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

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides ongoing support for community groups that work to transform their communities. Visit our map to find out where this work is happening where you live—then get involved!

Celebrating a Victory for Racial Justice

cheryl-sommer

Cheryl Sommer

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis notes: “[Business] can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (no.129).  Francis echoes our longstanding Catholic social teaching tradition which urges all of us, including those responsible for creating jobs, to seek the common good and promote human dignity.

In Metro-East St. Louis, people of color found themselves dealing with another longstanding practice, that of often being shut out of good job opportunities including those in the construction trades. Years of racial bias, exclusionary practices of both businesses and unions, as well as other individual actions combined to create an unjust system preventing people of color in the region from having access to employment.

Faith communities that serve low-income populations see the impact of this unjust system firsthand. Reflecting on the congregation’s charitable efforts, one pastor commented, “These people don’t want to be given coats. They want a good paying job to buy their own coats!”

This is where United Congregations of Metro-East (UCM), an interfaith group consisting of Catholic Churches and other congregations which addresses unjust systems in the region, comes in. With funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and the support of Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton, UCM has been training Catholics and non-Catholics alike to change unfair employment systems.

UCM found hope in the announcement of the building of a new Catholic hospital in the area.  Catholic leaders in UCM believed that a Catholic institution would want to use the construction of its new hospital as an opportunity to open the construction trades to people of color. Hospital leadership initially pledged to work with UCM on this. For reasons not completely understood, it didn’t happen. UCM learned that the hospital had a minority hiring goal of just 8% in a region with a minority population near 40%.

Knowing of Bishop Braxton’s strong support of their work through CCHD and of his pastoral letter on The Racial Divide in the United States, UCM approached him for help. Bishop Braxton called an immediate meeting with hospital leadership, UCM, and Bruce Holland, the general contractor for construction.  Holland was himself a Catholic. Braxton firmly stated that a Catholic hospital should do better in breaking down systems of exclusion in construction jobs.  He instructed everyone to continue meeting to improve the situation.

Holland, a long-time respected business leader, opened up his office for the meetings, which were tense due to the fact that construction contracts had already been signed.  It seemed evident that there were only going to be about 8% people of color working on the hospital construction. But with Bishop Braxton’s constant encouragement and the willingness of everyone to stay at the table, understanding began to be reached. Holland was moved to offer his help to mentor fledgling non-white businesses in finding success in the construction industry.

On September 1, Holland hosted a reception at his office which was attended by 32 minority business representatives and other people of color who wanted job opportunities.  Relationships were built and minority business owners were given tips for successfully bidding for construction jobs.  Contractors were given specific people who would follow-up with them for ongoing assistance.  Some were given a promise of work very soon.

A system of exclusion from jobs for people of color still exists.  However, because of Catholics who support CCHD, the unwavering encouragement of Bishop Braxton, the tenacity of men and women who want to work, and a Catholic business owner who stepped forward with his expertise and influence to mentor others, a system of inclusion is one step closer.

Cheryl Sommer lives in the Diocese of Belleville and has worked in parish religious education for over 30 years. Cheryl is a long-time volunteer with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and with United Congregations of Metro-East (UCM).

Going Deeper

Reflect on racial justice with Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, IL, in his pastoral letter on The Racial Divide in the United States.

Visit the USCCB Racism page to discern how your faith community can work for racial justice.

Upholding the Dignity and Rights of Workers

A retired friend of mind is well known for saying “work was never fun…if it had been fun they wouldn’t have called it work.”

While that could be the mantra of AARP, those of us in the work world still know that, on days when we are truly engaged in our jobs, time flies by. That supports another saying I learned from the CEO of a large NY publishing house where I once worked: “Worthwhile work for which we feel recognized and valued ought to be fun.”

Photo of author Jack MurphyLabor Day was originally conceived to honor the contributions made by organized labor. Today, it takes on the wider tradition of recognizing the importance of all workers to the success and well-being of our country.

The purpose of any business is to add value. You take raw materials, either a thing or a service, and transform them in ways that will make them valuable. If enough customers think the product or service is valuable, they buy it. If enough customers buy it, that makes the company more valuable to stakeholders. Some companies, when they are trying to improve value to one set of stakeholders–financial investors, take the shortsighted view that they can squeeze expense out of another group of stakeholders–the workers.

If you are like me, you can sometimes become obsessed with finding the lowest possible price for a hamburger or a toothbrush. You may not think twice that the low price can come at a cost to the worker who created the product, that some of the “value” you’ve gotten means the worker may not earn a wage to live with dignity.

There are a growing number of companies, as witnessed by the Conscious Capitalism or the Fair Food movements, realizing that concern for the well-being of employees and the greater community is not mutually exclusive to shareholder value. You can create a win/win/win situation for all. These employers, Catholic or not, understand and practice the spirit captured by the U.S. Bishops:

“Employers contribute to the common good through the services or products they provide and by creating jobs that uphold the dignity and rights of workers—to productive work, to decent and just wages, to adequate benefits and security in their old age, to the choice of whether to organize and join unions, to the opportunity for legal status for immigrant workers, to private property, and to economic initiative.” (52) Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship

Last year, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) issued a position paper calling for all our employees to be paid a self-sufficient wage, which was defined as the level of pay needed to live without public or private assistance. SVdP president Sheila Gilbert urged the Society “to ensure that those employed by the Society in the United States be afforded the greatest possible respect and a wage that reflects our values of creating self-sufficiency for whomever we serve.”

As Catholics, our social teaching instructs us to care for the poor. It seems that we could put ourselves in a difficult moral dilemma when we say we care for the poor, yet we pay the minimum legal wage to a single mother trying to keep her family together. If our employees are concerned about where they will get their next meal or how to keep their lights on, how can they concentrate on their job? More importantly, in such situations, how can we say that we as employers are recognizing the dignity of work?

I know that this can be a difficult situation. I have spoken with many good managers who operate thrift stores and other enterprises that generate funds to help those in need. Many of these good people struggle to strike a balance between the mission–of generating income to help the poor–and producing enough profit to pay beyond the minimum wage. Nevertheless, everyone I discuss this with has a commitment to find ways to better live Gospel values and better honor those commemorated on this Labor Day.

Moving an enterprise from paying minimum wage to recognizing the dignity of work by paying a self-sufficient wage is difficult. It takes a strong sense of purpose, creativity, dedication, and faith. But, we should always strive to advocate for a higher minimum wage and make sure our priorities are in order.

Jack Murphy is a business professional in Atlanta, GA. He also serves on the board of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, working on their diversity, systemic change, and advocacy efforts.


Read Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s Statement for Labor Day 2015 online English | Spanish

For Father’s Day, Support Economic Opportunities for Families

ray-bosharaIn light of Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about some of the good values my father instilled in me: to work hard, earn your way in the world, and save your money.

Beginning at age 12, not working and not saving were not options in my family, so I began washing dishes and managing the french-fry machine at the family restaurant in Akron, Ohio, started by my grandparents.  When I was (effectively) fired for lack of interest and competency at age 14, I was required to find other work and was urged by my parents to start thinking seriously about college, since I didn’t appear to be good at anything else.  So I pumped gas, worked at the car wash, sold shoes, and continued jobs like these over summer breaks while studying accounting in college.  College led to a good first job and then—after public accounting didn’t work out for me, either—divinity school and, eventually, to more fulfilling work, marriage and three children of my own.

I took for granted growing up, and once I started working, what a rapidly increasing number of families today cannot: a stable family; hard work that leads to economic success and upward mobility; a debt-free college degree that leads to a good job; the ability to buy my first home; and earning enough to save for my own children’s education as well as my retirement.  I came from a middle-class family, don’t think I worked harder (though I started earlier!) than those around me, and attended a public university (THE Ohio State University), so achieving a middle-class life as an adult didn’t seem remarkable in any way.  Same for all of my friends.

Studies abound that this assumption of rising living standards no longer holds true.  In my day job, where I study family economics, I came across a recent article in the Washington Monthly by Phil Longman who observes that, throughout our history, inequality between generations was large and usually increasing because each new generation did far better financially than their parents did. Today, inequality between generations is still increasing, but for the opposite reason: even though more productive and better educated, most of today’s workers are “falling farther and farther behind their parents’ generation in most measures of economic well-being.”

The numbers bear this out. According to Pew, the typical worker had wage growth of 22 percent between 1979 and 1999, but just 2 percent—from 1999 to 2009.  A recent Federal Reserve survey finds that roughly half of all American families could not cover a $400 expense—they simply don’t have it, or would need to sell something or borrow to cover it.  And, in Our Kids, Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) worries that America is rapidly dividing along class lines: the one-third of “rich” kids who are being raised by college-educated, married parents, and the two-thirds of “poor” kids being raised by non-college-educated, non-married parents.

What, then, can we do? The Church seeks to help families thrive by placing the human person at the center of our economic policies and decisions. We promote life and dignity in our families, communities, nation and world when we change policies that perpetuate poverty and inequality. In fact, if we do nothing, inequality will get worse: Economic, demographic and political forces have aligned to deepen already stark disparities in wages, income, and wealth.

Although not explicitly a policy focus for the U.S. Catholic bishops, I believe that one way to begin to address these issues is to urge Congress to pass the one with the most promise over time: setting up a life-long, progressively funded savings account at birth for every child in America, which can be used for college, buying a home, or retirement.  By doing so, we can help ensure that inequality of outcomes in one generation does not become inequality of opportunity in the next.

Ray Boshara serves as an advisor to the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference Catholic Bishops, as well as a member of the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Join the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development in advocating for policies help poor and middle class families to access decent paying jobs, affordable housing, and economic opportunities. Policy advocacy is critical precisely because it is policy that sets the framework for addressing hunger, poverty, unemployment, and other important issues that make a difference to families everywhere.    Take action now.