This story was updated Oct. 23, 2023
On World Mission Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, Maryknoll Lay Missioners honored Angel Mortel with its 2023 Bishop John E. McCarthy Spirit of Mission Award.
The award, Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ interim executive director, Elvira Ramirez, explained during its presentation, is conferred annually “to a returned Maryknoll lay missioner who demonstrates ongoing passion and dedication to living out their mission vocation, which is the joyful story of God’s love.”
In conferring the award, Elvira said, “I am so proud and happy to award Angel with this award.… Angel is a strong advocate for immigrants, for affordable housing and for criminal justice [reform]. Angel, thank you for your commitment and dedication to inclusivity, for your witness for faith in action, social justice, compassion and advocacy for the marginalized.”
This year’s Bishop McCarthy Award was presented to Angel during the 9 a.m. Mass at Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles, where Angel is a parishioner. The Mass and award presentation was livestreamed on Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ Facebook page.
Together with her husband, Chad Ribordy, Angel joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 1997. They served for 16 years in the São Paulo area of Brazil, 12 of them with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Their two daughters — Cecilia and Elisa — were born during their time in mission in Brazil.
Angel’s ministries in Brazil involved organizing community health volunteers, coordinating an income generation project for women and fundraising for the national prison ministry of the Brazilian Catholic Church.
In her own remarks, Angel acknowledged that “Maryknoll disrupted my life — but in the positive sense of shaking things up, waking me up to possibility, to potential, to a new perspective.” She added that it was the “incredible witness of the real lives of Maryknoll missioners” that taught her “that mission is about love, orienting your life toward learning how to love people and then doing your best to love them.”
Since returning from Brazil, Angel has continued to work tirelessly to help people advocate for and bring about change. For the past five years, she has been a community organizer for LA Voice.
Her time as a Maryknoll lay missioner, Angel said, prepared her well to be a community organizer. “Like a community organizer, a missioner goes out to a community to love people and to invite people to love each other and build the power necessary to transform the world into one where all people can live with dignity and be free from oppression.”
Angel added, “In this world as it is — with so much violence, war, pain and injustice — we are all called … to be missioners, to be organizers, and to be lovers.”
During her time in Brazil, her primary work was with a ministry of the Brazilian Catholic Church called Pastoral da Criança (Children’s Pastoral). She was part of and eventually became the coordinator of a team of volunteer health promoters that engaged families in three different favelas. The national program, which was awarded the World’s Children’s Prize in 2003, involved providing education around nutrition and safe hygiene practices as well as organizing the women to advocate for improved child and maternal health.
Angel coordinated a group of 20 community leaders, offering support and training to equip them to visit families with children at risk of malnutrition. In their visits, they not only assessed the health needs of the children, but also explored with the families concrete solutions to community problems. Says Angel, “We reached over 300 families in three different favelas. Over the years, we developed deep and trusting relationships with many families.”
She remembers, “One of our many victories included securing representation for mothers and female leaders on the advisory board at the local public health clinic.” Previously the board had been exclusively made up of doctors, nurses and medical staff. Pastoral da Criança got the structure of the board changed so that it would always have at least two to three people from the community who used the services of the clinic — a direct way for the community to have a voice in the decisions of the health clinic.
Ironically, it was during that time and in a place more than 6,000 miles from home that Angel says she “discovered what it feels like to authentically belong.… I learned that belonging has less to do with where you were born and more to do with how the community, the network of relationships that holds us all together, accepts you, values you, and recognizes you…. God pushed me to the limits of my fear. If I was to survive, I needed to get close and get curious.”
She says it was also the shared experience of motherhood that bonded and connected her with the other women, and together they were learning to support each other.
Maryknoll lay missioner Joanne Blaney, who served with Angel in São Paulo and still serves there today, says, “Angel’s mission spirit of welcome, courage and engagement helped to transform people and communities. In her ministry with the Children’s Pastoral in poor communities, Angel built relationships and worked to empower families to assume leadership.”
Joanne adds, “Angel truly lives out her faith in action in the MKLM spirit of our nonviolence focus, service and commitment to social justice. And I still miss her reflective presence in our pastoral group.”
After leaving Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the family stayed in São Paulo for another four years. Angel and Chad worked as English as a Second Language teachers, and Angel continued to collaborate with her fellow Maryknollers in Brazil through her work raising funds for the Brazilian Catholic Church’s national prison ministry.
Upon the family’s return to the U.S. in 2015, Angel said, their choice of settling in Los Angeles — “a city that isn’t as big, chaotic or diverse as São Paulo, but is definitely close” — and moving into similar justice work helped lessen the culture shock.
During her first few years in Los Angeles, she managed the faith community outreach program at Brave New Films, a social-justice documentary film company.
In 2018, she joined LA Voice (which is part of Faith in Action, formerly known as People Improving Communities through Organizing or the PICO National Network), where she is now a lead community organizer.
LA Voice is a multiracial, multifaith network of faith congregations that says it aims to “awaken people to their own power, training them to speak, act and work together to transform our county into one that reflects the dignity of all people.” By helping people to advocate for change, Angel explains, “our hope and goal is to build an LA County in which all feel they belong and all are included.”
Angel has worked to engage voters around several propositions on the California ballot that would bring resources to schools and communities, especially funding for alternatives to incarceration, rent relief and youth development. Outside of the election season, LA Voice is mostly involved in advocacy around immigration, affordable housing and criminal justice reform.
Two years ago, Angel was involved in organizing a big listening campaign with more than 2,000 conversations across the LA Voice’s network of congregations. The conversations centered on the issues that were most immediately impacting people’s lives and on what gives people hope. The three concerns that rose to the top were a lack of affordable housing, homelessness and financial insecurity. Those concerns have now become the focus of LA Voice’s organizing efforts.
This year Angel was heavily involved in the “Home Is Sacred” campaign of LA Voice’s statewide network PICO CA. That campaign promoted two pieces of state legislation that passed in September and were just signed into law. The first one was designed to protect people against illegal evictions, and the other one was to facilitate the creation of affordable housing on faith communities’ lands.
Angel says that her time in mission taught her what she considers the “core of organizing: building inclusive community founded on authentic and deep relationship. It’s in that web of relationships where our power to change unjust systems is rooted.”
She adds that her time in Brazil has been great preparation for her current work as a community organizer. “When people ask me what I do, I say that I bring people together across differences to discover their shared purpose, so that together we can build a new world where everyone belongs. In organizing, we say that power is the product of relationship, and we define power as the ability to act.… We cannot build authentic and sustainable power without first being in relationship with each other.”
Working with the mothers of Pastoral da Criança showed her “the power of an organized group to change a structure and gain a voice in decisions. And it was the depth and breadth of the relationships in that group that gave the group such power. This is the kind of work I’m doing now with LA Voice, except within and between congregations. We build collective power by bridging people and communities in transformative relationships. I’m grateful that my time in mission taught me this lesson.”
Angel says, “The years we spent with Maryknoll in Brazil changed my life, but also had an impact on my children. The injustice we saw up close in Brazil strengthened my own resolve to commit my life to changing unjust structures. The added bonus is that the experience also formed my daughters, the next generation, our future leaders, our hope to take up this commitment.”
The award, now in its fifth year, is named after the late Bishop John E. McCarthy of Austin, Texas. Known for his social justice and advocacy work, he was dedicated to promoting the role of laity in the church and Catholic Social Teaching. An indefatigable promoter of mission and an ardent supporter of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Bishop McCarthy also was a strong advocate for the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees.
He was one of the founders of what is now called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which was launched in 1970 as the U.S. bishops’ major domestic anti-poverty effort. In the midst of a nation coming to grips with racism and systemic poverty, CCHD provided a means for local communities to fund self-help programs and hold civic leaders accountable for community improvements.
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