Religious Leaders Support Workers with Vigil

Students of the Claremont Colleges, past and present Pomona dining hall workers and members of the local community gathered Feb. 22 for a vigil to support the 17 Pomona employees fired in December and to show solidarity for the unionization efforts ahead.    

The vigil was scheduled to coincide with Ash Wednesday. It began with a welcome by Reverend Karen Sapio from the local Claremont Presbyterian Church, followed by Bible readings from several Pomona students, Reverend Dr. David Cortes-Fuentes from the Emmanuel Hispanic Presbyterian Church in Claremont and Father Peter O’Reilly from the Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Claremont.    

The event ended with a ceremony to mark participants’ foreheads with ashes, which served as, “a pledge to work together despite difficulties, sometimes failure,” O’Reilly said. Participants also recited quotes from famous past labor organizers such as César Chávez.    

Erica Reiss PO ’13, a student volunteer for Workers for Justice (WFJ), praised the successful collaboration between the local clergy and WFJ.    

“There are a bunch of churches involved—a lot of religious leaders,” Reiss said. “The religious community from my experience has always supported human rights and helped out members of their congregation. It’s basically an organization, and that’s what we’re trying to do, trying to organize people to come together and stand up for what they believe is right. The religious leaders have been very supportive. They’re present at organizing meetings. They held a meeting in Claremont to plan out this whole event.”    

“The religious community supports Workers for Justice. It means a lot for us workers. Even though we’re fired, we still have support from all community members, students, other universities and churches,” said Juan Gonzalez, a former dining hall worker whose contract was terminated after 10 years of service to the school.    

“They show support, they’ve seen what the college is doing, and they think that it’s unethical and they just want to be on the side of justice and show support,”said Christian Torres, another fired worker. “This was a very good event, especially that it’s Ash Wednesday. It’s a time when people should be together, united. We’re showing the world that we’re united, no matter what religion we trust in or the color of our skin, we’re together no matter what.”    

The vigil was organized by Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a Los Angeles-based multifaith organization that partners with other organizations that supports workers.    

“I work with the religious community on issues of economic justice, issues of work and labor,” CLUE organizer Elizabeth Russell said. “We bring a lot of religious leaders together to do public events. This one in particular is about taking something sacred in the church and bringing it to the streets. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent and Lent is about raising ones consciousness, about seeing hope when things feel burdensome.”     

O’Reilly’s sermon also focused on the importance of looking to the future, despite whatever may have happened in the past. 

“Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of reflection on how we are living our lives,” O’Reilly said. “Our failures are summed up in the ashes. We learn, even in failure we learn. The workers here have helped us take on responsibility of seeking justice for those who do so much for us.”    

“This event lets us stand in solidarity with [the workers] and take this day to recognize that these are real people who are affected,” Reiss said.    

The vigil is one of two events in support of the workers this week. A rally will be held today at 3 p.m. at the Smith Campus Center.    

“Friday is going to be a teatro, street theater performance,” Reiss said. “It’s the trustee-faculty retreat weekend but they’re not coming to campus, so we’re going to have our own Board of Trustees meetings. The Board of Trustees made decisions that didn’t reflect what we want, so the performance is going to be a street-theatre performance of what we think the Board of Trustees meeting should look like, reclaiming the power for ourselves.”

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