Week 1: If Not Us, Who?
Read: Job 24
Some passages of Scripture just speak so immediately to our daily struggles. The words of Job 24 bring vivid memories to my mind.
They thrust the needy from the path
and force all the poor of the land into hiding.
I see countless tents, tarps, and shacks lining freeway underpasses—up one day, then disappeared the next, removed by cities desperate to keep up appearances instead of keeping up with justice and mercy. I see signs turning parking lots and stoplights across the country into hostile territory: “No Loitering,” “No Illegal Shopping Carts,” “No Panhandling.”
The poor go about their labor of foraging food;
the wasteland provides food for their children.
I see the anxious but deep and determined love of young parents I know—loving parents who will do anything to ensure their kids have food and shelter. Even when it means breaking some laws, even when it means swallowing their last shred of pride, even when it means risking their own safety, even when they’re forced to make choices no parent should have to make.
They gather fodder in the ﬁelds
and glean in the vineyards of the wicked.
I see the faces of friends I’ve lost to prison or early death because somewhere along the way they had to resort to “gleaning in the vineyards of the wicked” by shoplifting from Walmart. The draconian punishment for such crimes of survival sent their chances of life spiraling down the drain.
The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
I see hospital rooms where I’ve sat next to desolate young mothers as government workers pulled their newborns out of their arms. Because there is no access to healing and addiction recovery programs for poor people in most of this country. Because our government responds to homeless mothers by stealing their children instead of providing them with housing. Because empires have always preyed upon poor families, and our empire is no diﬀerent.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
I hear the anguished outbursts of so many sensitive, wise, complex people I know whose spirits have been callously trampled by violence. Economic violence has left them unsheltered and unprotected on the streets. Political violence has marked them as “criminal” because of poverty and disability. Social violence has turned them over to vigilantes who seek to “send a message” to other homeless people about their disposability.
But God drags away the mighty by his power;
though they become established, they have no assurance of life.
He may let them rest in a feeling of security,
but his eyes are on their ways.
For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone;
they are brought low and gathered up like all others.
I hear the righteous outrage and fragile hope of the poor. When someone with some leverage or a camera asks “What do you want people to know about what it’s like to be homeless?” the answer is clear: “Try walking a mile in our shoes. Try surviving like this even for a day. You’ll ﬁnd out you’re no better than us.”
Job 24 lays out so clearly that people are poor because systems have been set up to beneﬁt the few and exploit the many. But this passage also raises the big question: Why does God allow this to happen over and over again? From the days of Job to right now, why does God allow such suﬀering?
Every time we ask that question, God looks us right in the eyes and asks the same thing back: “Why do you, as my children, allow this to happen? Who among you will be willing to stand up for justice anew in each generation, before all the injustice gets so bad it takes everyone down? If not you, who?”
What do you think is God’s biggest, wildest dream for people living in poverty? For people living paycheck to paycheck? For people who are homeless? What would it take to make that dream come true? How might that dream coming true change the world?
Job 5:10–27. A man who has lost everything characterizes the many aspects of protection and security that God intends for all to have.
Giver of all life, give us the courage and tenacity to restore dignity where it has been stolen, fairness where there is exploitation, and compassion where there is cruelty. Your justice cannot roll unless we do. Amen.
Week 2: Is that What You Call a Fast?
Read: Isaiah 58
These verses in Isaiah suggest that some people want to know God’s ways but think they can do that at the same time that they have “forsaken the commands of . . . God.” This reminds me so much of the United States, where many constantly try to determine God’s motives, God’s character, and what God wants of our lives. Many people “seem eager for God to come near” us, like the verse says. But too often this is an individual pursuit, or a Sunday pursuit at best. We, too, think we can draw near to God without following God’s ordinances of justice.
I think about the actions one takes on a fast day, and what these verses in Isaiah say about what real fasting and prayer look like. When COVID-19 emerged, individuals took a lot of actions to try to ﬂatten the curve of the disease. But like the idea that individual fasting and prayer are the way to get close to God, individual action wasn’t enough. The Bible—from Deuteronomy to Isaiah to the words and actions of Jesus in the New Testament—suggests we need to pray and fast by connecting through collective action. In addition to individual actions, we need to change our social policies to match the “ordinance of God.” In our era, that means policies that create a more just and equitable society—one that is able to withstand pandemics and natural disasters.
Isaiah 58:5 also reminds me of the falsity of much prayer and fasting: those supposedly humble but actually ostentatious displays of piety that only serve the self-interest of those in power. God says, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
During the era of COVID-19, corporations were quicker to respond to the new reality than our government was. It didn’t take long for advertisements to talk about social distancing, thank our health care workers, or provide some motivational speech about how we’d “get through this together.” But these were the same companies that made billions from the crisis. Many are the very companies that have failed to pay essential workers livable wages or keep working conditions safe.
Individual actions in times of crisis, including prayer and fasting, are good and important. But we shouldn’t be asked to make these sacriﬁces alone, as individuals, with the false encouragement of corporations that claim to be humbling themselves but are actually oppressing their workers, evicting families from their homes, polluting the environment, profiting from health care, and paying off elected officials. This is not the kind of fast God chooses. Crises of poverty, racism, war, and environmental devastation might force us to make individual sacriﬁces—to bow our heads like reeds, in Isaiah’s words, and to pray and fast. But those sacriﬁces are not what God is asking for unless they also join us together, in a powerful collective movement to enact justice in our world.
These are projects of survival: actions that not only meet individual needs but ﬁght to repair the breaches in our society so that everyone’s needs are met. That is a true fast according to Isaiah, the fast that God chooses: collective action led by the poor “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.”
What are the “true fasts” in your community in the midst of crisis—the projects of survival that take care of individual needs while connecting us to collective action to change the structures of society and “repair the breach”?
2 Timothy 3. In Paul’s letter, he bids Timothy and us to hold on to Scripture and to recall true examples of faithful lives, describing falsity and deception lived by some others.
Lord, let us make a true fast for you: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free. Let us be the repairers of the breach in our broken society. Amen.
Week 3: Las Posadas
By: Kenia Torres-Alcocer
Read: Luke 2
I can still remember the planning of my ﬁrst Las Posadas celebration. Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration of the nativity. From December 16 to 24, we reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem, a story told in Luke 2.
Union de Vecinos is an organization in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, east of the Los Angeles River, called Boyle Heights. This community is predominantly made up of immigrants from Mexico. On First Street you have Mariachi Plaza, where you can hear music playing. On Cesar Chavez Avenue are the street vendors selling delicious tamales, nopales, avocados, and fruit. There are nine Catholic churches in a 6.5-mile radius.
As an organizer, I consider my job to be not only organizing people around the issues impacting them (housing, pedestrian safety, environmental issues) but also learning from them. As I knock on doors, I use these questions to guide me through a conversation: If you could change one thing in your neighborhood, what would it be? What is one thing you miss from your neighborhood back in your home country?
The answers to the ﬁrst question are expected: cleaner alleys, ﬁxed potholes, more lighting, safer streets and crosswalks, stop signs, trafﬁc lights, and habitable homes. The answers to the second question are more surprising, because they are so similar no matter where the person is from. They miss how on their block back home, people knew each other and would help each other out. The women on their block would all come out at the same time of day to sweep the street and gossip. They miss gathering with their neighbors on Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe to pray the rosary for those who have passed away. And they miss getting together to plan Las Posadas.
So at one of our planning meetings with Union de Vecinos, we discussed the following questions: What is Las Posadas? Who is Las Posadas for? Why do we celebrate it? What is the signiﬁcance of us celebrating Las Posadas here in this country? How do we see ourselves reﬂected in Las Posadas?
The answers to these questions were so simple, yet so profound. Las Posadas is for us. It is a reminder of the coming of baby Jesús and of how María and José traveled to give Jesús a better life. We want to celebrate Las Posadas here in this country so we can be connected to our traditions. Like María and José, we have all migrated to give our children a better life. Just like them, we ended up not in the castle but in a poor community.
Jesús was born in a stable with horses, sheep, and pigs; we are in homes with roaches, rats, and lead. But even in those conditions, Jesús receives gifts from the three kings: gold, incense, and myrrh. We too have new gifts that we want to celebrate. We have community, unity, and the victories accomplished throughout the year.
The ﬁrst Las Posadas procession is led by two children dressed up as María and José and carrying a baby. Along the route we stop at places where we are organizing, and people share a poem, a skit, or a testimony. Some tell stories of why they migrated, or about their landlord who refuses to ﬁx up their building, or about elected officials who don’t want to meet their demands. At each stop we sing “En el nombre del cielo os pido posada” (“In the name of the heavens we ask for refuge”). On the third stop we enter and there is food, a piñata for the children, candy, and music. This is a true celebration of the birth of a man who came to teach us how to save ourselves.
Las Posadas for Union de Vecinos has become a time for reﬂection and celebration. As immigrants, as tenants, and as the poor and dispossessed, we are not just looking for empty Christmas celebrations. We are seeking our God: the God of the poor. We are ﬁnding Jesus in ourselves and those who are with us in the struggle for a more just society.
Where would be some of the stops along your Las Posadas procession? Where are María, José, and Jesús today? How is God our refuge?
Deuteronomy 10:17– 20. This Scripture oﬀers a loving recollection of the God of the poor.
God, in the same way you guided María and José in their migration journey to Bethlehem, we ask you to guide the journeys of all migrants and refugees who are currently crossing borders to have a better life. Help us liberate ourselves from the tyrants who, like Herod, misuse their power and position to oppress us. Guide our movement to end poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, and the war economy. We ask you to give us the strength of María and José to embrace this task, for it is through your son, Jesucristo, that we learn to stand up to empire. Amen.
Week 4: Song of Revolutionary Mothers
By: Savina J. Martin
Read: Luke 1:46-56
Mary’s Song, also known as the Magniﬁcat and found in Luke 1, speaks of the spirit and the power of God. In this canticle, Mary speaks of how her soul magniﬁes the Lord and how God regarded the lowly maidservant. She informs us that generations to come will call her blessed.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeﬀer recognized the subversive nature of Mary’s Song. He spoke these words in a sermon during Advent in 1933: “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. . . . This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols.”
The government of Guatemala in the 1980s also recognized the subversive nature of Mary’s Song. The government found Mary’s proclamation—that God is especially concerned for the poor—to be so dangerous and revolutionary that it banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.
Among those who saw their own story and hope in Mary’s Song in the United States was Dottie Stevens, a revolutionary mother from East Boston and a longtime organizer of the poor. Dottie was married at age sixteen and decided to leave home, just as our beloved revolutionary sister Mary did. Facing ridicule as a young wife, she discovered a place to belong among the rank and ﬁle of the National Welfare Rights Union. She referred to her decision to join the movement as her political baptism.
Dottie passed away in June 2014 after a battle with cancer. She had been a ﬁghter, survivor, and organizer of the poor most of her life. Courageous in the face of poverty, she fought for many decades for the rights of the poor and dispossessed. She worked with and among many leaders across many fronts of struggle. She stood up to the state apparatus as she raised her ﬁst and banner against injustices done to the poor. Dottie was an artist, an activist, a musician who played the piano, and a mother and wife. She advocated for those who were unfairly treated, those who were let down and left out. She spoke at countless meetings and rallies all over the country for decades, shouting “Up and out poverty, now!”
Just like Mary, Dottie was speaking a song of her time and of the things to come. We know that the poor are blamed for their own poverty. The unhoused are demonized for being homeless, hungry, and in need of rest. And we know that we, the people, have the power to change the course of our lives, with justice and mercy on our side. Let us be reminded of the songs we sing as we build power and take control of our narrative. Let us be called to action in spirit and in truth, joining both the revolutionary mothers of old and those of our time, who sing their song like Mary did.
The Magniﬁcat is a song of salvation, with political, economic, and social dimensions that cannot be blunted. Dottie was an abuse survivor, a teenage wife, and a freedom ﬁghter for justice and mercy for the poor. Through her work on welfare rights, Dottie fought for mothers to be able to put food on the table and have heat and hot water during the winter months.
In her song, Mary speaks to the poor, the hungry, the homeless. People in every society hear the blessing in this canticle.
Why have the words of Mary been repressed throughout history? What in them is dangerous?
1 Samuel 2:1–10. This passage is known as Hannah’s Song. Like Hannah, we can pray out of our anguish and grief, deeply troubled, awaiting the birth of what we desire most: justice. Like Mary and like Hannah, we can also pray out of praise and conﬁdence. Knowing God is faithful to lift up the poor, we can be conﬁdent that justice will be born.
My soul gloriﬁes the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior! God, you know my pain and my plight. You scatter the proud. You bring rulers down from their thrones. But the hungry are ﬁlled with good things. The humble are lifted up. This promise from you, God, is written on my heart. Amen.
This is an excerpt from We Cry Justice chapters 40 and 42–44.