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Church in the Streets: Case Study of Cesar Chavez

 We're expecting to house refugees, people fleeing from Afghanistan. The roots of our effort is nourished in prayer as a community with these principle passages from Scripture: 

“You shall treat the alien who resides among you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:5)


“What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” (Matthew 25)


“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

In light of the Paulist Center Immigration Advocacy Group, and considering Pope Francis's invocation of a synod on the theme of synodality in the life of the Church, I've endeavored to compile sources of Catholic Social Teaching. It could be a working theory of change, as I've written on this blog, in a time of listening.


Overview: Sources of Catholic Social Teaching include but are not limited to Biblical and Traditional Teachings. Here we could list from most grave, an earnest and weighty Vatican II document, to the most popular Catholic voices, for example, Lady Gaga singing the National Anthem.


I. Council Documents

Hallmark documents from the Second Vatican Council (11 October 1962-December 8, 1965), address “all people of good will” highlighting nonviolence, rejecting white supremacy, economic oppression of the worker. Consider the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

Laborers and farmers seek not only to provide for the necessities of life, but to develop the gifts of their personality by their labors and indeed to take part in regulating economic, social, political and cultural life.
--Gaudium et spes (no. 9).



II. The Magisterium
Papal teaching beginning with "On the Condition of Workers" (1891), considered the rights of the working class to be free from economic exploitation.
If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice. In these and similar questions, however - such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc. - in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies....
--Leo XIII, 1891, Rerum Novarum, (no. 45)

Considering the "evil" causing massive unemployment in the wake of the Great Depression:
Everyone knows that an excessive lowering of wages, or their increase beyond due measure, causes unemployment. This evil, indeed, especially as we see it prolonged and injuring so many during the years of Our Pontificate, has plunged workers into misery and temptations, ruined the prosperity of nations, and put in jeopardy the public order, peace, and tranquillity of the whole world. Hence it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised....
--Pope Pius XI, 1931, Quadragesimo anno (no. 74)

The Church formulated teaching of basic human rights against the backdrop of prolonged and injuring evil--in teaching developed during the Second Vatican Council:
We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.
--Pope John XXIII, 1963, Pacem en terris (no. 11)

These themes in social teaching were developed following the Second Vatican Council. Concern for the plight of the worker was increasingly understood as a consequence of structural sin. Regional Bishop’s Conferences such as Puebla (1965) and Medellín (1968), expressed a preferential option for the poor, and developed a biblical stance against oppression.

III. Popular Piety
For a millennia, many religious societies have practiced faith with works, recognizing degrees of adherents to a rule of life, such as the Benedictine practice in the balance of prayer and work. With the emergence of apostolic orders in the 16th century, we see a religious expression not only in an illuminated manuscript but the emerging view of work itself as holiness, and from this finally the teaching of the worker as a beacon of God's presence, but not until the late 20th century was the view widely held. Work continued to be seen as secular, or where respected, those associated its esteem to belong more of the Protestant ethic, implying not simply the inter-denominational difference, but the neglect of pastoral care to the worker.
In a previous century, had they come from another country of fairer-skinned people, this family would have been called industrious, even entrepreneurs. They would be lauded for their creativity, and how they answered the demand of the market. In a previous century the children would have gone on to Ivy League business schools to start their own companies or carry on the tradition of the family.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Children of the Land (338)

If for centuries the Church had taught a value of ordinary work, teaching of the Church's respect of the dignity of the worker was only widely promulgated in the 20th century. The Church looks not only to San Isidro, the farmworker but back to St. Joseph as a model. canonized in 1622, Isidro seems to have been the complement to an Italian priest known for his prayer. One of four Spanish saints including two founders of the Society of Jesus, Sts. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, and the foundress of more than fifty convents in Spain, Teresa of Ávila, later recognized as a doctor of the Church for her spiritual writings.

Modern day venerable people constantly teach by their word and practice of faith. The Poor People's Campaign, while not a leaderless movement, champions the voices most impacted by poverty. The Revs. Barber, or Liz Theoharis would not like to be called a saint, I'm sure, even as the reflect a reemergence of the campaign instigated by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just as the compendium of segregation law was called by Dr. King, "the Bible of the South," such achievement and the vocation to the priesthood of Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, led her to be recognized a saint by the Episcopal church.

Reverence of the Communion of Saints expresses the lived reality of God in the life of the Church, for instance in the veneration of Mother Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants depicted amongst 140 persons representing the migrant in history in "Angel Unawares." The sculpture was installed in St. Peter's Square, and a replica at America University in Washington, DC. Other saints of the Americas include Kateri Tekakwitha and Oscar Romero. Particular and popular Catholic voices such as Dorthy Day and Cesar Chavez, each responding to the Spirit in the midst of labor struggles, have imbued the Church with a developed teaching of solidarity. 

November 29 is the anniversary of Dorothy Day's death, and with Thanksgiving tomorrow, it's fitting to consider her gratitude for Chavez's work with the farmworkers union. She showed that gratitude in her writings and in her physical presence in the fields of California to support striking workers. Above my desk I have a poster of the elder Day seated at a farmworker protest framed by the gun-holstered hips of police with the famous quote "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

For study: Considering the relevance of Catholic Social Teaching, the bridge of Papal encyclicals to our local church's defense of the poor. Recall that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum upheld the rights of the working class (including the right of workers to form and join unions) and further teaching clarified and formulated the Church's defense of the worker in the context of other rights, the right to own private property, opposed to both communism and unrestricted capitalism.



Case Study

Church in the streets--for a model of what Pope Francis calls for, consider the farmer who exploited migrants. Seasonal labor during World War II was structural violence, the scant wages, the deplorable conditions for those harvesting fields in the West. Government assisted the growers by enabling the Mexican Bracero program, a vulnerable laborer who the Growers deported if they organized. The grower could pretend benevolent dictatorship, a gospel of charity to the worker: “Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not organize, vote or legislate. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you.” (Mt 6:28, 30)


Many have used this passage to justify structural violence, taking it to suggest a patriarchy, hierarchical, trickle down kingdom rather than a mutual society of loving fellowship and interdependence. Yet as Reverend Liz Theoharis of the Poor People's Campaign said on an evening called “Freedom Church: School of Struggle: Nov. 21st:


Matthew must be the biggest capitalism critique in the Bible. He tells that Jesus' followers, who were fisher people, day laborers, enslaved foreign people, city tenement dwellers, flocked to Jesus's story about everyone having a right to live. Birds don't have to work to earn a living, flowers don't have to earn a wage to have good clothing. It was time to work towards God's reign. Debts were canceled. Today is the focus rather than pie in the sky before you die. The whole story emphasizes, if Jesus's followers seek God, not Rome's empire, not Rome's justice, that will be a world, a reign of abundant housing, food, clothing, a reign of everybody in, nobody out.


In the following, note that the organizing work took on tactics of strikes, surfacing conflict with unions and growers, mediated by U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee on Farm Labor. Encouraging the workers to brace themselves for strike, should it come to that, Cesar Chavez says that the grower industry “may have the money” but “we have the people.” Excerpt from The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval. Harcourt Brace, 1997.


“On Sunday, August 2, more than three thousand farmworkers responded to the Teamsters contracts by ‘voting with their feet,’ as Dolores Huerta called marches. The farmworkers streamed through the tree-lined streets of downtown Salinas…. Chanting ‘huelga’ repeatedly, they carried a sea of red-and-black UFWOC banners, waved American and Mexican flags, and held up pictures of the Virgin of  Guadalupe and Martin Luther King Jr.” (164).


“Chavez flew to an AFL-CIO convention in Chicago to appeal to President George Meany for strike-fund assistance, and he negotiated a loan from the Catholic Order of Franciscan Brothers as well.”

[...]“Chavez had no love for the Teamsters, who had betrayed him once again, but he was always willing to negotiate. Under pressure from the Teamster hierarchy, which was starting to have doubts about the Salinas deal, local Teamsters agreed to hold a series of meetings with UFWOC mediated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Farm Labor. 

“[...] By the next day, Chavez had begun a fast of thanksgiving and hope, and was preparing union members for mass arrests when good news put a halt to any further action. The Bishops’ Committee had succeeded in persuading the Teamsters to sign a ‘no raid’ pact, an agreement to stop poaching on UFWOC organizing campaigns, and--in a confidential side agreement--promise to use their ‘best efforts’ to break the Salinas contracts they had signed behind closed doors. 

“In exchange, Chavez declared a moratorium on strikes for ten days. But, he warned the Salinas farmers, workers were willing to shut down the industry if growers didn’t start negotiating with UFWOC. “They’ve got the money,” he said of the companies. “We’ve got the people.” (166-67)


“Cesar Chavez, as the 1990s began, was elder statesman in the Chicano and labor-rights movement, more reflective and measured in his public appearances 

In early 1991, he flew to Washington, D.C., where he delivered a keynote address to young organizers brought together by consumer-activist Ralph Nader. It was a few months after the November 1990 election, in which California voters voted down Proposition 128, the initiative to scale back the use of many chemicals, including several farm pesticides. Cesar found that campaign exhilarating--no matter that the proposition later lost--and he had driven around the state for more than a year, stumping with environmental activists and leading noisy, anti-pesticide rallies in front of the Capitol in Sacramento. Chavez was still committed to the political activities that he believed one had to use when the system refused to change. “Direct confrontation, making grassroots appeals--principal tactics of the environmental and other popular movements in the 1960s and ‘70s--are still viable alternatives in the 1990s,” he told the Washington audience. “Americans who are truly interested in working for social change can increasingly look less and less to the political process for redress.”

(250).

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