Living Hope: A Voice for the Vulnerable

Noe Ramirez of Living Hope Wheelchair Association receives the Sister
Margaret Cafferty Development of Peoples Award in Houston, TX.

Noe has been a quadriplegic for more than twenty years, ever since a drunk driver knocked him off his bicycle as he rode to work in Houston. Without a trace of bitterness, he told us, “I thank God for putting me in a wheelchair.”

Despite his struggles to get help—perhaps because of them—he and nine other people with spinal cord injuries came together to address their immediate need for medical supplies. The local public health district had stopped providing catheters, adult diapers, and urine collection bags to people with irregular immigration status. At first, the members of Living Hope focused on raising funds to buy supplies for fellow wheelchair users. Then the organization began to address the root causes of marginalization and poverty for immigrant workers with disabilities.

Today Living Hope is a strong voice for the rights of both immigrants and people with disabilities.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated south Texas in August 2017, Living Hope’s network helped identify and aid people with disabilities who were stranded. Its post-hurricane work has reflected Living Hope’s consistent call to community. Without their assistance and outreach throughout the year, many people with mobility concerns would be physically and emotionally isolated. The group uses Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) funds to train quality-of-life promoters to help reintegrate people facing debilitating injuries back into the community and ultimately help them return to full participation in society.

We were honored to present our 2017 Sister Margaret Cafferty Development of Peoples Award to Living Hope Wheelchair Association in November and at this year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. The group embodies the criteria of the award with its community-based self-help model that helps poor and low-income people improve their situations and change the structures that keep them and others in poverty.

Living Hope members are strengthened by their faith in God and help from one another to advocate for basic rights and respect for their human dignity. Because of their persistence in engaging elected and appointed officials and speaking publicly about their plight, Living Hope has won small but significant improvements to health care access, transportation, and public safety.

Living Hope is a tangible example of how the preferential option for the poor translates from concept to action.

Thank you for helping CCHD address the needs of the vulnerable and poor through its support of people like Noe.

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD.

Going Deeper
Learn more about Living Hope in the latest edition of the CCHD quarterly newsletter Helping People Help Themselves. Visit PovertyUSA.org to learn more about Living Hope and hundreds of community groups that receive funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Photos Courtesy of Living Hope Wheelchair Association

Celebrating Hispanic Catholic Leaders for Justice

As we approach the V National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry (Sept. 20-23, 2018), we celebrate the leadership and gifts of Hispanic Catholics in the United States.  The USCCB Dept. of Justice, Peace and Human Development is celebrating the contributions of Hispanic Catholics through our sponsorship of and participation in the V Encuentro and our ongoing work to invest in missionary disciples who put faith in action in their communities. Ana Chavarin, a mother of four and community leader in Tucson, AZ, is one such leader. Ana offers this testimony about responding to the call to missionary discipleship:

My name is Ana Chavarin. I am an immigrant from Mexico. I came to this country 14 years ago. I am a single mother of four children and I’m a parishioner at Saint John the Evangelist in Tucson, Arizona.

Right now, I have two part-time jobs and I take classes at community college, where I am studying to be a psychologist. Four years ago, I went back to school to get my GED. That’s where I discovered one of my passions: helping others. I got involved in the student council and organized service projects, but these ways of helping were not enough. I saw all of the need in the community but I did not know how to do more.

Then, one day the priest at my church invited us to read The Joy of the Gospel. Around the same time, I was invited to a leadership training. What I learned in training was just what Pope Francis said in The Joy of the Gospel. In this apostolic exhortation, the pope invited us to be a light to others and to walk the extra mile. He talked about how we should involve ourselves in the community, vote, protect those in need, and be a voice for people who are oppressed. It was amazing how everything I read in the document connected with the leadership training! Shortly thereafter I was offered a part-time job as a community organizer. This was a blessing to me because apart from working to help make changes in my community, I had another source of income for my family.

Now working as a community organizer, I have trained leaders in different parishes. Together we have fought drugs, we have done immigration forums to educate our brothers and sisters about their rights, we have met with the police department to make sure they do not do racial profiling, and we have organized a voter information project to educate people and encourage voting.

All of these things I connect with Matthew 25:35: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Then Christ tells them, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” I see Christ in every person that we help empower. In every step in my work, I see Christ, and my love and faith grow day by day.

I invite you to put your faith in action and walk the extra mile. Our Lord sends us to pray but he also needs hands and bodies that want to walk the road to Jericho.

Going Deeper!

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Ana Chavarin

Listen to Ana’s testimony as part of this webinar on missionary discipleship by the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry. Use this handout to consider how social justice and Hispanic ministry offices can collaborate in your diocese.

Remarks from Fr. Matthew O’Donnell, the 2018 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award Winner

On June 13th the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) presented the 2018 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award to Fr. Matthew O’Donnell, the pastor at St. Columbanus Parish in Chicago, IL. Fr. Matt was honored for his exemplary leadership as his parish works to address the poverty and violence in their community. To learn more about the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, please see the USCCB press releaseFr. Matt’s remarks offer reflections on the call to work for justice and peace in our communities:

Good evening to Bishop Talley, your eminences and excellencies, Ralph McCloud, and all that are gathered here this evening. Pope Francis, in reflecting on the Beatitudes in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, wrote “We need to be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity, and skill. Sowing peace all around us: that is holiness” (Par. 89). These words speak deeply about the ministry I share in with the people of St. Columbanus Church on the southside of Chicago. The reflections of the Holy Father are a call to action for Christians, and all people of good will, around the world. They are more than words or reflections, for they are an invitation for each of us to grow in holiness.

My ministry is one that often makes me feel that I stand in the crossroads of life and death. This year there have been over 1,100 shootings in the city of Chicago, resulting in the deaths of nearly 200 individuals. Chicago is not alone though in facing the epidemic and sin of violence in our country. The violence in our country is not from guns alone. We know all too well the stories of our people who experience the pain and trauma from domestic violence, economic disparities, racism, unemployment and underemployment, underperforming school systems, lack of affordable housing, and the increasing hostility to the sacredness of life. The life and story of each victim of violence in our country is far more than the act of violence that either harmed them or ended their life. They are men, women, and children that come from every part of our country. They are our parishioners and neighbors, they are the people that come from our dioceses and communities, they are the ones entrusted to our pastoral care.

Stories such as these remind me daily of the great mission that Jesus Christ calls me to as I seek to live as a priest in our fractured world. We are invited to be artisans in our ministry that minister from a place of creativity to respond to the many challenges that we face. Our story, as the People of God, is one that teaches that God is love and that ultimately we are created in love, to love. It is when we live the Beatitudes we can help others to “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12). How lucky we are as pastoral ministers, baptized believers, to be entrusted with the sacred ministry of listening to stories, encountering one another, and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Church’s work for peace and justice is truly a ministry of hospitality and action.

Serving as a priest in Chicago allows me to hear the stories of so many individuals that inspire me to see the beauty and the hope that is alive in my city, in our country, and in our world. At St. Columbanus, we are committed to working to eradicate poverty. In 2017, our parish’s Food Pantry distributed 2.5 million pounds of food to our neighbors in two zip codes of Chicago. Our charitable work to feed the hungry is an important ministry of our parish, but we want to do more! Last year we established a Community Service Center that has several components. One program, Project Chance, offers skills training and part-time employment in our parish. From this, we have been able to offer our first full-time position for a custodian in our church and school. We will begin GED classes this fall and we are working diligently to open a coffee shop in our neighborhood. Our coffee shop, which we plan to name Holy Grounds, will focus on economic development in our community by providing several jobs, and it will be a place of hospitality that our neighbors can use for community meetings and programming. All of this reminds me, that we must strive with even greater zeal to make disciples, build community, and inspire witness.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been an important part of my life since 2005 when I served as the CCHD intern for the Archdiocese of Chicago. I recall visiting housing projects with Cardinal Francis George, sitting with residents at kitchen tables and listening to their stories. I remember reviewing grant applications and visiting community organizations committed to justice. I was inspired to be a part of a cohort of other young Catholics who desired to spread the message and work of CCHD as interns.

It was during my time as a CCHD intern that I discerned my vocation to the priesthood. The stories of people, the witness of priests, and the commitment of the Church in the United States to eradicate poverty allowed me to finally accept God’s invitation to explore my desire to become a priest. As a priest serving in the Black Catholic community of Chicago I am reminded daily of the important and sacred work that God calls me to. I would be nothing as a priest if it were not for the witness of faith shown to me by the people I am blessed to serve. At St. Columbanus it is part of our mission to be “an inclusive, welcoming, and loving community.” Our mission as a parish is rooted in the ministry of Jesus Christ and fortified in a spirituality that is “Authentically Black and Truly Catholic.”

I believe that a Gospel commitment to the poor can only come from authentic encounters with the poor. Such encounters require our presence and commitment to remain present with those who are hurting. This is something Cardinal Blase Cupich reminds me, and all in the Archdiocese of Chicago, of consistently. As the leader and shepherd of our local Church, he stands with the poor, even coming to St. Columbanus to distribute food to our neighbors, and calling for all of us to put in the hard work to foster stronger bonds of community. I hope the leadership I bring to my parish community is one that shows others what it means to live the Beatitudes.

Tonight, it means so much to me to be the recipient of the 2018 CCHD Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. Cardinal Bernardin was my Archbishop growing up and his lessons on the consistent ethic of life inspire me to work harder to build a culture of life in Chicago. Cardinal Bernardin’s example is lived by so many of the Bishops gathered here this evening, and for that I am grateful. There are so many in the dioceses across our country who work tirelessly to show that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God. It is when we work together, following faithfully the call to holiness that God places upon each of our lives, that we have the power to eradicate injustice and build the Beloved Community that God desires us to be.

Thank you to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the staff of CCHD for this award. Thank you to Cardinal Blase Cupich and the Auxiliary Bishops of Chicago who support me in my ministry. Finally, thank you to the people of St. Columbanus Church who have loved me and formed me as a pastor. May we all be reminded that sowing peace all around us is holiness. Thank you.

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Fr. Matthew O’Donnell is the pastor of St. Columbanus Parish in Chicago, IL and the winner of the 2018 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award.

 

How Can You Honor Workers? A Perspective from Austin

Our faith teachings call us, Catholics and all people of faith, to care for our neighbor and to work for justice for all. As a long-time organizer, I have worked alongside leaders to address pressures on families and improve their lives through acting on issues. We identify these issues from relational conversations, such as those that members of our communities have with each other. Then together we address them to bring change. With support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Austin Interfaith Sponsoring Committee leaders have organized to create initiatives and marshal resources that have benefited Austin-area children, families, and residents.

Austin Interfaith leaders gather at city hall to call for a living wage (2013)

One area of particular concern is ensuring that more workers have meaningful work, livable wages, and worker protections. We are taught that the dignity of the human person is tied to the dignity of work.  In Laudato Si’ no. 128, Pope Francis writes that “We were created with a vocation to work. … (and) To stop investing in people…is bad business for society.” That’s why Austin Interfaith has led the campaign in Austin to increase the city living wage floor over time to now $13.50/hour for all city workers and workers employed through contractors with the city. In addition, we’ve worked with allies to require worker protections for all construction workers on city contracted projects.

Our perspective, like that of a grandparent, is not simply on the next year or the next election cycle, but on the next generation.  In 1998, the congregations of Austin Interfaith created the Capital IDEA job training and workforce intermediary, which provides a pathway for low-income Austin residents to access new, high-paying opportunities in healthcare, technology, and manufacturing trades – jobs that provide benefits and a career path. Nearly twenty years later, over 1,400 low income adults have started new lives as nurses, sonographers, network administrators, electronic technicians, electricians, and many other careers. In 2016, Capital IDEA participants went from earning an average salary of $10,500 to an average beginning salary of almost $41,000.

An immigrant from Mexico, Elizabeth Soltero cleaned university offices overnight and cared for her young daughter during the day while her husband worked construction. They barely saw each other as a family. For three years, Capital IDEA provided tuition, fees, books, child care, and case management so Elizabeth could attend and graduate from the local community college as a network administrator. Elizabeth Soltero became Capital IDEA’s 1,000th graduate in 2012. With a specialization in information security, she now she manages a computer network for IBM, works during the day, and has bought a new house.

An even more fundamental achievement is the next generation. Through Elizabeth’s example, her daughter is well along a path to become a college graduate herself. An analysis of local school district data found that 70 percent of the children of Capital IDEA graduates go directly to college after high school – 25 percentage points higher than otherwise expected.

Capital IDEA is part of a network of model workforce programs that bring the civic, business, and public sectors together in partnership to expand opportunities for more workers to get training to qualify for jobs that can support them and their families.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we recall the contributions and sacrifices of workers that are critical to all of our lives, and call for all to work together across income levels to bring public policy and resource changes in your communities to increase opportunities of low-wage workers.

Kathleen Davis is Lead Organizer with Austin Interfaith — a broad based, nonpartisan, multi-ethnic, multi-issue organization of congregations and institutions that together develop the leadership to address issues that affect the well-being of low and moderate income families in the Austin area.


Going Deeper

Read the U.S. Catholic bishops’ annual Labor Day statement here, and learn more about Catholic teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers here.

 

Voices Unite to Reform the Justice System

Persistent injustice, mind-boggling greed, and downright confusing twists in the legal system can wear down the strongest people. It’s almost easier to give up and give in than try to change things. But once in a while, like-minded individuals lean on one another, share their frustrations and dreams, and commit to an action plan that lifts everyone. And the plan develops and changes as the needs and strengths of the people change.

Essentially, that’s how DART was established in Florida more than 30 years ago and then became an eight-state network. Two groups of people associated with religious congregations found common ground in their shared beliefs and commitment to justice. And the Archdiocese of Miami had its shoulder to the wheel with them from the beginning. DART’s formal name is Direct Action and Research Training Center, but like your Aunt Sis and Uncle Buddy, everyone knows them by the shorter name.

The Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE), an affiliate of DART, builds justice ministry in Polk County, FL. Members tour a drug rehabilitation clinic that PEACE helped open.

The network helps congregations form larger organizations that reflect their common interests and values as they negotiate solutions to the root causes of problems in their community. Each of the 22 DART organizations is an independent entity, but all the groups and the more than 400 diverse congregations they comprise are united by a belief in the biblical concept of justice. They also use a “bottom-up” model to identify issues, develop leaders, and figure out realistic solutions.

The DART model is based on the Scripture account of Nehemiah, who brought people and their leaders together to devise solutions to a system that impoverished the citizenry. Nehemiah insisted that the nobles, magistrates, and people be held accountable for the promises they made.

Members of St. Ann Catholic Church were part of the 2,000 Attendees at a recent Nehemiah Assembly. At this assembly local officials from the juvenile justice system learn about the problem of youth arrests and make commitments to address them.

Recently, the DART group in Florida turned its considerable attention to a disturbing trend to criminalize young children. I was shocked when Holly Holcombe, Assistant Director, told me 12,000 children were arrested in 2014 for generally minor offenses. During a tantrum, for example, a five-year-old Special Education student knocked a tissue out of a teacher’s hand. He was charged with assault.

There is, however, an alternative: civil citations. The civil citation process, as provided under state statute, would allow non-arrest restitution and diversion for non-serious offenses. “It’s not a slap on the wrist,” Holly said.

From 2010 to 2014, 5,000 children ages 5-10 years old were arrested for offenses for which they could have received a civil citation. At first, the provision could only be used once for each youth and only 38% of those eligible received citations. Through the efforts of ten Florida-based DART organizations, 52% of eligible children were diverted to civil citations without arrest in 2016, and legislation was enacted to allow children to receive up to three citations. Nonetheless, civil citations are at the discretion of local law enforcement, which results in uneven application of the provision. Holly points out that 8,000 youth who were arrested last year were eligible for the citation, but it was not applied to their cases.

Training participants enjoy lunch between workshop sessions. Here participants learn to build their justice ministry through witnessing, evaluating, and engagement.

Clearly, there is more work to be done, and DART’s work is advancing steadily. Groups like these help people surface their deeply held concerns, engage with their feet on the ground, act on the Biblical mandate to do justice, and hold public officials accountable to work for the people they serve. This is what we are called to do.

As Pope Francis said at the 2nd World Meeting of Popular Movements, “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you.”

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

DART in Florida receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been vocal about restorative justice.  Read the bishops’ statement on Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice and find out what’s happening now.

Developing Housing and Jobs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Some of the most intriguing and successful CCHD-funded groups are those that surmount the biggest obstacles. The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Porcupine, South Dakota, is one of them.

The group works on the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a huge expanse that takes two hours to cross in a car. It’s no secret that Native Americans have been marginalized and mistreated in the history of our country. Government, church, and private efforts to improve their living conditions and prospects for the future have enjoyed mixed success. To be fair, there have been missteps on all sides, but one of the recurring stumbling blocks has been the attempt by outsiders to determine what the native people need and want.

Three young adults smile in front of a Thunder Valley CDC sign

These young adults were part of Thunder Valley CDC’s Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction program where they learned construction skills, advanced their education, and developed individual success plans.

We were cautiously optimistic when we heard about Thunder Valley CDC, a relatively new group of young people committed to building sustainable communities in the very tough economy of the reservation. Jobs are scarce. Housing is substandard. Infrastructure barely exists. The reservation is in the poorest county in the country. But the people have hope and determination. The Thunder Valley CDC organizers began by talking to their neighbors and ASKING what they needed to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. Housing and jobs were at the top of the list. They were not asking for charity but the opportunity to create systemic change and achieve self-sufficiency.

A team of people push up a frame of a wall on a cleared lot

Thunder Valley CDC staff raises a wall for the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center where youth and families will be able to learn about healthy local foods.

Two young Lakota girls in athletic gear and holding small basketballs smiling

Through Thunder Valley CDC, Lakota children participate in sports and wellness activities that are run by older Lakota youth in the Youth Leadership Development program.

Thunder Valley CDC identified land near an important crossroad on the reservation. They purchased it, and with CCHD’s help, they are implementing an ambitious master plan that includes infrastructure, home ownership, jobs, education, training, and mentorship.

Thunder Valley CDC takes CCHD’s mission to heart: the group is led by the people it serves and the people who participate have a stake in the outcome. By listening carefully and planning meticulously, Thunder Valley CDC is creating tangible, sustainable change in the community. It has become a force for justice in an area that longs for it. CCHD is honored to support the effort.

Thank you, as always, for your prayers and support of CCHD.

You are a crucial partner in our ceaseless mission to break the cycle of poverty.

Photos Courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD.


Learn more about Thunder Valley CDC in the latest edition of the CCHD quarterly newsletter Helping People Help Themselves.

See other CCHD groups’ Stories of Hope on PovertyUSA.

Disrupting a Culture of Resentment, Rebuilding a Culture of Encounter

In February, nine Latino, African-American, and Caucasian leaders from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati flew to Modesto, California, for the U.S. World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM). Organized by the Vatican, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development/USCCB, and PICO National Network, the gathering of 700 grassroots leaders from across the country focused on the issues of racism, migration, housing, jobs, and environmental justice.

For the immigrant victim of wage theft, the community leader fighting against foreclosures in his neighborhood, and the African-American woman tackling racial injustice, the issues of the gathering were all ones that directly impacted our delegation’s members. The WMPM injected all of us with new energy and hope, as participants shared each other’s stories, affirmed each other’s struggles for life and dignity, and celebrated our oneness in the Body of Christ.

But the real outcome of the WMPM for our delegation still hinges upon what we can do differently at home in our own archdiocese.

As Pope Francis exclaimed in his message to the WMPM: “It makes me very happy to see you working together towards social justice! How I wish that such constructive energy would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.”

We all arrived at the Modesto gathering with the sense that we are immersed in a culture of resentment.  Whether it’s between pro-life and social justice advocates, immigrants and non-immigrants, Christians and Muslims, or black and white people, forces in our culture are encouraging us to see someone else as an “other.”  Yet, in his rousing address at the WMPM, Bishop Robert McElroy spoke of the urgency for us to “disrupt” and to “rebuild.”

We left this gathering with a call to disrupt such a false, divisive narrative about ourselves.  We committed ourselves in turn to rebuild it with a “culture of encounter.”

Some institution in our society must be bold enough to turn our heads towards the “Jesus in disguise” in each other, especially in the most poor and vulnerable among us. We, as the Church, can strive to rebuild a sense of universality among currently polarized peoples by creating spaces where we recognize our shared struggles for human life and dignity.  With our comprehensive Catholic moral and social teachings, we have the vision that few political, economic, or social entities can offer to such an urgent task.

A day after our return, our leaders shared their excitement for the gathering with our local Archbishop Dennis Schnurr. “You just made my day,” he responded with a smile.  We agreed to begin organizing a gathering of pro-life and social justice parish leaders, immigrants, people released from prison, crisis pregnancy volunteers, those experiencing environmental injustice, and others.  Not only do we want to see greater justice for all these people, but we also aim to disrupt the culture that tries to pit us against each other, especially by boxing us into “conservative” and “liberal” corners.

We aim to rebuild it with a sense that we are all each other’s neighbors; that everyday people, not politicians or other figureheads, are our own solutions. Our task now is to imagine and create such a space of encounter and dialogue.

If there’s one thing the WMPM showed me, it’s how much our nation sorely needs a faith community that trusts that we can overcome our divisions.

 

Tony Stieritz is the Director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Social Action Office


Going Deeper

Find out how Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati are responding to the call to be “disruptors” for Christ—through an annual World Day of Peace mass, work to accompany formerly incarcerated individuals, religious sisters fighting human trafficking, and new programs to care for God’s creation.

¡Si Se Puede!

Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962, is pictured in an undated photo. Chavez, who died in 1993, began grass-roots organizing in the 1950s while working in the fruit and vegetable fields of California and defined the farmworker union movement. (CNS file photo)

 

Si se puede – yes we can! It was the mantra of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) and the movement that they and its leaders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, popularized. It captured an attitude that things, no matter how bad they appeared, could be changed.

At 24 years of age, I joined the United Farmworker’s movement on the staff of their national boycott. I went to work for the UFW as an organizer, not knowing what organizing was, only what some of the outcomes of the organizing had been. One of those outcomes was managing to convince millions of people to forgo eating grapes and lettuce from California. The UFW had organized a national boycott of grapes and lettuce, which brought striking farm laborers from California to tell Americans across the country of the meager wages and horrible working conditions they labored under. They waged their battle non-violently, embracing the tactics and vision of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

I was impressed by the work of their founder, Cesar Chavez, a diminutive Chicano, born in Arizona to Mexican parents who had lost their small homestead in Arizona to foreclosure and then migrated to California to work as farm workers. Chavez dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work with his family in the fields picking peas and lettuce, cherries and beans, corn and grapes.

What attracted me and thousands of other volunteers and organizers to “the Union” was Chavez. He was a different kind of leader. He was not flashy; he did not wear a suit or drive big cars. He had none of the trappings of power. Instead what was attractive about Chavez was his honesty, his willingness to put others first, his hunger and thirst for justice in a state (California) and a country where agricultural workers had experienced precious little justice.

Chavez became a symbol of Si Se Puede. He showed that change was possible, not with guns and not with riots – both of which were being romanticized in the late 60’s and early 70’s and in some ways glorified by revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and in the streets of Detroit and Oakland and Buenos Aires – but with peaceful determination and organizing.  Chavez exemplified a life committed to non-violence, self-discipline, and service to others.

I recall a march to Modesto, California, in which I participated. At the front of the marchers were several priests beside Chavez and other UFW leaders. Someone was carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For me it was a vivid example of religious leaders accompanying their flock, in this case in a just struggle for their rights to decent wages and working conditions and equally important – to be treated with dignity and respect.

Chavez and the UFW melded religious values with democratic values, self- interest with a vision of the common good.  Blending elements of the Civil Rights Movement, labor organizing, and community organizing, Chavez and the unique group of organizers that formed the UFW leadership exemplified a quiet dignity and austerity. Those who went to work for the UFW as organizers were paid “room and board and $5.00 a week.”  For many of the hundreds of organizers who joined the Farmworker Movement at the time, it was an antidote to the growing materialism and consumerism of our culture and a way of channeling their anger at injustice into a positive initiative to improve our nation.

Immigrant agricultural workers remain among the lowest paid and poorest workers in our nation. They are still denied collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and are still confronted with anti-immigrant fear and hatred. Cesar Chavez may be gone but he and the work of the UFW inspired others to organize and fight for their rights and their dignity.  Struggles are now led by leaders such as Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida (who the bishops’ honored in 1998 with the prestigious Cardinal  Bernardin New Leadership Award), who is spearheading a national boycott of the Wendy’s fast food chain, seeking a penny a pound increase for tomato pickers. In Vermont, the group Migrant Justice, representing dairy workers, has negotiated an agreement with Ben and Jerry’s for “Milk with Dignity,” and the Workers Center of Central New York is working on legislation to establish collective bargaining rights for farm workers in the state of New York. The brave women and men risk much working for justice for these groups in environments not always supportive of strangers from foreign countries in their communities.

Pope Francis, speaking at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Vera Cruz, Bolivia, in the spring of 2015 said,

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

I say, “¡Si se puede!”

Randy Keesler is the Area C grant specialist for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


Going Deeper

Learn more about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.  See what Catholics are doing in Yakima, New York, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and South Texas to stand with migrants.

Sowers of Change, Protagonists for Social Justice, and Bold Leaders of Action

Attendees cheer a statement about justice for immigrants Feb. 16 during a the opening program of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Midway through the U.S. Regional Meeting of World Popular Movements in Modesto, California, a strong wind came up which almost blew off the metal protections of the roof of the beautiful new gym where we were meeting at Central Catholic High School.

The force and the noise of the wind reflected the force and noise of the gathering of over 700 inter faith delegates of community organizations from around the United States, with some international representation also. The force was a powerful wind of strong voices calling for the popular movements to be sowers of change, protagonists for social justice, and bold leaders of action in bringing down the walls that divide the struggles against the systems that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter of greeting to the gathering.  The Pope wrote about being confronted by “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., listens to a speaker Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. His diocese hosted the event. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Many voices then spoke from diverse perspectives but shared the urgency of being one people in one fight (one ‘witness’ as Cardinal Peter Turkson called it) “to rebuild society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives, and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.”  The noise was that of great enthusiasm for “disrupting oppression and dehumanization” as Bishop Robert McElroy, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others spoke about and “rebuilding” systems that promote and protect justice in ownership of land, for working people, in housing, for immigrants, and in ending racism. One might wonder why the meeting was held in Modesto, California, and not some large city easily reachable by modern modes of transportation. The answer simply is that the planners felt that the great Central Valley in California provided a location that reflected the challenges being faced all over the country.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world but struggles with issues of water, clean air, higher unemployment, lower wages, thousands of annual migrant farm workers, large percentages of immigrant peoples, human trafficking, homelessness, and a host of other social issues including violent gangs, hunger, school drop outs, etc.   But at the same time there are so many who live in the Central Valley who want to make life better for all who live and work there. The Regional Meeting received a warm welcome and recognition by those who knew about its purpose. What made this meeting different from other church or community gatherings?

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, poses for a photo Feb. 16 with Lira DeMoraes, a volunteer with the Merrimack Valley Project in Massachussetts at the start of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.

It was the first time in the United States that community organizers from across the land were invited by the Church to come together so that the Church might hear from the people experiencing exclusion, dehumanization, and the pain of poverty.  Pope Francis had previously convened three World Meetings of Popular Movements. He spoke at all three about overcoming the globalization of indifference by “placing the economy at the service of peoples; working for peace and justice; and defending Mother Earth.” To this regional gathering in the United States the Pope sent a written greeting wishing that the “constructive energy” of this meeting “would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals…that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.” The Holy Father acknowledged with gratitude the sponsors of this gathering: The Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the host bishops from the three dioceses in the Central Valley; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who leads the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and expressed his support of the popular movements.  What was different was that Catholic dioceses hosted and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of USCCB sponsored the meeting, which was organized and run by the popular movements under the leadership of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network and other organizing networks. Pope Francis highlighted PICO’s work for promoting this meeting.

Although representatives of the Churches did speak and were well received, the Church leaders, including over 20 Catholic bishops, were there to listen and to accompany participants in the dialogues.  The message from the delegates at the end of the meeting was addressed to the popular movements and leaders in the United States and globally and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis. The message quoted Pope Francis and Catholic bishops extensively but also laid out the challenge, urging “our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people.” The message quoted Cardinal Tobin in his video address to the gathering that “faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid.” Pope Francis was indeed the inspiration for this gathering. Cardinal Turkson, by his presence and in his words, gave strong witness for the Church’s commitment to the integral development of the human person. Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of God, and full human development gives glory to God.

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 Going Deeper

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The Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence

Marie Dennis, Co-President, Pax Christi International

Marie Dennis, Co-President, Pax Christi International

Many people around the world are living and making peace, caring about each other, and striving for social justice and right relationships with the rest of creation. Yet, war, gang violence, gun violence, terrorist attacks, fear and enemy-making, and the structural and systemic violences of poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and gender violence are present in every person’s life…virtually, if not personally. Continue reading