By Hannah Esqueda
Image via Faith in the Valley
Fresno, Calif.–Faith leaders and community activists from Merced joined forces with congregations throughout the San Joaquin Valley this past weekend to help shine a spotlight on the economic, social and political inequality plaguing Valley cities.
The three-hour event was held in Fresno as part of the first official Faith in the Valley LIFT Forum and saw more than 1,500 people representing 115 congregations.
“We’re coming together from all over the Valley to recognize that we are one people with one fight,” said Arlette Flores, event co-chair and member of United Methodist Church in Merced.
Flores was one of several representatives from Merced to address the audience, speaking out on the injustices faced by many within the local community. Her words were echoed in signs carried into the forum by clergy members and faith leaders from across the Valley:
“Stop incarceration of our people!”
“One people one fight!”
“No to extraction!”
“Create good jobs!”
Messages promoting better access to health care, educational opportunities and minority representation among local government bodies also made an appearance but the key issue for many leaders was an end to the criminalization and incarceration of minority communities.
Clergy from local catholic, baptist and methodist churches were joined by Sikh and Muslim leaders carrying signs calling for changes within the criminal justice system.
“We were not put on this planet to simply be. We’re supposed to be the shakers and movers. He gave us the power to do something,” said Pastor DJ Criner of St. Rest Baptist Church in Fresno. “So I ask all of you here today, are you going to come and fight, or are you simply going to stand on the mountaintop and watch?”
Passionate testimony from 13-year-old Merced resident Jeremiah Castillo also helped put a face on the issue when he spoke to the crowd about the prolonged incarceration of his father.
“I’m here to talk about my dad who is incarcerated in Merced County Jail and he’s been there for about three and a half years now,” Castillo said. “When he was first arrested it hurt me greatly and deeply. I was depressed and I didn’t want to get out of bed or talk to anybody.”
Castillo shared how his father, who always played an active and supportive role in his life, has been kept away from him and his family as a result of current criminal laws.
“Why I’m here today is to make a change. A change to stop mass incarceration,” he said.
Castillo’s plea comes at an important time for the Merced community, as inmates in both the county jail and John Latorraca Correctional Facility are holding a hunger strike in protest of inhumane jail conditions. The strike formally began on Sept. 9 and local community activists and inmate families are participating in solidarity with the men and women at each facility.
The Merced hunger-strike movement found support at the LIFT Forum, and going forward Faith in the Valley leaders pledged to push for a shift in resources from local jails to prevention, education and jobs.
“We resolve for our cities to denounce programs like VIPER that focus on the surveillance of and targeting of black and brown youth, for our cities to adopt proven ceasefire violence intervention strategies and for our cities to improve trust between police and African-American, Latino and API communities,” said David Rice, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.
Faith in the Valley leaders also announced two other resolutions; to create tens of thousands of well-paid solar jobs over the next few years and support both immigration reform and Health for All programs.
“We are calling upon elected officials to support our resolutions and ignore special interest groups who would destroy families and our environment,” said Rabbi Rick Winer from Temple Beth Israel in Fresno. “We have the power to put people in our office who actually support our policies.”
While several Valley politicians attended the forum and pledged their support of the initiatives, Faith in The Valley leaders promised to pursue ballot measures if elected leaders fail to address job creation, criminalization of minority communities and health care access for all in the near future.
Merced County currently requires proposed measures to collect 3,779 voter signatures before qualifying for the ballot. Faith in the Valley and its Merced congregations have already been in touch with more than 13,000 local voters.
Going forward, Rabbi Winer said it will be up to Valley communities and people of faith to create the change they want to see.
“To make a change, we need to get our hands dirty in this work,” he said. “We need to uproot the corruption and start planting new seeds.”