A Contemplative Day: Cesar Chavez’s Fasts for Righteousnes

This should be read before the walking meditation, and can be read by being passed from one participant to the next. Facilitator can choose to use 1-2 of the reflection questions or none at all.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

In this Beatitude, Jesus speaks to his disciples regarding righteousness in the most elemental terms possible. There are no physical sensations more primal than hunger and thirst. If a person is in dire thirst there is nothing she will not try in order to satisfy her craving. The reason for this is simple: without water a person will die. Hunger and thirst are regular parts of our lives, and they are instincts that save us from death. It is with this powerful language of hunger and thirst that Jesus confronts his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount.

cesarcross.jpgIn the original text there is a definite article before the word “righteousness.” This article is often not expressed in our English translations. A more accurate translation might read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after the righteousness, for they shall be filled.” What does this mean? What is Jesus trying to communicate here? It seems that Jesus is confronting popular conceptions of righteousness, and promoting a specific type of righteousness. The righteousness that Jesus promotes is not an abstract righteousness, or dusty legality, but a deep and abiding righteousness that bears witness to the kingdom of heaven on earth, a truly new kingdom defined by forgiveness, peace, and hospitality. The righteousness that Jesus refers to in this Beatitude is the kingdom ethic promoted on the Sermon on the Mount. How are humans supposed to respond to this new ethic, this specific righteousness? We are supposed to desire it as we desire food. It is to be such a priority to us that we sense that we would starve without it.

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In “The Long, Hot Summer of 1967,” brooding political and social tensions erupted into violence across the U.S. Radical political rhetoric increasingly evoked violent imagery. Riots broke out in Detroit and Newark, and violence loomed over the fields of California. The popular vision of violent and rapid social change seduced some of the striking farm workers in César Chávez’s movement. They had grown tired of participating patiently in the non-violent struggle for justice. They began to carry weapons, threaten scabs with beatings, and commit acts of sabotage on police cars and farm machinery. César grieved this violent spirit and rebuked the strikers saying, “You reap what you sow; if we become violent with others, then we will become violent among ourselves. Social justice for the dignity of man cannot be won at the price of human life.” Despite his words, the longing for violence among the disgruntled farm workers only seemed to increase. Early in 1968 large scale violence seemed unavoidable. Cesar then began another form of rebuke, one that reveals profoundly what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

César’s non-violence was inspired by his Catholicism. Additionally, he had seen non-violence work in the Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle in the South. César understood that non-violence is truthful because it reveals Christ’s righteousness. For this reason, César understood the emerging militant tendencies of some members of the United Farm Workers union to be a move toward unrighteousness. Thus, as the leader of the farm worker movement, César announced that he would refuse food “until such a time as everyone ignored” him or “made up their minds that they were going to be committing to non-violence.” César announced his fast on February 18th, and told those near him that he had already been fasting for 4 days.

Day after day César lay in a bed declining food until the members of his cesarwalking.jpgunion convinced him that they were committed to the righteousness of non-violence. This fast became a defining moment for the farm worker movement. As César lay in bed, farm workers from all over California gathered around his quarters. The farm workers pitched tents near César’s house, creating a community. They began to share food among themselves and pray together. César’s fast was inaugurating a spiritual revival among the farm workers. On March 11th, the twenty-five day fast ended with a Mass, attended by 8,000 people. He broke bread with his mother and Senator Robert Kennedy. He began to fill his stomach again, because his hunger for righteousness was also being filled. After the liturgy, a statement written by César was read over the loud speakers. In the statement César wrote:

“The Fast was first for me and then for all of us in this Union. It was a fast for non-violence and a call to sacrifice. Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and our spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons. “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. God help us…”

César’s fast in the winter of 1968 provides a dramatic example of what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness. While Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically, César’s fast is a literal embodiment of experiencing hunger for the sake of righteousness. The righteousness of non-violence was so important to César that he expressed his longing for it through becoming physically hungry. His desire for the righteousness, both his own and that of the farm worker movement, are inspirational to farm worker advocates today.

Reflection Questions:

  • When were you most physically hungry in your life? Describe what it felt like. How does that experience influence how you understand this Beatitude?
  • How do you think that César’s faith helped sustain him during struggles that he saw in his 31 years of work with farm workers?
  • Why do you think that people are so quickly satisfied with their own righteousness? What do you think is at the root at the root of spiritual complacence?
  • Reflect on the statement that César had read after he broke his fast. How is it related to the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Do you think that Jesus was speaking metaphorically or literally when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled?”
  • Do you think César’s hunger for righteousness was filled?

page 13-16 of Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Beatitudes Embodied by Matthew Smalley. National Farm Worker Ministry 2005.

Cesar Chavez

cesarlooking.jpgCesar Chavez was the founder of the United Farm Workers. He advocated tirelessly for justice in the struggle to achieve equality for farm workers. Click here to learn more about Cesar and what you can do to bring lessons to your home community.

Books

Autobiography of La Causa. Jacques E. Levy. W.W. Norton & Co. 1975.

Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the Beginning. Fred Ross. El Taller Grafico Press. 1989.

With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. Daniel Rothenberg. University of California Press. 1998.

The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers’ Lives, Labor and Advocacy. Edited by Charles D. Thompson, Jr., and Melinda F. Wiggins. University of Texas Press, 2002.

California’s Broken Promises: The Laws on the Books are Not the Laws in the Fields. Stories and photos of California Farm Workers. Published by the UFW, 2007.

Florida’s Farmworkers in the 21st Century. Nano Riley & Davida Johns. University Press of Florida. 2003.

Immokalee’s Fields of Hope. Carlene A. Thissen. iUniverse Press. 2003.

Photographing Farmworkers in California. Richard Steven Street. Stanford University Press. 2004.

The Radical Peasant. Gerald F. Cox. Trafford Publishing. 2006.
Biography of Fr. Charles Philipps, diocese of San Francisco, who mentored several young priests who were early and life-long activists in the farm worker movement, and active with the UFW.

For children:


Cesar Chavez. Ruth Franchere. Illustrated by Earl Thollander. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1970.

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Harcourt, Inc. 2003.
 
 
 

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Videos

“Viva La Causa”, Southern Poverty Law Center (2008) 39 min.
Documentary focusing on one of the seminal events in the march for human rights – the grape strike and boycott led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960s.

“California’s Harvest of Shame”, CA Progress Report (2008) 20 min.
A short documentary showing some of the current conditions facing California farmworkers.

“Immokalee U.S.A.”, Georg Koszulinski picture (2008) 78 min
Documentary chronicling the daily experiences of migrant farmworkers living and working in the U.S.A.

“Standards of Living”, WRAL Television (2005) 21min
Documentary on Migrant Housing in North Carolina

“Justice on the Table”, Moving Images Productions (2003) 25 min.
Documentary challenging us to consider the conditions under which our food is grown and ask, “Is this justice?”

The Struggle in the Fields: Cesar Chavez & the Farmworkers’ Struggle. Paradigm Productions. 25 minutes. 1997.

Farmworkers Lives & the Work of NFWM - 11 mins.
DVD now available fom NFWM or or view online
Part I & Part II

Growing Up As A Farmworker Child – Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network, 1.5 mins.

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Farm Worker Conditions

The food that overflows our market shelves and fills our tables is harvested by men, women, and children who often cannot satisfy their own hunger
- Cesar Chavez

picker fw conditions.jpgA Brief History of Farm Labor in the U.S., prepared by Lori Fernald Khamala, is available as a PowerPoint presentation. It outlines the history that since the 1600′s these workers have often been imported from other countries with vulnerable populations; have always been a disenfranchised group of workers; and have in general NEVER had the right to vote. Contact NFWM if you would like a copy, or download the presentation.

Migrant and seasonal farm workers perform numerous tasks necessary for cultivating and harvesting a large share of our nation’s food supply. But in spite of their backbreaking labor, the vast majority of agricultural workers do not enjoy the same rights and benefits that most of us take for granted.

According to author Daniel Rothenberg: “Farm workers commonly suffer abuses that would be inconceivable in other industries. They are threatened, cheated out of their wages, housed and transported in dangerous conditions, and in the most extreme cases, held in debt peonage.Farm workers have always been recruited from among the most vulnerable members of American society–recent immigrants, the homeless, the rural poor–and have consistently been denied the legal protections provided to other workers.” (Daniel Rothenberg, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. Harcourt Brace and Company. New York, San Diego, London. 1998)

One good overview of farm worker conditions and issues in the U.S. is provided in a Food First publication, Migrant Farmworkers: America’s New Plantation Workers. Good information on a wide variety of farm worker issues is also available at the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Here is a summary of the living, working and health conditions of our nation’s approximately two million migrant and seasonal farm workers:

Below-Poverty Wages, Malnutrition & Hunger
Hazardous & Unsanitary Working Conditions
Slavery in the Fields
Childhood & Child Labor
Migrant Education
Third-World Housing Conditions
Health Concerns
Women Farm Workers Face Special Challenges
Lack of Legal Protections & Social Benefits

Thank you to David Oddo for researching and writing the Farm Worker Conditions section.

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Background- FLOC RT

Background and History
FLOC Reynolds Tobacco Campaign

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is the second-largest tobacco company in the United States, manufacturing about one of every three cigarettes sold in the country. In 2006 Reynolds American Inc. had sales in excess of $8.5 billion worldwide. While big tobacco makes billions, tobacco farmworkers live in poverty, face racism and harassment, nicotine poisoning, lethal pesticides, staggering deft, and have hardly any labor and human rights protections.

The tragedies which occur daily in the fields are due to industry-wide problems that need to be addressed by those who have control over the tobacco market— RJ Reynolds being at the top of this list. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is calling on RJ Reynolds to take responsibility for the oppressive conditions in which tobacco workers labor in North Carolina. Together with FLOC, RJ Reynolds can use its tremendous power to initiate changes that will improve the lives of growers and farm workers alike.

Despite several attempts by FLOC President Baldemar Velazquez and allies, Susan Ivey, CEO of RJ Reynolds, has refused to meet with him to discuss conditions for farmworkers in North Carolina’s tobacco fields.

GREEN TOBACCO SICKNESS:
Green tobacco sickness, commonly called “the green monster”, is simply nicotine poisoning. Tobacco workers come into daily contact with nicotine which is absorbed into their bodies as they pick the tobacco leaves. Nicotine is classified as one of the most toxic poisons resulting in weakness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal cramps, headache and difficulty breathing. Worse yet, it raises body temperature which increases dehydration an sickness from the intense
heat of the fields. An estimated 24% of workers have this illness each season, and workers average almost 2 days of illness for every 100 of work. Workers who complain of sickness have been sent home to Mexico.

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Return to Reynolds Tobacco FLOC Campaign Main Page

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Contact us

National Farm Worker Ministry
P.O. Box 10645
112 Cox Ave., Ste. 208
Raleigh, NC 27605
Email us here
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