By Fr. Dean McFalls
As a Caucasian American born into the middle class and raised in Seattle, I always considered citizenship, voting, and making a political difference as a foregone conclusion. It never dawned on me that huge sectors of American society might feel themselves isolated, counted-out, or systematically unwelcome in the process of self-determination and of shaping the future of this great democratic nation.
Much less did I imagine that so many might choose to hide behind walls of silence, convinced that they can do nothing to create a better environment for their children.
I was five years old when my mother took me by the hand and marched me to the neighborhood polling station. There, she cast her vote for John F. Kennedy. Three years later, I stared in shock at our third-grade classroom TV monitor, watching live coverage of my hero’s assassination. But that tragedy didn’t kill our faith in the hard-earned American institution called the electoral process. Yet five years later, soon after winning the California primary as Democratic Presidential Candidate, Robert Kennedy would, like his brother, be gunned down. Now I was thirteen, and with the Vietnam War underway and the murder of Martin Luther King, I began to lose hope that anything could redeem my country. I became very deeply cynical.
Another three years passed. Desiring to do something positive besides study hard, play four sports and volunteer at church, I spent a month in Eastern Washington.
John and Robert Kennedy had been profoundly influenced by a quiet man of hum-ble origins who’d been organizing farm workers in the heart of California. I heard about this Mexican-American: how his family had been cheated out of their home in Yuma, how they struggled to get by through poorly paid field labor, how he dropped out of school after eighth grade to help his family survive, how he joined the Navy to serve his country and get ahead in life, but instead endured two of the worst years of his already difficult life, how he suffered countless humiliations and set-backs to mobilize workers around the principal of their common human dignity.
Over forty years ago, then, I was re-inspired by Mexican migrant farm workers and the example of Cesar Estrada Chavez to re-invest myself in making of my nation a land of the free and a home of the brave, in which the inalienable rights to life, lib-erty, and the pursuit of happiness would be accorded to all God’s children, not only to those of the privileged classes, or of superior economic status, or political connectivity. I returned back to Seattle to join the boycotts and to advocate for the United Farm Workers. Two years later, I’d register as a conscientious objector to a war that had lost its way. At 18 years, I would begin to vote my conscience.
Thirty years ago, I walked across America from sea to shining sea with a group of citizens concerned about the nuclear and bio-chemical arms race. We began at the
Trident Submarine Base and ended in D.C. during the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial. There, we prayed and fasted three days while the American Catho-lic Bishops held their annual conference. The most important task they had, then, was to compose a faith-based response to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Today, other compelling issues demand our attention and our faith-based response.
When a national pollster called me Tuesday afternoon, I stopped in my tracks to try answering her endless questions. Though irritated by the interruption, I appre-ciated the opportunity to prepare myself for November’s elections. At one point, the caller listed a dozen or more critical challenges facing the people of California.
“Which of these issues,” she inquired, “Do you consider the most urgent?” “All of them,” I wanted to say. But I thought long and hard. What would you, my friends, consider the most important issues we face today? What are you going to do to make your voice, your position, known? Are you committed to make a difference?
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, who would have joined us today if he were in California, recently issued a pastoral letter concerning faithful citizenship. “As Catholics,” he wrote, “we are taught that part of being faithful is participating in political life, including voting. In every election, we are challenged to consider the moral dimensions of extremely important policy and budget issues. This year is certainly no exception. In this election, in addition to determining who will lead our nation for the next four years, Californians will decide the fate of eleven propositions in-cluding whether to repeal the use of the death penalty (Proposition 34). Proposi-tion 25 would tighten laws against human trafficking and sex slavery, and Propo-sition 30 will determine whether we will increase state revenues to better serve vulnerable populations such as children, families, and the elderly. All of these decisions are of crucial importance to the people of our state and Nation.”
Bishop Blaire continues: “the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience… Participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.” It involves, as religious leaders everywhere remind us, a way of life engaging us with the most crucial issues of our day, at all times and on every conceivable level. It means incarnating the Gospel.
As an American citizen who knew little of Latinos until his third-grade teacher brought enchiladas to class, I wish, on behalf of Bishop Blaire, our religious leaders and the people of faith in our beloved but troubled city, to thank all of you who are now fulfilling Cesar Chavez’s dream of faithful political engagement: ¡Si, se Puede!