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Celebrating the legacy of Cesar Chavez
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Fifty years ago, a quiet farm-worker, together with a diverse gathering of people concerned with the rights and the wellbeing of those who labor in our fields and orchards, founded the United Farm Workers.

A grass-roots organization supported by many leaders in the highest levels of American government, the UFW has changed for good the conditions of campesinos and all who work with them throughout the United States.  Their protests, strikes, picket lines and public gatherings were often met with resistance, at times bloody.  Several of their number were killed.  Others spent time in jails or in hospitals.  Many of them forsook wages, job security, even the future prospect of employment for the sake of future generations.  But for all of them, the sacrifice was minimal for the cause of human dignity.

Here this weekend in Bakersfield, hundreds dedicated to the UFW and its member organizations are gathered to celebrate an increasingly important legacy and to commit themselves for the decades to come.  Presentations offered Friday morning impressed me deeply with the numerous gains the UFW and affiliates have won on behalf of laborers’ rights to unionize, to negotiate for better working conditions, to enjoy the basic securities that laws would have provided, had they been enforced or even implemented.

I have come for various reasons.  In 1971, I volunteered in Eastern Wash-ington State with migrant workers and programs serving their needs.  In the school, in public pools, in the fields and in construction projects, in the cramped quarters where they lived or the living rooms of growers, we had the opportunity to learn more of the farm-workers realities and contribute to their support.  Upon returning to Seattle, I joined the picket lines and helped pass a resolution in our church backing the United Farm Workers. 

But it wasn’t until I came to San Joaquin Valley in 1993 that I began to learn firsthand of how labor and growers, contractors and supervisors, churches and unions and government all interact to maintain the delicate balance so essential to the survival of agriculture in California.  My first adoptive family consisted of two Mexican-born immigrants and their eight children, all born in the United States.  They were not at all impressed with my history and admiration for Cesar Chavez and his influential movement.

In fact, they shared their critiques so quickly that I realized the UFW cause would be a long, slow process, not a series of decisive battles.  And some of the Valley’s most influential benefactors belong precisely to businesses still being targeted by the UFW.  How telling that this morning we heard the good news that contract negotiations, now twenty-three years old, had reached a major milestone in Stockton.  As I prepared to return late Friday from the conference, we of the upper San Joaquin region made plans to meet in the future, in order to strengthen our collaboration.  My parish, St. Mary of the Assumption, has long played a role in supporting workers in their various needs, and was a gathering place for the UFW. I hope to revive this relationship, so that the union in Stockton receives all the backing it needs, and so that we might care better for our own people.

Meanwhile, the convention here in Bakersfield carries on.  May God bless all those whose hard work and sacrifice make it possible for us to survive. 

Below is opening prayer I offered on Thursday evening, following speeches by Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW president, and Paul Chavez, son of their founder who currently directs the Cesar Chavez Foundation, before major awards were presented to supporters and long-standing leaders of the UFW:

How beautiful in our fields are the feet of those who labor the land, turning the earth, making of the desert an oasis of life and fertility.

How blest in our orchards are the weathered hands of those who carefully prune and pick and package, who prayerfully prepare the produce that stocks our market shelves and feeds our needy families.

But how burdened are the backs of those who bear the weight of crates and baskets and burlap sacks, who once bent low to wield the short-handled hoe, who suffered the hot summer sun during long, poorly-paid days, who toiled insecure, who endured a threatened sense of dignity, who barely slept in dark, crowded places, afraid for an uncertain future, overshadowed by a prejudiced legal system and waking to work before dawn with just a thread of hope.

How close to God’s Heart were those deprived of their wages, dehydrated and dying of heat, broken by their toils and poisoned by pesticides. How precious to Him, those who spilt their blood on the boarder’s barbed wire, the picket line’s resistance, or, quietly, still in the fields while the world slept on in comfortable peace.

How sacred to our nation are the souls of those who continue to give what we receive, to create what we consume, to labor on, that we might take our rest, to slowly die that we might grow and thrive.

And how victorious will they be who raise the standard of human dignity, who march on behalf of justice and mutual respect, who fight despite the odds for a fair day’s wage and the fundamental right to organize, who never give up on the promise of a contract.

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be consoled.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for justice shall be theirs. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.  And blessed are you, when you are persecuted for the sake of the Kingdom, for one day you shall see your dreams come true, and your children’s children will rejoice as they harvest what you have planted and patiently cultivated, as they reap the benefits of your labors and sacrifice.