MODESTO—A group of eight grassroots community activists and Catholic leaders from the Diocese of San Bernardino were among the more than 900 people who gathered in Modesto Feb. 16-19 for the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an international event coordinated by the Vatican to explore a variety of social issues.
The gathering covered issues such as racism, immigration, access to jobs, housing and the environment, and it featured some pointed remarks from Catholic bishops about the urgency to stand up for those who are being exploited in different ways by unjust systems. Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego urged attendees to be “disrupters” in their advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised on matters of health care, education and just wages, among others.
“But we can’t just be disrupters, we have to be rebuilders. We have to rebuild a nation in which all of us are children of one God,” Bishop McElroy said.
The delegation from the Diocese of San Bernardino was Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Rutilio del Riego; Father Miguel Ceja, Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Riverside; Sister Hortensia Del Villar, S.A.C., Director of Community Services and Outreach Programs; Beatriz Loera of Our Lady of Hope Parish, San Bernardino; Lucia Gaitan of Raices de Justicia Social Justice Group at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Riverside; Lyzzeth Mendoza, an organizer for Inland Congregations United for Change and a parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena, Rialto; Arbazz Mohammed, Muslim representative from the Sahaba Initiative; and Fabiola Alvarez, Social Justice Ministry Coordinator at St. Louis Parish, Cathedral City.
Alvarez had the honor of reading in Spanish a letter to the congregants that Pope Francis had written especially for the occasion. She stood on the stage with Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Pope’s representative at the gathering, as he read the Holy Father’s letter in English.
She prayed before she took the stage and, although nervous, recognized a common view and mission among those who were there, Alvarez said. The words of the Pope that she read also calmed and inspired her. His lengthy letter implored Catholics to resist “walls and terror” in favor of “love and bridges.” He again sounded an alarm at the increasing indifference and even hostility that is directed at those who are suffering around the world in situations of war, starvation and migration.
“Fear hardens the heart and turns into a callousness that is blind to the blood, the pain, the faces of other people,” Pope Francis wrote in his letter.
The words of the Pope and those, like Bishop McElroy, who spoke at the World Meeting of Popular Movements were a call to action for Alvarez, she said.
“I’ve been thinking about those words and how I can transmit them to my community,” she said. “We have to feel other people’s pain.”
At the close of gathering a “Message from Modesto” was issued that proposed eight actions: that faith communities declare themselves a sanctuary for those facing deportation; that tools such as boycotts, strikes and non-violent civil disobedience be used to protect families and communities from oppression and dehumanization; that faith leaders speak and act boldly in solidarity with the people; that faith and community groups remain united in their advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised; that an international week of action against hatred and attacks on families be observed May 1-7 this year; that members of popular movements continue to meet this year in every state with a goal of bringing the message of the World Meeting to the wider public; that a shared curriculum and popular education program be developed to equip people with the analysis and tools to transform the world; and to build political power so that the electorate might be transformed to better reflect the communities represented at the meeting.
The four-day meeting was a motivating experience, Sr. Del Villar said.
“It has given us a sense of urgency for the Catholic Church to respond to the cries, the fears, the concerns of our undocumented brothers and sisters, the challenge of mass incarceration and the challenge of protecting the environment,” she said.