A Champion of Nobodies

Sunday, when I opened the LA Times, right on the lefthand column was my sermon title for today.  It was an article on the Afro-Columbians, living in a remote jungle of that nation.  These people live by subsisting on marginal gold panning.  They are people living in La Toma, a string of small villages in a most remote area of Columbia, populated by former slaves of African descent.

The article featured an activist, Francia Elena Marquez whose aim is to change “the economic model of death to an economic model of life.”  She is the champion of “the nobodies.”[1]

Francia is a single mother, a former live-in maid who escaped the poverty of that situation to become a community activist.  She was awarded a Nobel Prize for her battle against illegal gold mining.

Today she is improbably Columbia’s vice president, elected along with Gustavo Petro, an ex-urban guerilla fighter, the first leftist president of Columbia and its 50 million people.

It was her popularity with the young and with women who put that ticket over the top.  She’s the first person of African heritage to attain such prominence.  Never even held any office before this.  Walls throughout the land were emblazoned with her slogan, “Vivir sabroso” – live life to the fullest.

She and the new president take office in a period when Columbia is recovering from narco-violence, massive inequality and lawlessness.  In a land dominated by the white-mestizo male elite, she has battled sexism, classism, inequality and gender prejudice.

She has weathered death threats, political slander and racist taunts.  Yet she persisted.  She is now an international rock star.  No, she’s not a Communist revolutionary.  But a revolutionary, yes!

Only because of an aunt, did she find the funds for a school uniform, books and tuition to go beyond an elementary education.  Her mother had eleven children and absolutely no money.  Unlike many American children, she knew the sacrifice of another for her education. 

Her primary teacher recalls that Francia Elena was a very serious student, and very much an extravert.  “But I never thought that the Francia Elena who was my student would so quickly become vice president of the Republic of Columbia.”

As a teenager she joined neighbors protesting a plan to divert the Ovejas River to produce even more electricity by a dam that had flooded much of her community’s ancestral lands, a project that devastated traditional fishing grounds the people depended on.

Columbian authorities further awarded mining contracts to multinational corporations without any input from those living in the villages of the area, contrary to Columbian law.  She and her movement initiated lawsuits.  Lo and behold!  They won.  A major victory for the “nobodies.”

The situation got much worse when those same companies employed right-wing paramilitary goons and began killing locals panning for gold on what they considered their lands.  Soon bulldozers and backhoes moved in and began tearing up their beautiful river.

The river was now filling with mercury and cyanide and other toxic chemicals.  The operation led to massive deforestation.  Anyone interfering with this desecration was threatened with death.

It was at that point that Francia Elena recruited eighty black women, attired in their signature head turbans, the March of the Turbans, from over 300 miles away to march against the illegal activities of these companies. 

These women camped on the doorstep of the Interior Ministry until, three weeks later, authorities agreed to evict the illegal miners.  Again, score one for Francia Elena’s “nobodies.”

By then she was a single mother of two and receiving death threats.  For her safety she left for the big city, joining millions of the dispossessed from the land by violence and narco-terrorism, illegal mining and the gangs they employed.  She studied law.

Francia Elena has raised expectations of the “nobodies” all across Colombia, especially little girls.  One young girl in nursing school panning for gold one morning with her husband and three-year-old said, “We have learned a lot from Francia and from our ancestors.” 

If ever there was a contemporary to St. Francis, it is Francia Elena.  St. Francis is the saint of the “nobodies.” 

Listen to her testimony: “I am a part of the struggle against structural racism.”

“Among those women who raise their voices to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and wetlands.  Among those who dream that, one day, all human beings are going to change the economic model of death to an economic model of life.”[2]

She’s accused of inexperience, lack of knowledge.  Baloney!  She knows something the previous government NEVER knew – the people!  Their toil, their poverty, their lack of opportunity.  The same people St. Francis knew.

All of life is tied together in one marvelous, divine, holy web of life.  Besides our Lord, how do we have knowledge of God?  From creation, the creation that Francia Elena continues to fight for. 

The one psalm I learned as a child – remember, I had a terrible memory for this sort of thing – was Psalm 121, the opening. Of course, back then in the King James Version, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills — From whence comes my help?”

Psalm 19 was another one I did remember from Sunday school Bible drills.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

The splendors of nature are a door to the heart of God.  St. Francis knew this.  Brother Sun. Sister Moon – they testify to the goodness of the created order.  Early on I was fascinated by the vast panoply of the heavens.  In our community college I volunteered as the astronomy coach for Professor Bruff, hauling out our school’s telescope every Wednesday evening if there was half a chance of seeing through the dense muck of the Norwalk, California sky.  It was always a bit of a thrill to focus in on Saturn and its rings or Jupiter with its Great Red Spot, which is larger than our planet Earth.

When we lived out in the desert, serving at my first church assignment, most any evening one could look up into the sky and see it lit up with stars beyond imagining.  The desert sky was black as velvet filled with twinkling wonders once you got away from the light pollution of our small town.

I still remember friends — a mother and her three children — driving out to visit us from Los Angeles.  As soon as her van came to a stop, the side door slid open and out popped one of the boys.  He looked up into the night sky and gasped, “Wow, you don’t have much air out here,” as he beheld the majesty of the Milky Way overhead.

St. Francis was not only a champion of the “nobodies,” but of the entire created order.  It’s all connected.  Only later would I learn to more fully appreciate this wonderful saint.

I find I am doubly blessed to serve a parish named in his honor.

You want a picture of God?  Look at those who have a care for the least of these, activists like Francia Elena Marquez.  Look at those who have a care for creation like writer and activist Bill McKibben.  Like my friend Brian Ebersol, whom I would often see along the bike trail with his sack in hand, picking up the trash others had carelessly tossed.  Most any morning I would see him walking out there.  Champions of the “nobodies.”  Champions of creation.

As we bless the animals today, I recall to mind our beloved Skippy, the dog I grew up with.  Dad had gotten him to keep Mom company when he went off to fight in World War II.  She said that she could tie him to my baby carriage parked outside the store when she went in to buy some groceries, and that dog wouldn’t let anyone approach.  That was definitely another era.  Skippy was my champion.

For our animal friends and family, we give thanks, O Lord.  For the beauty of this blue-green earth, we give thanks and for the star-spangled heavens.  To the psalmist and most of all today, St. Francis, that wastrel who renounced all to bring the Church back to life – THANKS BE TO GOD!

Listen to a song inspired by the work of Francia Elena Marquez, sung by two girls in Columbia, Jinller Leany, 12, and Andrea Torres, 15:

I was born Black and my companion is the sun/To the rhythm of the marimba and first the drum/My name is African mixed with Spanish/I am proud of my race and I give thanks to God/Proud of my race and I give thanks to God/Black I was born, and Black I am.[3]

A blessed St. Francis day to us all.  Amen.

[1] Patrick J McDonnell, “She’s a Champion of the ‘Nobodies,’” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2022.

[2] Op cit.

[3] Ibid.

October 2, 2022, 17 Pentecost, Proper for St. Francis Feast Day,
Blessing of the Animals

“A Champion of Nobodies”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 121; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.