" the western frontier. In the Southwest, you often hear Hispanics joke that we didn't move, the borders did.
Other than whether you prefer red or green (chile, that is), the next big question growing up was how "old" your family was. Our family is a young, old Spanish family. We trace our roots to a Spanish Captain who came to Santa Fe in 1710, receiving a land grant from the King of Spain – 100 years after Santa Fe's founding. If my calculations are even close, that makes me about a 12th generation Santa Fean. Our ancestors lived under many flags: Spain, Mexico, Texas and, eventually, the United States. I believe that this all-inclusive reflection on our history can help to dispel many of the misconceptions that exist today in the narrative of who Hispanics are and where we came from – it's complicated. The beauty of the story is that we have all played an important part in the establishment, growth and success of this great country. It is a story of shared sacrifice and struggle. Periods of prosperity, and times of despair. We all have ancestors who have experienced what it is to be a stranger in the land, a foreigner, an immigrant. And, as Pope Francis often reminds us, Jesus calls us to welcome the stranger.
As you can see, I love history and the insights we can glean from it. Fortunately, I was always an excellent student; quite the nerd, actually. You can add the Jesuits to the list of my Catholic education. I went to Loyola University in New Orleans. Inspired by my experience with the Brothers at St. Michael's High School in Santa Fe, I entered the De La Salle Christian Brothers myself and set off to college. While in formation, I earned my bachelor's degree from Loyola and then was assigned to teach at the Brothers' high school in El Paso, affectionately known as La Cate (Cathedral High School). This formation and training as a Brother and teacher proved to be a strong foundation for the mission roles I would eventually hold. While I discerned that the vowed religious life was not what God was calling me to, I did know that service in the church was a calling. After several more years as a lay teacher in Catholic high schools, as a vocational counselor, a college professor and academic dean, I finally found my way to Catholic health care. I've never looked back!
My first job in Catholic health care was in quality and performance improvement at CHRISTUS St. Vincent in Santa Fe. Having earned a master's and a doctorate in Organizational Development, it made perfect sense to work in performance improvement, right? It was also an excellent way to learn the business of health care. I jumped in with both feet and was soon asked to create and serve as the director of a new department: Organizational Development. The OD/HR path is what I was planning for my career – but God had other ideas. The mission leaders at CHRISTUS identified me as a potential mission executive, had organized an extensive mission leader training program, and soon found a position for me. I served as the mission vice president at CHRISTUS St. Vincent in Santa Fe, and then as the regional vice president at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa and The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. I am grateful to my colleagues at CHRISTUS Health for believing and investing in me as a new mission leader. Without their support, I would not be in a position to pay it forward today.
And, that is what I intend to do – pay it forward. The identification, training, forming and mentoring of the next generation of mission leaders is a top priority. As the Catholic health ministry evolves, so must we, much like our founders did. The ministry is increasingly wide and diverse. We serve all peoples without regard to race, color, creed or any other characteristic. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God; we each have the flame of the divine burning within us. Navigating the future of health care in the United States won't be easy, but we are up for the challenge. And, just like the history of our country – it's complicated.
I look forward to working with each of you in our Catholic health care ministry in the years to come. Please don't hesitate to reach out if there is anything I can do to support you in your own ministry. Or, please reach out just to say hello, howdy or hola!
To hear more from this author, listen to his interview with CHA's podcast, Catholic Health USA
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