“You have to be out of the house by sunset. Find work someplace else.” Lorenzo was 34 years old. For 10 years he had worked the vineyards of a particular patrona or owner of a vineyard in southern Chile. He was married with four small children. That morning the patrona told Lorenzo that to meet the deadline to bring the crop to market, he would have to bring his wife and two children to the field to work. Lorenzo responded that his wife had other work and that his children would be at school. “That’s not my problem,” said the patrona. “If you want to keep working, bring them with you today or else be out of the house by sunset.”
Despite the county’s return to democracy, the countryside of rural Chile was still ruled by a patron system that existed for nearly a century and by laws imposed by a recent dictatorship that favored owners of land and stripped laborers of their rights. Workers lived on land and in houses owned by the growers and had limited resources over working conditions and salary. Most were day laborers who had jobs only during seasons of harvest. Conditioned by years of fear under a brutal dictatorship, and needing to support their families, most field workers accepted this contemporary form of slavery.
But Lorenzo, a man of deep faith and gospel values, was different. He believed Jesus’ words that he, Lorenzo, and his fellow day laborers were children of God with a God-given dignity. God would not abandon him, even in a system that enslaved him. He knew he was up against an unfair system backed by powerful forces, but he did not have to bend to it. He could choose to change it with small steps even if it meant a time of suffering for him and his family.
Jesus’ example of the mustard seed and yeast captured his imagination: God’s persistent love-energy at work in a mustard seed and a bit of yeast.
Lorenzo moved out of the house owned by the patrona, taking the vegetables he had grown in the small garden. He and his family lived in a neighbor’s shed for three months, moving bedding outside during the day and moving a table and chairs inside for meals. He found work as a janitor in the local school, and was eventually able to rent a small dwelling for his family.
At church gatherings and other village events, Lorenzo would speak of the need of some type of union to defend workers’ rights. He urged workers to organize a housing coop group to take advantage of a government program that would provide simple housing for groups who obtained land. After two years of bake sales, bingo events, dances, etc., the group was able to obtain a parcel of land to form a new neighborhood of houses with low-interest government mortgages.
After 30 years of fear, a group of day workers dared to form a union and pulled off a strike for better wages at a major vineyard. With each initiative, people felt deeper hope in God’s promise to guide and strengthen them in seeking their rights and dignity. God’s promises are not mere words. “You are great, and you do wondrous deeds … you give strength to your servant.” (Psalm 86)
As the people were growing in confidence, they were experiencing a life of living God’s Reign as a community of mutual support that could be a seed and collective yeast to transform unfair destructive practices and systems of their society. Their efforts were like the good wheat existing among the weeds of injustice and discrimination. Despite the evils of discrimination and inequality around them, they were sparks of light, determination, and courage. God was at work.
Lorenzo and his neighbors lived with a simple yet strong faith, trusting in the divine love — the energy of a mustard seed and yeast — and strengthened by the witness of Jesus enduring suffering in love-filled service to God’s rule.
We face enormous challenges of injustice in our society: discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, economic inequality, and ecological destruction, divisions stoked by fear, hatred, and lust for power. Understandably, we can feel powerless to make major changes. But drawing strength from our faith in God’s continual love-energy at work in our world, as subtle yet effective as a mustard seed that grows and yeast that expands, we can take small steps to act, wherever we are. We can act with what resources we have, and with whom we are near, to enhance, support and encourage sprouts of God’s rule of justice, solidarity, and community.
God calls us as God called Lorenzo: Don’t be paralyzed by evil; work with me as seeds of the Kingdom. Make it real by living it.
Ordained in 1964, Maryknoll Father Eugene Toland, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, has served in mission in Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile and Kenya.
Featured image: Women carry food through a mustard field in Sringar, India. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, says Jesus in a parable. (CNS photo/Danish Ismail, Reuters)