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Hundreds of Grassroots Leaders to Gather for Vatican-Sponsored Conference

By Aida Bustos

SAN DIEGO — Grassroots leaders working to improve their communities across the United States will gather in Modesto in a convening inspired by Pope Francis.

Around 600 are expected to attend the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements on Feb. 16-19. Among them are at least 25 bishops, including San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy, who will lead a contingent of local community organizers.

The convening is organized by the Vatican’s Department for Integral Human Development, in partnership with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Catholic Campaign for Human Development, PICO National Network and the California Catholic Conference.

It builds on three previous ones that took place in Rome, in October 2014 and November 2016, and in Bolivia, in July 2015. Those meetings focused on three themes: work, housing and land. In addition to these, the meeting in Modesto will tackle migration and racism.

Bishop McElroy explained that the term “popular movements” refers to the action of people who are poor and marginalized in society working together to attain justice and freedom.

“This is the action on behalf of justice which the Gospel speaks of as part of the saving message of Jesus Christ,” the bishop said. “It is the action to bring human dignity to every man and woman which the Church points to as the heart of its social teaching. And it is the search for liberty and justice for all which is at the center of the American experiment.”

He said the meeting in Modesto is significant because it brings together people of all faiths under the umbrella of Catholic social teaching that has been forged by Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis “to transform our world by empowering those who have little of this world’s goods or power.” 

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, will deliver a keynote address. As many as 30 leaders of international groups active in the World Meeting of Popular Movements are expected to attend.

Joseph Fleming, the National Catholic Engagement Coordinator for the PICO National Network, explained the purpose of the meeting. He said it was to create an opportunity for grassroots groups from across the United States to learn about one another’s work and to deepen bonds of collaboration; to equip them with the tools to work more effectively in their push for policy changes; and to foster deeper dialogue between social justice leaders and U.S. bishops.

The meeting, to be held at Central Catholic High School, opens the evening of Feb. 16 with a keynote address by Cardinal Turkson.  The next two days will be a mix of activities. There will be plenary sessions, where panelists will frame an issue and provide analysis. And there will be smaller group discussions where 30 leaders or so can share what they are doing in their community and the challenges they face as they pursue immigrant rights, environmental justice, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and a living wage, among other causes.

“These are opportunities for some thinking together,” Fleming said.

Bishop McElroy has been invited to speak on the issue of housing and work.

“I will be attending the meeting primarily to listen, to learn, and to pray with those seeking to transform our world in the light of the Gospel,” he said.

The San Diego contingent includes organizers from the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP), the local PICO affiliate; United Domestic Workers; Black Lives Matter; Employee Rights Center; two staff members from the diocese’s Social Ministry Office; and Father Neal Wilkinson, from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Barrio Logan.

SDOP, which represents 27 congregations and more than 70,000 families, organizes residents to work with a variety of organizations and local public leaders to improve the community’s quality of life.

Fleming said all the conversations at the meeting will be summarized in a report that will be shared with the U.S. bishops and the pope.

Kevin Malone, executive director of SDOP, knows intimately the power grassroots organizers can have and how long change can take. He and Father Emmet Farrell, who is now retired, spearheaded a community effort that took 10 years but led to the clean-up of a polluted neighborhood in National City and the construction of an affordable housing development.

More recently, a coalition of grassroots organizations, working with the City Council, succeeded in increasing the minimum wage in San Diego.

Bishop McElroy said he hopes the meeting “might be a catalyst for the Church in the United States to rededicate itself to the protection of the poor and the marginalized and to understand that on a very deep level the poor have much to teach us all.”

The U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements is not open to the public. But the plenary sessions will be livestreamed on the Web site popularmove ments.org, and parishes and individuals are encouraged to hold viewing sessions and then discuss how they can support the local causes that help the poor and marginalized.

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