Maria Elena Lucas, a farm worker and union organizer, found meaning in the everyday work of her people. She saw their hard lives as part of a larger struggle that included God ‘s plan for justice in this world. Nearly twenty years ago, she told her stories to me:
“It was not until my early years in Onaraga, (Illinois), when I started going through all those terrible things together with the other migrant people, that I knew that God was calling me in a special way. When we went through the wintertime and hunger and discrimination and everything altogether, I began to see people not like I would see my kids, my children, but different, and to see myself like God was telling me something. I don’t even know how to describe it. I began to see it like my obligation, my duty, like I was their sister, but more than their sister, like I had to do something on behalf of God.
“And I began to see people . . . like a suffering Christ. It seemed like Jesus, like the passion, like when he had been crucified. It was like I was seeing the crucifixion of God or Christ through their sufferings.
“It wasn’t just like this group of people here are having problems with the grower and we’re going to fight, it was more a sacred thing. I don’t know why I developed that feeling, but I remember exactly when it started. We were working out there together in the fields in the snow, and I was looking at the women and the men, and, somehow, I began to change. It was just like God was there, it was God I was seeing, and something was terribly wrong. I was very moved that I had to do something about it. I still feel that way. If I see something wrong, I say, ‘This is not what God wants. This is not the way it has to be.’ . . . Oh God, I loved those people in Onarga.
“It was like there was something holy between us. Sometimes we’d be out in the fields working on a beautiful day, and I’d look up and the sun is working, the bees are flying, some children are crying, others are laughing. I’d be with Gloria Chiquita and Comadre Lencha and Lucia, and people’d be picking tomatoes and putting them on their shoulders. I’d stop and look at them and say, ‘Don’t you feel something? Don’t you feel. . .like God is here?”. . . [Quotes from Forged Under the Sun: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas, edited by Fran Leeper Buss, 1993.]
Now Maria Elena is a disabled, 71-year-old. She lives on the Texas-Mexico border and is frightened of going outside because of drug violence, but she still carries that vision of justice for those who are oppressed. She believes her people’s suffering is similar to the crucifixion of Christ, and that we must act in reaction to that hardship. Today, all Maria Elena can do is sit in her tiny house and write, but she records her observations of the daily life experiences of the poorest of the poor.
Other peoples also saw their suffering as part of the crucifixion. El Salvador, in the 1960s and 1970s, lost 80,000 people to government violence that was backed up by the United States. In Progressive Catholic churches in El Salvador, survivors saw their torment as part of a long struggle to bring about a new order, the reign of God. A critical part of that reign would be justice for the poor. The people certainly didn’t wish for their martyrdom, but they also felt they had a sacred duty to continue their activism, and if it brought death, they’d die for their people. [See Anna Peterson, Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion: Progressive Catholicism in El Salvador’s Civil War, 1997.]
Today, most of us do not face such extreme situations. Many of us have comfortable lives, and we do not think a lot about being a part of a movement designed to promote hopes for a justice as dreamed of in the reign of God. Yet, such a meaning can provide the strength to carry on such a vision through defeat and exhaustion. That kind of vigor is essential for the political and spiritual battles we have to fight today. Maria Elena’s life can be a model for the rest of
s. Old age and disabilities do not stop her in her quest for goodness for the people she loves.