Faith leaders in the central San Joaquin Valley used a prayer vigil in downtown Fresno on Monday night as an opportunity to address a number of local issues – a challenge they say is in line with Pope Francis’ call for social justice.
Around 75 people gathered on the steps of St. John’s Cathedral for the interfaith candlelight prayer vigil led by the Diocese of Fresno and Faith in Community that came the day before Pope Francis’ arrival in Washington, D.C.
Sudarshan Kapoor, who teaches peace-building at Fresno State and whose home doubles as a Valley meditation center for Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization, said the pope is on a mission to achieve a “just, peaceful and sustainable world.”
“It is not his mission alone. It is our mission, also, regardless of our different faith affiliation,” Kapoor said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are Hindu or Christian or Muslim or a Buddhist, we are all in the same boat together. He has a very powerful message and that message has no boundaries. His love, compassion and concern is unlimited. He’s very inclusive. His message is very universal and comes right from the heart.”
The pope plans to remain on the East Coast through Sunday before returning to Rome. His packed schedule includes addresses before Congress and the United Nations, a meeting with President Barack Obama, and the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, founder of California’s Spanish missions.
His message is very universal and comes right from the heart.
A number of central San Joaquin Valley clergy and families are traveling east for the pope’s historic visit, including Bishop Armando Ochoa.
“Our Holy Father Pope Francis is indeed a spiritual father of all souls who leads us to reflect and respond to one another through the eyes of justice,” Ochoa said. “One who loves goodness and strives to protect it in all aspects of creation and one who walks humbly with God.
“May our time of prayerful anticipation, especially this evening, help cultivate an openness to his message, the message he shares in word and in example. May we listen with the ears of our hearts very carefully so we may run the good race to make a difference in our common home now and for generations to come.”
Maria Arroyo, 30, of Fresno was one of many who attended the vigil in eager anticipation of the pope’s arrival in the U.S.
“We can change the world if we start with our own self and be a good person,” Arroyo said. “He’s inspired me to have hope and faith and love God.”
Pastor B.T. Lewis II of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno said it’s important to follow the pope’s lead in working to stop the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – the “casualty of capitalism.”
We want to join him in raising our consciousness about the poverty that lives right next to us.
Pastor B.T. Lewis II
“We want to join him in raising our consciousness about the poverty that lives right next to us,” Lewis said. “We want to begin to be more aware and more vigilant about those that are in our immediate communities that suffer because they don’t have as much as others. The economy of exclusion also reaches into the area of immigration because we have people that are excluded – they are forced to hide in the shadows of one of the greatest nations that has ever lived.”
Pastor D.J. Criner of Saint Rest Baptist Church in southwest Fresno repeated the words “we weep” for things like Fresno’s concentrated poverty, pollution, slumlords, immigrants treated as “second-class” citizens, and a 20-year difference in life expectancy between residents of southwest Fresno and northeast Fresno, although the communities lie but 10 miles from each other.
Criner also called out government leaders, saying, “We weep for City Hall that continues to fall short in its enforcement of those inhumane conditions.”
Pastor Chris Breedlove of Community United Church of Christ in northeast Fresno thanked Pope Francis for his “bold, prophetic voice” and for his encyclical about “caring for our creation.”
It’s encouragement for all of us to stand in that same bold, prophetic tradition to find our individual voices to call for peace and justice.
Pastor Chris Breedlove
“It’s encouragement for all of us to stand in that same bold, prophetic tradition to find our individual voices to call for peace and justice,” he said.
Breedlove said the last census count listed Fresno with a 28.9 percent poverty rate and that “we should call out that unsavory truth and ask our elected officials and ask our community leaders to be vigilant in changing and stemming runaway economic inequality in Fresno.”
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno in northeast Fresno, talked about how the pope has addressed the need to help those fleeing war and harsh conditions in places like Syria and Iraq.
“We may think of migration from a lot of different angles, but many times migrants do not become so in a peaceful or willing manner,” Nekumanesh said. “Rather, they begin as refugees because they have been forced to flee their homelands by the evils of war and the evils of economic inequality and the evils of social injustice.”
Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel in northwest Fresno said Pope Francis is helping bring people together.
“May Pope Francis’ worldwide message communicate what many of us here in Fresno already know: That when we come together as interfaith partners, we can move mountains in the pursuit of justice for our world and all of its inhabitants,” Winer said. “We pray that the mission of Pope Francis will continue to successfully lift up the downtrodden, heal our environment and strengthen a oneness of people working together in love and harmony.”
Watch from the Valley
Bishop Armando Ochoa says people can tune in to KNXT Catholic Television for live broadcasting and online streaming of the pope’s visit. It will be rebroadcast the following week. St. Anthony Retreat Center, 43816 Sierra Drive, Three Rivers, is also hosting “listening gatherings” to watch rebroadcasts of Pope Francis at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.