To be a man is to suffer for others

When I was a kid and we drove to visit my grandma in Santa Barbara, we’d pass through the Salinas Valley.   You always knew you were there, largely because of the fields that seemed to go on forever, neat green rows and rows alongside the 101.  There was that particular smell in the air, too, a mix of fresh vegetation and fertilizer, a smell that doesn’t change over the years.  And occasionally, there would be people in the fields, small dots of bright clothing in that endless green landscape, bent over and picking the crops.

It always seemed like a very difficult way to make a living.

In high school I read The Grapes of Wrath.   Years later, I taught it to my own high school students.  And that story put such a human face on the experience of migrant workers, those dots in the field from my childhood.  As I taught the novel, I discovered more about Cesar Chavez,  the founder of the United Farm Workers.  Through noviolence, he fought for the rights of those farmworkers, who were so often unprotected and exploited.   It was a struggle for justice that was totally informed by his faith; he and the workers marched with the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and prayer sustained him in the many struggles that came with shaking up the system.   As he wrote, memorably, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving life do we find life.  I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.  To be a man is to suffer for others.”

On today, Cesar Chavez’s birthday, I like to think about those words and the Gospel that inspired them.  I hope that I’m always moving towards compassion for the less fortunate rather than away from it.  And I will pray tonight for all those who pick the food that ends up on my table.   It’s so easy to overlook those dots in the field, and I thank God for Cesar Chavez, who made it harder for us to do so.

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