Faith in the Life of César Chávez, Part II: Catholic Social Teachings and Revolutionary Non-Violence

Profe's Note:  This week's post is part II of a two-part series on faith in the life of Chicano civil rights leader, César Chávez.  To read more about the role of "Abuelita Theology" in the spiritual formation of Chávez, check out last week's post:

Chávez and Catholic Social Teaching

It was in the city of Saint Joseph that Chávez was introduced to the formal theology of social justice under the mentorship of white Roman Catholic clergyman Father Donald McDonnell.[1]   The two met in a parish church in the barrio of Sal Si Puedes, and McDonnell was one of four priests comprising the “Spanish Mission Band” which was assigned to ministry among Mexican rural communities such as San José and Stockton.[2]  In an interesting side note, Chávez met Dolores Huerta, another key figure in the farmworkers’ struggle, through the work of the Mission Band in Stockton.[3]

Seeing his leadership potential, McDonnell took Chávez under his wing and  introduced him to labor history, community organizing, and the social teachings of the Catholic church.[4]   In the words of Chávez:

“I began to spend a lot of time with Father McDonnell. We had long talks about farm workers.  I knew a lot about the work, but I didn’t know anything about the economics…And then we did a lot of reading.  That’s when I started reading the Encyclicals, St. Francis, and Gandhi and having the case for attaining social justice explained.”[5]

Chávez was especially influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which discussed the moral duties owed by capital to labor.[6]  According to papal teaching in Rerum Novarum, employers possess a moral obligation to pay their workers wages which are sufficient to sustain the livelihood of their families.[7]  Moreover, this encyclical upholds the right of workers to form trade union associations and to go on strike.[8]   In powerful assertion of God’s love and concern for the poor and marginalized, Pope Leo XIII asserts in Rerum Novarum:

“God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor "blessed"; He lovingly invites those in labor and grief to come to Him for solace; and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed.”[9]

Following his formative spiritual training with Father McDonnell, Chávez went to work as a community organizer with the Community Service Organization (CSO).[10]  The CSO was founded in Boyle Heights in 1948 by Edward Roybal (the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council in the 20th century), Fred Ross, and Mexican American veterans.  The CSO created a movement against discrimination in housing, employment, and education, and sought to build a political power base for the Mexican American community in California.  Through his work with the CSO, Chávez became immersed in the world of politics and community organizing, and also received mentorship by veteran labor organizers Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky.  Chávez organized CSO chapters in small towns and barrios throughout California, led citizenship classes and voter registration campaigns, and served as a lobbyist for Mexican American issues in Sacramento.  He served ten years as a community organizer among Mexican American urban populations in California (Garcia 2007, 9), and eventually rose to the rank of national director of the CSO.[11]

Faith, Struggle, and Non-violence in the Farmworkers Movement

In 1962, Chávez quit his post with the CSO to pursue his dream of organizing Mexican farm workers.[12]   With little funding and few supporters, Chávez, together with Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and cousin Manuel Chávez,  launched the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in the San Joaquin Valley.[13]  The NFWA functioned largely as a mutual aid association, as opposed to a traditional union, sponsoring burial insurance, a credit union, a gas station, and a grocery store.[14]  Chávez recruited new members for the NFWA on a grass roots level by going house to house and speaking to small groups of workers.[15]  The house meeting strategy eased the fears of farmworkers because it allowed them to plan and organize outside of the purview of growers who might otherwise retaliate against them.  In order to join, members were required to pay dues of $3.50 each month.[16]  This fostered a sense of commitment and ownership, as well as allowed the NFWA to remain independent and non-beholden to outside interests.

In 1965, the fledgling organization was asked by Larry Itliong and other Filipino leaders of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to participate in a strike against the major grape growers of the Central Valley.[17]  On Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1965, Chávez and the NFWA voted unanimously to join the grape strike.  As a natural outflow of their collaboration in the grape strike, the NFWA and the AWOC merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee on August 22, 1966.[18]  The strike was to last five years and resulted in the first successful organizing of agricultural workers in U.S. history.[19]   It also catapulted Chávez into international acclaim.  In a strange twist of irony, Chávez did not even start the very strike which made him famous.  Perhaps God was keeping Chávez humble and showing him that his success did not originate in his own efforts but came from God alone.

The central role played by Christian faith in the life of Chávez and the farmworkers struggle is often overlooked.  The radical uniqueness of the United Farmworkers movement was in fact its creative fusion of popular Mexican Catholicism, traditional Catholic social teachings, and Alinsky-based community organizing methods.  In the words of noted Chicano historian Mario García, “[I]t was César’s faith more than anything else that provided the strength for his long and arduous struggles.  His movement of farm workers was first and foremost a faith-based movement because César understood the power of faith.”[20]  Chávez was open and direct about the critical role of faith in his union organizing efforts:

“Today I don't think I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine.  I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me.  For me, the base must be faith…While most people drawn toward liberalism or radicalism leave the church, I went the other way.  I drew closer to the church the more I learned and understood.”[21]


The UFW fused popular Mexican religious symbols and practices such as La Virgen de Guadalupe, “peregrinación” (pilgrimage), and fasting, with Catholic social teaching.  This religious praxis is most clearly embodied in the famous march to Sacramento, as well as in Chavez’s 25-day fast of 1968.

In March 1966, the farmworker movement garnered national attention as part of a famous 250-mile, twenty-five day march from Delano to Sacramento.[22]  Unknown to many, however, Chávez fashioned this famous march from the Central Valley to Sacramento as a penitential pilgrimage, or “peregrinación.”   Drawing from popular Mexican religious tradition, he called the march, “Penitence, Pilgrimage, and Revolution.”[23]   According to Catholic tradition, penitence is a spiritual practice by which participants atone for their post-baptismal sins.   Pilgrimage, moreover, is a spiritual practice through which pilgrims acquire merit before God.  Chávez viewed the Sacramento march in terms of this Mexican, Catholic spiritual tradition:

“The penitential procession is also in the blood of the

Mexican American, and the Delano march [1966] will therefore be one of penance—public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own

personal sins as well their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred

and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set

themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause

will be purified of all lesser motivation.”[24]

In further religious significance, the penitential pilgrimage was led by a priest in full clerical garb and a banner of La Virgen de Guadalupe.[25]  Chávez and his followers arrived in Sacramento on Easter, and concluded their pilgrimage with the celebration of mass.[26]

By 1968, some union members turned to violence in response to physical attacks on the part of the growers and a perceived lack of progress.[27]  Demoralized workers threw nails on roads to flatten the tires of growers and the police, blew up irrigation pumps, and even burned down packing sheds full of grapes.  In response, on February 15, 1968, Chávez embarked upon a 25-day fast in order to “bring the Movement to a halt, do something that would force them and me to deal with the whole question of violence and ourselves.”[28]  The fast was aimed at reinforcing the UFW commitment to nonviolence, and it marked the second special turning point in the farm workers struggle.

For Chávez, fasting was a spiritual exercise and a form of penance for his own sins as well as those of his supporters.[29]   It was not a “hunger strike” aimed at accomplishing a political goal or forcing his adversaries to submit to his demands.  Through fasting, he sought God’s divine intervention in “la causa” (the cause) and sought to purify himself and the farmworkers movement from sin and the temptation to appropriate violence.  In fact, during each day of the strike, Chávez celebrated mass and received communion.[30]   Such celebrations of mass were common throughout the strike and have been called “liturgies of protest.”[31]  Speaking of the Christian underpinnings of his 1968 fast, Chávez stated:

“My fast is informed by my religious faith and by my deep roots in the Church. It is not intended as pressure on anyone but only is an expression of my own deep feelings and my own need to do penance and to be in prayer.”[32]

“I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multiple of simple deeds of justice, carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world.”[33]

Chávez was misunderstood by many in the movement who viewed his fasting as heavenly “pie in the sky.”  He received vehement critique from Tony Orendain, secretary treasurer of the Union, as well as by supporters of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation and other union progressives.[34]  UFW attorney Jerry Cohen reflected honestly upon the liberal conundrum of purporting to support religious freedom, while at the same time denouncing religious expression as part of the farmworkers struggle:  “It’s strange how some people react who profess to believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  They tolerate anything except religion.  A lot of liberals and radicals were pissed.”[35]

According to Dolores Huerta, Chávez viewed prayer and fasting as the keys to the success of the grape strike and the larger farm worker struggle:

“I know it’s hard for people who are not Mexican to understand, but this is part of the Mexican culture—the penance, the whole idea of suffering for something, of self-inflicted punishment.  It’s a tradition of very long standing.  In fact, César has often mentioned in speeches that we will not win through violence, we will win through fasting and prayer.”[36]

In the end, Chávez was vindicated.  His fast engendered a critical turning point in the movement and, in the words of one observer:  “The irony of the fast was that it turned out to be the greatest organizing tool in the history of the labor movement...”[37]  According to Chávez, the results were “like a miracle” because “the work schedule began to pick up, dedication increased, and the whole question of using violence ended immediately.”[38]  The grape boycott expanded internationally, and the union even received a $50,000 donation for the purchase of a new building.  Bringing crucifixes and altars to La Virgen de Guadalupe, thousands of farmworkers visited Chávez at the Forty Acres headquarters in Delano, and even established a tent city.[39]  In religious solidarity, moreover, Chávez and his many supporters celebrated mass together on a daily basis.  The services were led by priests donning vestments made of union flags, and Holy Eucharist was celebrated with union wine and tortillas.

The fast garnered wide attention in the national media.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram of support just one month before his assassination, and Chávez was also famously visited by Senator Robert Kennedy who was then a presidential candidate.   On March 11, 1968, with Kennedy by his side, Chávez broke his fast with the celebration of mass on the back of a flatbed truck.[40]

Chavez’s firm belief in non-violence flowed centrally from his Christian convictions.  These convictions were shaped most directly by the “abuelita theology” of his youth, Catholic social teachings, and the historical examples of St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.[41]  For Chávez, non-violence was not the same as passivity, but involved the employment of peaceful, strategic methods such as boycotts, strikes, pilgrimages, prayer, and fasting:  “People equate nonviolence with inaction—with not doing anything—and its not that at all.  It’s exactly the opposite.”[42]  Chávez referred to this approach as “militant nonviolence” and Gandhian “moral jujitsu.”[43]  According to Chávez, moreover, the utilization of violence was ineffective because the growers wielded greater physical power through  local police forces.  Simply put, the growers would always win a violent standoff because they had the police on their side.  To draw a biblical analogy, challenging the growers to a battle of physical force would be akin to the fledgling early Christian church waging direct war with Rome and Caesar’s mighty army.

César’s mother communicated to him the wisdom of non-violence through “dichos,” or Mexican folk sayings.  These dichos challenged the logic of machísmo and echoed Jesus’ admonitions to love your enemy and “turn the other cheek.”  According to Chávez,

“She taught her children to reject that part of a culture which too often tells its young men that you’re not a man if you don’t fight back. She would say, ‘No, its best to turn the other cheek.  God gave you senses like eyes and mind and tongue and you can get out of anything.  It takes two to fight and one can’t do it alone.’”[44]

Chávez also looked to history in search of successful role models of non-violent activism.  Drawing from his Catholic background, he found inspiration in the story of Moses and the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt, as well as in the life of Christ and the Roman persecution of the early church.  Gandhi was also a central inspiration:

“Some great nonviolent successes have been achieved in history.  Moses is about the best example, and the first one.  Christ is also a beautiful example, as is the way Christians overcame tyranny.  They needed over three hundred years, but they did it.  The most recent example is Gandhi. To me that’s the most beautiful one. We can examine it more closely because it happened during our lifetime.”[45]

It is conceivable that Chávez viewed farmworkers as modern day Israelites who were being oppressed by the “Egypt” of his day--growers, police, and local political officials.  Drawing another parallel to the experience of Jesus and the early church, perhaps he also viewed the growers as the Roman empire which violently oppressed the first century Jewish community.

Echoing the teachings of Jesus and the “dichos” of his early upbringing, Chávez viewed suffering, sacrifice, and love of enemy as the path to farmworker liberation.   Although Chávez claimed that love of enemies was a key principal of non-violent resistance, he was honest in his assessment that this was difficult to embody:

“Love is the most important ingredient in nonviolent work—love the opponent—but we really haven’t learned yet how to love the growers. I think we’ve learned how not to hate them, and maybe love comes in stages.”[46]

Central to Chavez’s practice of nonviolence were the beliefs that God was on the side of the farmworkers and that Jesus was the source of justice.  The idea of God’s special concern for agricultural workers is supported poignantly in the book of James:

“4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.”  James 5: 4-6 (NRSV)

Because God had heard the cries of the farmworkers, moreover, victory in the grape boycott would come ultimately by the hand of God.   It would not be the result of human efforts, no matter how strategic.   In the words of César:

“The only justice is Christ—God’s justice.  We’re the victims of a lot of shenanigans by the courts but ultimately, down the line, real justice comes.  It does not come from the courts, but it comes from a set of circumstances and I think God’s hand is in it.  God tends to write very straight with crooked lines.”[47]

Although Chávez is often cited as an icon of cultural nationalism in Chicana/o Studies, like King, he subscribed to a notion of community which transcended racial and denominational boundaries.[48]   Using the language of King, his vision was the “beloved community” of people of all nations, languages, and tongues (Revelation 7: 9-10; Galatians 3: 28-29).[49]  In simple, poignant words, Chávez asserted that the goal of his movement was to help all of humanity, regardless of racial affiliation.  Chávez opposed the extreme cultural nationalism which characterized some of the Chicano movement, and rejected narrow nationalism as racist and divisive:

“La Raza? Why be racist. Our belief is to help everyone, not just one race. Humanity is our belief.”[50]

“[W]e oppose some of this La Raza business so much. We know what it does. When La Raza means or implies racism, we don’t support it. But if it means our struggle, our dignity, our cultural roots then we’re for it.”[51]

It is also worth noting that Chávez, like King, embraced Christian ecumenism.  Although a devout Roman Catholic, Chávez partnered with both the Pentecostal community and the Protestant California Migrant Ministry.[52]  Under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, and the leadership of Presbyterian pastor Chris Hartmire, the CMM worked closely with the UFW and served as a catalyst for the recruitment of Protestant church support. [53]  Chávez met Chris Hartmire and the CMM through organizers Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky.[54]  The CMM underwrote many actions of the UFW and even developed a persuasive “huelga theology” to counter the protests of conservative critics.[55]  In fact, many Protestants supported La Causa not only financially and theologically, but also by serving in picket lines and boycotts, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, and by documenting the violence of growers against the UFW.[56]  CMM support of the UFW was not without a political cost, however, and the CMM faced strong opposition by Protestant growers, as well as by conservative forces within the Presbyterian denomination.[57] Drawing upon his interdenominational Christian experiences, Chávez redefined the Christian church in broad, ecumenical terms.  He also strongly asserted that the Church should play a vital role all justice movements:

“[W]hen we refer to the Church we should define the word a little. We mean the whole Church, the Church as an ecumenical body spread around the world, and not just its particular form in a parish in a local community…That Church is one form of the Presence of God on earth, and so naturally it is powerful.  It is a powerful moral and spiritual force which cannot be ignored by any movement.”[58]

In the love and transformative non-violence of Jesús, César Chávez, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Robert Chao Romero

P.S., are you interested in getting involved in a powerful Christian movement of love and non-violence on behalf of the immigrant community in Los Angeles and the broader United States?  Get involved with the new Sanctuary Movement, a.k.a., the Matthew 25 Movement!  For those in L.A., we'll be having a training on the Matthew 25 Movement on December 18 in Little Tokyo:

Please stay connected!



 [1] León, The Political Spirituality, 46-47.

[2] Griswold Del Castillo, A Triumph of Spirit; Dalton, The Moral Vision, 48-49.

[3] Dalton, The Moral Vision, 49.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Rerum Novarum. On Capital and Labor Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, May 15, 1891,” Papal Encyclicals Online, accessed September 29, 2016,

[8] Dalton, The Moral Vision, 49.

[9] “Rerum Novarum.”

[10] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 9.

[11] Ibid., 9; Dalton, The Moral Vision, 7.

[12] Dalton, The Moral Vision, 8.

[13] Ibid., 8; García, Gospel of César Chávez, 11; Dan La Botz, César Chávez and la Causa (New York:  Pearson, 2006), 47.

[14] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 11.

[15] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 162; La Botz, César Chávez, 46,49-50.

[16] La Botz, César Chávez, 47.

[17] Ibid., 53.  To learn more about the important role of Filipino farmworkers in the UFW, see, the recent documentary, “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farmworkers.” Accessed, October 3, 2016,


[18] “La Huelga Continues,” UFW History, United Farm Workers, accessed September 29, 2016,  In 1972 the union became part of the AFL-CIO and changed its name to the United Farmworkers Union. Roger Bruns, César Chávez:  A Biography (Westport:  Greenwood Press, 2005), xiv.

[19] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 1,12.

[20] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 31.

[21] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 27.

[22] Griswold Del Castillo, A Triumph of Spirit, 51.

[23] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 12,16.

[24] Ibid., 96-97.

[25] León, The Political Spirituality, 24.

[26] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 95.

[27] La Botz, César Chávez, 92-93.

[28] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 272, 277.

[29] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 103.

[30] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 275.

[31] León, The Political Spirituality, 129.

[32] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 110.

[33] Ibid., 103-104.

[34] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 277.

[35] Ibid., 282.

[36] Ibid., 277.

[37] Ibid., 95.

[38] Ibid., 275.

[39] Roger Bruns, César Chávez, xiii; La Botz, César Chávez, 94.

[40] Griswold del Castillo, A Triumph of Spirit, 86; La Botz, César Chávez, 95.

[41] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 63-64; José-Antonio Orosco, César Chávez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 24.

[42] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 65.

[43] Ibid., 63-64.

[44] Orosco, Common Sense of Nonviolence, 24.

[45] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 270,271.

[46] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 116.

[47] Ibid., 31,32.

[48] Ibid., 16.

[49] For more on King’s notion of the “beloved community,” see, Hak Joon Lee, We Will Get to the Promised Land:  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Communal-Political Spirituality (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006).

[50] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 131.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., 135-136.

[53] Ronald A. Wells, “César Chávez’s Protestant Allies:  The California Migrant Ministry and the Farmworkers,” Journal of Presbyterian History

(Spring/Summer 2009), 5-16, accessed September 29, 2016,; León, The Political Spirituality, 127-128.

[54] Levy, Autobiography of La Causa, 162.

[55] León, The Political Spirituality, 128.

[56] Wells, “César Chávez’s Protestant Allies.”

[57] Ibid., 11-13.

[58] García, Gospel of César Chávez, 46.