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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Bishop Blaire of Stockton Issues Strong Statement on Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

The journey of life is difficult at this time for Hispanics in the United States.  Many have friends and family members who are without papers; many are without papers themselves; children in school are being bullied; and young immigrants who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are anxious that they might lose their opportunity to work and their protection from deportation; racism has raised its ugly head in many communities; and so many of our neighborhoods and homes are plagued with violence. Many who have jobs often find themselves having to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.

To all of you this day I remind you that OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE COMES TO MEET YOU TO LEAD YOU TO JESUS.  She says to each of you what she said to St. Juan Diego: “Do not be disturbed in your heart; do not be afraid.  Am I not with you, I who am your mother?” We need to hear these words of comfort and strength when there is so much hostility in the public conversation about immigration and immigrants.

I wish to say loudly and clearly to all of you that as your bishop I am with you.  You are the Church.  I will walk with you no matter how hard it gets. Please God, things will go better than our worst fears about what might happen.  Regardless, the Church is with you.  I am here to accompany you.  I also wish to announce to our immigrants, to our refugees, to our migrants, from wherever you come, that we will do everything we can to help you through our Catholic Charities and the community organizations of which we are a part. As Catholics we embrace our American traditions of welcome, of unity in diversity, and our care for all.

I also wish to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to our Jewish elder brothers and sisters, and to all our inter-faith friends that the hate which destroys the unity and solidarity of the human family cannot be tolerated in any way. The way of God is the way of love.

As you know so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been slaughtered by ISIS or lost their homes in war torn areas and have suffered as refugees from their ancient lands.  I ask you to join with our Holy Father Pope Francis, in doing whatever you can in any way to support the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christian and Muslim refugees at this time, and to bring calm to their homelands.

The causes of war and cruelty cannot be ignored.  The injustices that give rise to radical evils must be alleviated. The forces of evil must be stopped. Ultimately, evil will only be overcome by good, by the hard work of good people working together to bring about peace.  And there will be no peace if there is no justice which respects the dignity and worth of every human being.  As long as the gods of money and power and unrestrained impulses found in the idols of greed and corruption rule on the face of the earth there will be no lasting peace.  Sad to say, an even greater threat to peace that looms over our heads would be the unrestrained advance in nuclear weapons which could destroy all creation.

I sincerely believe that unless God is accepted as sovereign Lord over the earth and over our lives, communities will continue to deteriorate, the earth will be devastated, and family coherence will be diminished.  Your devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe keeps us close to her as our Mother.  She leads us to Christ Who is the all just One; the all merciful One; the Hope for the world when all seems hopeless.

The world does not need any more walls.  It needs bridges of compassion and mutual understanding.  Yes, proper respect for borders or boundaries, but not barriers of hostility and division.  Let there be peace at our borders.

The world cannot continue to endure more violence.  It needs restraint, words of peace and perseverance in the hard efforts to create the just structures that are the foundation for peace.  In our community the answer to gang violence is good education and decent jobs.

The world must not tolerate racism.   It needs to honor the diversity of God’s human family by building a unity which embraces and respects all races on the face of the earth.  Unity in diversity!

bishop-blaire-5x7Today we venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe who comes to meet us as our mother.  Nuestra Señora will show us the way to peace and goodness and justice.  Mary is the mother of all peoples.  She will give us the courage not to be afraid.  She will lead us to Jesus, the Lord of peace and justice.   Viva Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!  Viva Cristo Rey!

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.