Happy 100th Birthday Blessed Oscar Romero

Blessed Oscar Romero of San Salvador, El Salvador, is pictured in this 1979 photo. Aug. 15 would have been the slain archbishop’s 100th birthday. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

The 100th anniversary of Blessed Romero’s birth, August 15, 2017, falls on the glorious Feast of the Assumption. Archbishop Romero’s 1977 homily from the Assumption, and more importantly, his steadfast work for justice on behalf on his beloved Salvadoran people, can shed light on this oft-misunderstood feast.

This feast honors the assumption of Mary’s body and soul into heaven. We are reminded of Mary’s importance in our faith, and also of the reality that we, too, will one day share a bodily resurrection…a truth we proclaim in the Creed. While this truth can be difficult to comprehend, Blessed Romero used the occasion of the Assumption to underscore a more tangible truth: while we are destined for heaven, we must strive to do God’s work on earth. In his 1977 homily from the Assumption, Archbishop Romero says, “For those people who seek true happiness, there is a definitive Kingdom of Heaven, a life beyond our life, but this kingdom is obtained by working in this life and committing oneself to the fulfillment of God’s plan.” Romero then praises Mary for her exemplary model of earthly service.

Later in the homily, Archbishop Romero speaks to Mary’s heavenly existence: “[F]rom this light in heaven, she [Mary] illuminates the dignity and the rights of the human person.”

The fact that we are destined for such glory underscores our dignity and rights in the here and now. In honor of Mary’s assumption, we can renew our earthly efforts to safeguard our human dignity as God’s children. In this spirit, Blessed Romero’s 100th birthday serves to greater illuminate the importance of the Feast of the Assumption.

During his lifetime, Blessed Romero’s work for justice inspired such hope in his suffering people that he became known as the “Voice of the Voiceless.” Martyred at the altar on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was beatified on May 23, 2015.

At my parish in Washington, DC, Blessed Romero will be well celebrated. During Masses on August 15, at 7:00 a.m. (English) and 6:45 p.m. (bilingual), we will hear about the Assumption and Romero’s devotion to Mary. We have invited the congregation to stay for birthday cake in honor of Romero after the evening Mass. Parishioners have also been encouraged to bring non-perishable food items or baby supplies to stock the parish’s pantry for the needy.

Two parish missionary groups will observe the occasion in El Salvador. La Juventud Franciscana (Franciscan Youth) left in mid-July with our Parochial Vicar Fr. Kevin Thompson, OFM Cap. to attend a Romero symposium at the Jesuit University of Central America, visit a children’s hospital in San Salvador, and be guests of the parish’s rural Salvadoran sister parish. A group of adult missionaries, Los Misioneros de San Francisco de Asís (Missionaries of St. Francis), will accompany our parish’s Salvadoran pastor, Fr. Moisés Villalta, OFM Cap. and Parochial Vicar Fr. Urbano Vasquez, OFM Cap. to many of the same sites in August. They will celebrate Romero’s actual birthday in his hometown of Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel.

On this feast day, I invite you to celebrate Blessed Virgin Mary, Blessed Oscar Romero, and the dignity that we all possess and work as a Church to bring to the world.

Cinnamon Sarver is a parishioner of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart parish. She has theology degrees from Boston College and the University of Notre Dame. Having traveled to El Salvador four times to research Blessed Romero’s life, she enjoys speaking and writing about his legacy.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the Catholic Standard website.


Going Deeper

Plan to celebrate the life of Blessed Romero in your own faith community!  For example, include a remembrance of Romero in a Liturgy on or around his birthday (in the Prayer of the Faithful, homily, etc.) or host a service or advocacy project in honor of Blessed Romero’s Centennial. You can celebrate Blessed Romero’s life around his birthday, or any time throughout this year.

Feliz Centenario del Beato Oscar A. Romero

El Beato Oscar Romero de San Salvador, El Salvador, es retratado en esta foto de 1979. El 15 de agosto habría sido el 100o cumpleaños del arzobispo asesinado. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

El centenario del nacimiento del Beato Oscar A. Romero será el 15 de agosto de 2017 y se llevará a cabo en la Solemnidad de la Asunción de María. En la homilía de Arzobispo Romero en la Fiesta de la Asunción de 1977 nos puede iluminar sobre esta fiesta que a menudo es mal entendida.

En esta fiesta se honra la asunción del cuerpo y del alma de María a los cielos. Se nos recuerda de la importancia de María en nuestra fe, y también de la realidad que nosotros, algún día, compartiremos una resurrección corporal…una verdad que proclamamos en el credo. Aunque esta verdad puede ser difícil de comprender, el Beato Romero usó la ocasión de la Asunción para recalcar una verdad más palpable: mientras estamos destinados al cielo, debemos esforzarnos por hacer la obra de Dios en la tierra. En su homilía, Arzobispo Romero dijo,

“[P]ara decirles que no está en esta tierra el destino del alma y del hombre que busca la verdadera felicidad, que hay un reino de los cielos definitivo más allá de nuestra vida, pero que se conquista precisamente trabajando en esta vida, entregándose al cumplimiento de los designios de Dios.” (Romero, 15 de agosto de 1977)

Romero luego alaba a María por su modelo ejemplar de servicio terrenal.

Más tarde en la homilía, el Arzobispo Romero habla de la existencia celestial de María, “¿Cómo sirve María?… desde esa luz de los cielos, ilumin[a] la dignidad del hombre, los derechos del hombre.”

La realidad es que estamos destinados a tal gloria lo cual afirma nuestra dignidad y nuestros derechos en el presente. En honor a la Asunción de María, podemos renovar nuestros esfuerzos terrenales para salvaguardar nuestra dignidad humana como los hijos y las hijas de Dios. En este espíritu, el Centenario del Beato Romero sirve para iluminar la importancia de la Fiesta de la Asunción.

Durante su vida, la obra por la justicia del Beato Romero inspiró tanta esperanza en su pueblo sufriente que se hizo conocido como “la Voz de los sin Voz.” Martirizado en el altar el 24 de marzo de 1980, el Arzobispo Romero fue beatificado el 23 de mayo de 2015.

En la parroquia del Sagrado Corazón en Washington, DC, el Beato Romero será bien celebrado. Durante las misas del 15 de agosto, a las 7:00 a.m. (en inglés) y a las 6:45 p.m. (bilingüe) escucharemos acerca de la Asunción y la devoción de Romero a María. Hemos invitado a la congregación a permanecer después de la misa para el pastel de cumpleaños en honor de Romero. Los feligreses también están invitados a traer alimentos no perecederos o artículos de bebé para los programas de la parroquia de los necesitados.

Dos grupos de misioneros de la parroquia observan el Centenario de Romero en El Salvador. La Juventud Franciscana (JUFRA/OFS) viajó en julio con nuestro vicario parroquial, P. Kevin Thompson, OFM Cap. para asistir a un simposio de Romero en San Miguel, visitar el hospital de niños en San Salvador, y visitar nuestra parroquia hermana en la Quebradas, Jocoatique. Otro grupo, Los Misioneros de San Francisco de Asís, acompañarán a nuestro párroco salvadoreño, P. Moisés Villalta, OFM Cap. y a nuestro vicario parroquial, P. Urbano Vázquez, OFM Cap. para visitar los mismos sitios de Morazán y el norte de San Miguel en agosto. También participarán de la celebración del natalicio 100 de Romero en su ciudad natal de Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel.

Les invito a unirse a nosotros para celebrar la Santísima Virgen María, el Beato Oscar Romero, y que todos trabajemos, como una iglesia, para traerle dignidad al mundo.

Cinnamon Sarver es feligrés del Santuario del Sagrado Corazón. Ella tiene licencia de teología de Boston College y una maestría de teología de la Universidad de Norte Dame. Ha viajado a El Salvador para estudiar la vida del Beato Romero y le gusta escribir y dar charlas sobre el legado del Romero.

Este post fue adaptado para ToGoForth. Lea la versión original en El Pregonero.


¡Celebre la vida del Beato Romero en su propia comunidad de fe! Por ejemplo, incluye un recuerdo de Romero en la liturgia  (en la Oración de los Fieles, homilía, etc.) o acoge un proyecto de servicio o defensa en honor al Centenario del Beato Romero. Usted puede celebrar la vida del Beato Romero alrededor de su cumpleaños, o en cualquier momento este año.

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.

Serving the Local Community: Catholic Colleges and Universities Partner with CCHD

Inspired by their mission, Catholic colleges and universities serve their local communities in many ways, including building partnerships to work for the common good. Since 2010, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) member institutions have partnered with community organizations funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Together they collaborate on initiatives that help people in their local communities who are living in poverty participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities. These organizations are dedicated to empowering people to create change in their local community through solidarity and education. Saint Joseph’s University, the University of Dallas, and Marquette University are just a few of the institutions addressing local issues of poverty through these partnerships, providing a concrete way for students to live out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

At Saint Joseph’s University, students have the opportunity to work with Urban Tree Connection, a non-profit organization funded by CCHD that works with people living in Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods to develop community-based greening and gardening projects. Urban Tree Connection (UTC) empowers members of the local community by training people in farming and other agricultural skills and making fresh produce more widely available. Their projects are created on vacant land to create safe and functional spaces that promote positive human interactions. Saint Joseph’s University’s Sustainability Committee and Institute for Environmental Stewardship work with UTC to provide access to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at UTC to faculty, staff, administrators, and students at the university. Subscribers to the CSA receive vegetables from UTC’s urban farms, supporting their efforts to transform abandoned lots into community gardens.

In addition to promoting the CSA program, students at SJU are also encouraged to work with UTC in their community gardens through the Philadelphia Service Immersion Program and the Magis Program. The Philadelphia Service Immersion Program is an optional early move-in experience for first-year students. This four-day program introduces incoming freshmen to the Jesuit values of social justice, service to those on the margin, moral discernment, and intellectual inquiry through community service learning. This past fall, six students volunteered with UTC through the program. Each evening, the students reflected on what they learned and experienced that day in a small group discussion led by incoming sophomores. Another opportunity available to connect students to UTC is the Magis Program, a semester-long service and social justice program for first-year students. Students meet weekly in small groups for community service, social justice education, and reflection. UTC is one of the sites where students can serve for the semester as part of the Magis Program.

Like St. Joseph’s, other Catholic campuses are finding that partnerships with CCHD-funded groups provide mutual benefits for all the partners. For example, the University of Dallas partnered with the local diocesan CCHD staff to educate students about the reality of poverty in the United States. Working with students and staff, together they created the Journey to Justice Retreat (J2J) to teach students about the issue of poverty in the local area and throughout the country. Using resources from CCHD such as Poverty USA, participants learned about the effects of poverty on people all over the country.

The J2J Retreat featured a focus on the CCHD-funded group Texas Tenant Union (TTU). TTU is a community organizing group dedicated to securing more and higher quality low-income housing by advocating for legislation, providing free legal counsel for low-income tenants, and offering rights education and counseling for tenants. Former diocesan CCHD intern Colleen McInerney, an alumna of the University of Dallas, says the retreat showed students the importance of CCHD in that TTU “wouldn’t have been able to do nearly as much without the CCHD resources” available to it, which inspired many students to get involved with anti-poverty organizations. The retreat was well-received and students hope that the university will be able to host the retreat again in the future.

In addition to hosting service opportunities and working together on educational programming, Catholic colleges and universities can partner with CCHD-funded organizations to learn more about advocacy within the nation’s political system. Marquette University offers students a way to become involved in advocacy through courses that incorporate service learning and through an internship. Project Return assists men and women who have experienced incarceration in making a positive reentry to the community. Each academic year, students work at Project Return for ten hours a week , helping clients find jobs and housing, work through personal issues, and celebrate accomplishments. They learn about the process of reentry by visiting a prison, meeting parole officers, and witnessing a reentry court run by a federal judge. In addition to learning more about the issue, students most recently advocated with community leaders, canvassed neighborhoods on issues surrounding criminal justice reform, and organized a community mental health day.

The project also enables Marquette student interns to work with a mentor on a variety of tasks and to incorporate their own academic interests into the internship. One student intern during the past year worked to launch a mental health initiative to accommodate clients in need of psychological services. Ed de St. Aubin, Ph.D., the director of the internship program, commented, “The social justice mission of our Jesuit university is completely aligned with the mission of Project Return.” De St. Aubin noticed how the experience opened students up to more growth than a classroom could have afforded, exposing them to numerous human factors connected to criminal justice reform, such as race relations, ethnic disparities, and faith development. Recently, de St. Aubin, as well as interns Max Hughes-Zahner and Alex Krouth, were guests on RiverWest Radio Milwaukee’s show, Expo: Ex-Prisoners Organizing. Hughes-Zahner, a junior at Marquette, noted on the show that this internship “was very important for me to experience it from that side because previous to that I had really only experienced classroom learning about incarceration and prison.”

Saint Joseph’s University, the University of Dallas, and Marquette University are working with local organizations to create community-based solutions to issues of poverty and inequality. Their partnerships with CCHD-funded groups enable them to live the values of Catholic Social Teaching and have a visible effect on the surrounding neighborhoods. Students are able to work alongside those living the issues they are working to resolve, giving them an experience of solidarity. Through a partnership with an organization funded by CCHD, Catholic universities make a difference in their communities and give students experience in what it means to have a faith that does justice.

Camilla MacKenzie is an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America and former Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the ACCU Peace and Justice blog.

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.