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The fruits of Chavez's labor had deep roots in prayer life.

LOS ANGELES - No farm worker has impacted the fields and corporate boardrooms of California agriculture like Cesar Chavez, and the nation's farms will never be the same because of his charismatic and faith-filled commitment to improve the lives and the livelihood of America's farm workers.

I have known Cesar Chavez since that exceptionally hot San Joaquin Valley day in September 1965 when he and his first small band of supporters began their table-grape strike in Delano, Calif., a town whose very name would become synonymous with creative efforts to improve the lives of farm worker families across the nation.

Delano was added to that short list of towns and cities, such as Selma, Ala., which marked turning points for the country's poor and minorities. Deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and its social teachings, everything Cesar did was underpinned by the strength of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Every major initiative by the fledgling Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee - later the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and then the United Farm Workers - began with prayer, often an outdoor Mass celebrated on an irrigation ditch levee near some farm or ranch. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe preceded every march, picket line and boycott demonstration.

For Cesar Chavez, faith and prayer were at the heart of his 1960s effort to organize farm workers into an effective farm labor union - an effort attempted by others several times in the 1900s, but never successfully.

Cesar really believed that God was with him and his band of pioneering organizers. His message to the workers was simple but powerful: God did not intend for them and their families to live and work as human robots, devoid of dignity, decent wages and benefits most United States workers take for granted.

Graced with a personal and intense faith, Cesar Chavez early on adopted the path of fasting and nonviolent resistance for his movement.

From 1963 through the end of the 1970s, I spent long hours, often days at a time, with the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Farm Labor helping to mediate the increasingly bitter clashes between the new union and the growers, mainly California, but also in Arizona, Texas and Florida.

Cesar's commitment to gospel-based justice for farm workers sparked all his pioneering efforts. The constitution and bylaws of the new farm workers' union were taken directly from the Catholic church's social teaching documents.

Cesar Chavez's various fasts were always in direct response to some type of violence that had occurred in the course of the movement. The spirituality that energized Cesar was genuine, not some contrivance.

His vision always saw far beyond the immediate obstacles and crosses that he and his workers so often encountered. His faith was deeply grounded in God's words and promises, and like the prophets of old, he spoke truth and justice with penetrating words and images.

The spiritual boldness of Cesar Chavez's leadership gripped the people of this nation like no other farm worker had ever done. For the first time in this century, most Americans became aware of the dreadful plight of most of the men and women who labor so tirelessly and for so little to place food on our tables.

Cesar Chavez has now returned to the God of justice whom he loved so intensely, but his words, initiatives and farm workers' sandal prints will long remain etched along the roads that link California's farms and ranches.
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Title Annotation:Obituary; Cesar Chavez
Author:Mahony, Roger Michael
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 7, 1993
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