The 300-plus men and women seated around tightly spaced banquet tables in St. Mary’s Academy’s gym became quiet as Cardinal Roger Mahony read the copy of the faded Western Union telegram from Sept. 19, 1966 that Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote to Cesar Chavez during one of his early public fasts:
“As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members. The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts — in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one — a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity. You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”
Cardinal Mahony was the keynote speaker at the 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Prayer Breakfast on Jan. 18 at the all-girls’ high school in Inglewood. The cardinal wove his talk around the event’s theme, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” stressing the “bond” between Dr. King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated four years later at 39, and Chavez, cofounder of the United Farm Workers who died at age 66 in 1993.
As auxiliary bishop of Fresno and then bishop of Stockton from 1975 to 1985, Cardinal Mahony was a staunch supporter of the farm workers in their drives to unionize and a close friend of the labor organizer. “The telegram, obviously, created a very special bond between the two men’s various efforts at equality and justice for all people in this country, especially people of color and people who were being exploited,” he pointed out.
“Also, both were deep faith-filled disciples of Jesus Christ. Dr. King was a pastor, and Cesar Chavez was a very fine and devout Catholic. And both of them in their ministry and their work for exploited people brought prayer constantly in their efforts. Cesar Chavez, I remember so often that everything the farm workers did, whether it be a march, a strike, a meeting, always had prayer. And he always invoked the presence and power of Our Lady of Guadalupe in all their efforts.”
The cardinal, who retired as archbishop of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in March 2011, noted that the struggles of both groups sadly continues today in America, along with those of a current disenfranchised people — undocumented immigrants. He said the nation had basically put up two contradictory signs at its borders: “help wanted” and “no trespassing!”
And he urged the breakfasters to let their congressmen and congresswomen know how important having a comprehensive immigration bill — like the one passed by the U.S. Senate last June — really was to them.
“Those most vulnerable have always been those people without voice and without collective power to change their situation,” said Cardinal Mahony. “So for us today, immigrants are an important part of the exploited people of our times. And I know if Dr. King were living today, he would be in the forefront of marches on Washington for immigration reform.”
The prayer breakfast included an entrance procession with pounding drums, Scripture readings, a tribute to King with quotations recited by Verbum Dei High School students, performances by the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization’s Adult Mass Choir and remarks by Anderson Shaw, director of the AACCE. David Fields, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles, served as emcee.
Sharon Agnew, 65, sat at one of the front tables. “I thought it was wonderful for us to hear from Cardinal Mahony the fullness of this struggle that still continues today,” she said. “He encouraged us to reach out to our immigrant brothers and sisters, and support them in their God-given right to be fully interwoven in the fabric of this country.
“It was a message we all need to hear today and continue to hear in the memory of the legacy of Dr. King,” said Agnew. “Immigration rights are civil rights. We have to be of one accord on this.”
St. John the Evangelist parishioner Jay Armant, Sr., said the cardinal’s message rang true. “I think we do need comprehensive immigration reform because the future generation’s here in California and America,” the 47-year-old pointed out. “We need something to pass on to future generations.
“I do see similarities between immigrants’ struggle and the civil rights struggle,” he acknowledged. “I do. But the thing is, I think it boils down to equality. Equality and what happens to our schools, our resources, our city. And when resources go out of this country — our labor, our money — it makes our communities suffer.
“So I’m willing to support immigration reform,” he reported, “anything they need to get more documented workers here.”
Father Tracy O’Sullivan worked on the south side of Chicago for 25 years as a Carmelite parish priest, community organizer, school principal, director of the Commission for Justice and Peace, and pastor. The urban neighborhood had been transformed from a historically white to a predominantly African American population.
In 1994 he became pastor of St. Raphael Church in South Los Angeles. Since then he’s worked with a parish that’s radically changed from serving African Americans to mostly Hispanics. Today, the demographic mix is about 90-to-10 percent in favor of Latinos.
“I see a deep link between the two,” he told The Tidings. “To me the key is the ‘Joy of the Gospel,’ the exhortation by Pope Francis [November 2013]. He goes deeper than Chavez, he goes deeper than King, and he’s in the Gospel. At St. Raphael’s we live in the reality where both groups are in great tension with one another. We’re walking on egg shells all the time.
“And to build a community, we’ve got to go deeper in the Gospel,” he stressed. “We’ve got to go deeper and to see that we share a common reality as children of God, and get beyond the ethnic points of privilege and control. We have to say, ‘We are brothers and sisters.’ But it is in the Gospel. It is the joy of a God in our midst calling us to life.”
The veteran of the civil rights movement in Chicago, who’s had a front row seat to waves of Hispanic immigration to Los Angeles as an inner-city pastor, had one last observation: “And that’s the beauty of the brown and the black.”