|A poster, above, expresses the concerns of participants in the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements, held Feb. 16-19 in Modesto, California.
Affirming that all human life is sacred and all people are “protagonists of their future,” more than 600 grass-roots leaders echoed the call of a U.S. bishop to disrupt practices that cause oppression and violate human dignity.
The leaders attending the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements concluded the four-day meeting Feb. 19 saying in a final message that a “small elite is growing wealthy and powerful off the suffering of our families.”
“Racism and white supremacy are America’s original sins. They (the elites) continue to justify a system of unregulated capitalism that idolizes wealth accumulation over human needs,” said the “Message from Modesto.”
|Aimee Mayer, coordinator for social concerns and advocacy for Catholic Charities of Tennessee, is pictured at the meeting with Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
The message broadly echoed Pope Francis’ regular critiques of the world economy in which he has said the accumulation of wealth by a few people has harmed the dignity of millions of people in the human family.
The representatives from dozens of faith-based and secular community organizations, labor unions and Catholic dioceses representing an estimated 1 million people called for eight actions to be undertaken. The actions included inviting faith communities, including every Catholic parish, to declare their sites a sanctuary for people facing deportation by the U.S. government; developing local leadership to hold elected officials accountable and, when possible to recruit grass-roots leaders to seek elected office; and a global week of action May 1-7 in which people “stand together against hatred and attacks on families.”
Aimee Mayer, coordinator for social concerns and advocacy for Catholic Charities of Tennessee, said that meeting participants left Modesto energized and ready to act. “At a lot of gatherings, the energy dissipates at the end, but this was different.” She said with a concrete action plan in place, the momentum will keep going. “It was a really hopeful gathering.”
Mayer was one of seven people from Nashville who attended the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements. Other attendees included Megan Black, a parishioner at Christ the King Church and National Clergy Organizer for PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing, one of the meeting’s sponsors, as well as representatives from Workers’ Dignity Project and NOAH, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope.
Workers’ Dignity, a workers’ rights advocacy group, and NOAH, a faith-led community organizing coalition focused on affordable housing, economic equity and criminal justice, are the two Nashville-based organizations that receive grant funding through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. Bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program.
The Modesto meeting, Mayer said, was all about “supporting the rights of people who are often ignored,” work that Catholic Charities, Workers’ Dignity and NOAH are all engaged in.
The delegates called for “bold prophetic leadership” from faith communities to speak and act in solidarity with citizens on the margins of society. Participants in plenary sessions and small-group discussions challenged clergy, including the Catholic hierarchy, to be in the forefront of movements to seek justice on social issues for people outside of mainstream society.
In their message, delegates said they wanted to see the seeds planted in Modesto blossom across the country in statewide and regional gatherings to bring the vision of the four meetings of popular movements held to date and the pope’s message of hope and courage to every U.S. community.
The final message reflected the words of Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, whose stirring presentation a day earlier invited people to follow the example of President Donald Trump, who campaigned as the candidate of “disruption.”
“Well now, we must all become disruptors,” Bishop McElroy told the delegates Feb. 18 to sustained applause. “We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need.
“We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men and women as a source of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.”
At the same time, Bishop McElroy said, people of faith must rebuild society based on justice for everyone.
“We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service of the dignity of the human person and assert what that flag behind us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal,” he said.
Bishop McElroy’s words in a plenary session on labor and housing followed a video greeting from Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, in which he said the concentration of wealth and political power in the country “threatens to undermine the health of our democracy.”
As families cope with economic stress and feel no elected official at any level of government cares about their plight, people tend to withdraw from civic participation and effectively disenfranchise themselves, leaving special interest groups, lobbyists and “even demagogues” to fill the void, Cardinal Tobin said.
Cardinal Tobin used Pope Francis’ calls for encounter and dialogue as necessary steps to overcome fear, alienation and indifference. “Encounter and dialogue create the capacity for solidarity and accompaniment,” he said.
“It is our responsibility to respond to the pain and anxiety of our brothers and sisters. As popular movements, your role is to knit together strong communal networks that can gather up the experiences and suffering and aspiration of the people and push for structural changes that affirm the dignity and value of every child of God,” Cardinal Tobin said.
Participants had a chance to hear from a number of different bishops during the meeting, who encouraged them to continue their direct social justice action work to change structures that contribute to the “dehumanization” of the poor. “It was good to hear from them about the need for our Church to be part of this change,” Mayer said.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told the gathering as the final message was adopted that the Church was “here to accompany you and support you all.”
“The Catholic Church believes that the joys and the hope, the grief and the anguish of people of our time, especially those who are poor or who are isolated, these also are the joys and the hope and the grief and the anguish of the followers of Christ,” Cardinal Turkson said.
Meeting organizers, which included the PICO National Network of congregation-based organizations and the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development, planned to send the message and a comprehensive report on the proceedings to the pope and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development co-sponsored the gathering.
The U.S. gathering was the first regional meeting in a series encouraged by Pope Francis to bring together people working to improve poor and struggling communities around the world through organizing initiatives, prayer and social action. Three previous meetings since 2014 – two in Rome and one in Bolivia – have focused on land, labor and housing. The U.S. meeting added immigration and racism to the topics being discussed.
Along with the grass-roots volunteer leaders and professional organizers, 25 prelates attended the California meeting and several addressed the plenary sessions including: Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president, on immigration; Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, on racism; and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on the environment.
Theresa Laurence of the Tennessee Register also contributed to this report.