Our brother César Chávez would have turned 85 this month.
Time fades and memories dim and younger generations can feel far away from the concerns of those who have gone before us. But we should not let that happen with him.
César was one of our nation’s great civil rights pioneers. He was a courageous fighter for the dignity of our Hispanic people — especially the poor and those who labored in the “factories in the fields.”
He was a man whose public convictions were rooted in prayer and shaped by his deep Catholic faith.
He once said, “I don’t think that I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine. I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me.For me, the base must be faith!”
Like two other great moral leaders of his generation, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, César’s faith led him to struggle against injustice using the nonviolent spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, self-sacrifice and works of love.
Through the influence of his faith and the efforts of some heroic priests and laypeople, his United Farm Workers was founded on the principles of Catholic social doctrine.
César understood a truth that is still not widely known — that the Catholic Church is the first institution in human history to respect the dignity of work.
In one of his first public statements, during the Delano Grape strike in 1966, he quoted these strong words from Pope Leo XIII: “Every one’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money. It is neither just nor human to oppress men with excessive work to the point where their minds become enfeebled and their bodies worn out.”
A child of migrant workers who came to California in the 1930s and 1940s, César spent many days himself in the fields under the hot sun. He always said he was working for a system that would treat farm workers as important human beings.
“God knows that we are not beasts of burden, we are not agricultural implements or rented slaves, we are men,” he would say.
César still has a message for us today about human dignity and the sanctity of human labor.
We have a crisis of work in our society today. Not only are millions out of work. Millions more are also confused about what work means and what work is for.
Our society has reduced work to a materialistic and “functionalistic” idea. Whether it is white collar or blue collar, industrial or service, manual or intellectual — we see work as nothing more than a means to a material end. A means to make money. A means to get things done. That’s why, among those fortunate enough to have jobs, we see some who are “workaholics” while others are just working for the weekend.
None of this is what God intended for human labor.
César got it right when he said: “Work is a sacred thing … Every individual is endowed with dignity.”
Our current economic crisis demands that all of us — workers, business owners and political leaders — pledge ourselves to work together for the common good.
We don’t have the luxury to just take care of our own needs or pursue the interests of just our “group.” Too many people are suffering. Too many people need our help.
César’s faith led him to struggle against injustice using the nonviolent spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, self-sacrifice and works of love.
So another lesson we can learn from César Chávez is to seek guidance from the Church’s social doctrine. In our day, Pope Benedict XVI has shown us a “new way” for the future in his social encyclical, “Charity in Truth.”
The Pope says that in our global economy poverty often results from a “violation of the dignity of human work.” He calls us to promote an economy where work truly serves our brothers and sisters and helps us grow closer to our families and to God.
César Chávez had the same perspective. He said:
“Human beings are unique because they are creative. When we stifle that creativity, we destroy the individual’s spirit.… We need work that improves the quality of life, for this type of work is the cornerstone of human dignity. And because people are important, working for people — even sacrificing a little bit for them — brings much meaning to people’s life. There is so much meaningful work to be done!”
Let’s keep praying for one another as we enter the final weeks of our Lenten journey.
And let’s ask Our Lady of Guadalupe to help those who work in our fields. Let’s ask her for more love, concern and solidarity in our society — beginning in our own hearts.