Juan Marquez was on a mission. The 45-year-old USC food-service worker had been on it for four years, ever since the workers‘ union contract lapsed and Marquez and his 350 fellow employees began petitioning management for a new one that would include stronger guarantees of job security, something USC officials balked at and finally granted this past Monday. Marquez says the protracted contract battle had proved frustrating, but he also says that it was greatly enlarged by the very public support of local clergy; in the last several years, those who have joined the workers’ cause include rabbis, priests and ministers who hail not only from the USC area, but from much more affluent corners of the county. The rank and file was more than encouraged. “When the clerical people come and speak for us, we get more respect and we feel we make progress at the bargaining table,” says Marquez, a Salvadoran native whose greatest personal hero is his countryman Archbishop Oscar Romero, a renowned Catholic priest who agitated for the poor. “It gives us more certainty. You know you‘re doing the right thing.”

Conscience is apparently catching. All over town, religion and labor have been rapidly coming together and giving a resonant, often militant, voice to those who have never had it — the poor, largely immigrant and Latino, work force toiling at the bottom of L.A.’s economic food chain. As the last decade saw the rich get richer and the working class poorer, religious leaders on the whole busied themselves with deploring the lack of family values, or said nothing at all, and in any case barely addressed the social inequity that was growing at an alarming rate. Now, the new face of poverty has grown impossible to ignore, especially in L.A.; taking the lead of passionate new union leaders, such as Maria Elena Durazo at the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11, clerics of all faiths are rediscovering an activist spirit that is increasingly allied against a common enemy: economic oppression. Working closely with local chapters of unions such as HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), religious leaders are carving out new roles for themselves on the labor scene — as advisers, negotiators, spiritual touchstones. “In the last three years, no matter where they landed politically, a lot of clergy started asking themselves, ‘What’s happening here?‘” says Dick Gillett, an Episcopal priest and the local diocese’s minister for social justice. “The economy was booming, but there‘s this tremendous gap between rich and poor, a gap that really registers here. It doesn’t take a political radical to know that something was terribly wrong.”

Gillett is an executive-board member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a group that began three years ago to give formal shape to the new faith-labor connection. CLUE was involved in the campaign for a city living-wage ordinance, which drew the support of many clergy who realized, after that battle was over, that the war on poverty was hardly won. Formed chiefly by the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church, and retired Rabbi Leonard Beerman, CLUE has put religious leaders squarely on the frontlines of subsequent living-wage fights, including the USC contract standoff, the efforts (successful thus far) to unionize hotel workers in downtown, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, as well as the effort to unionize low-paid airport workers: An LAX march and rally last May drew some 200 clergy, many of whom are affiliated with CLUE. In August, more than 130 local and national clergy signed a “David and Goliath” statement that decried USC‘s anti-worker Goliath stance, and staged a protest in which some got arrested in clerical garb. In the bottom-line ’90s, clergy are filling a unique space between principle and action for both employers and employees; their advocacy — including fasts, prayers, marches and protests — is lending a moral urgency to proceedings that both employer and employee find irrefutable. Clerics in South and Central L.A., where most affected workers live and worship, say that urgency is increasingly stirred by their own congregants. “I would always think, ‘How can I make a difference?’ Logistically, it‘s hard for me to leave my church too long,” says Altagracia Perez, a veteran of the USC wars who pastors a small Episcopal church near San Pedro Street and Adams Boulevard. “But the USC fight works for me geographically. I see that the workers are encouraged, inspired, strengthened [by the clergy involvement]. But if I were at a church in a middle-class suburb, I’d have the same concerns about what‘s going on down here. It’s important to see the connections wherever you are.”

CLUE staffer Linda Lotz says the group is a timely melding of “spirit and socialism,” of religious and political compassion that is reflected in the organization‘s founding theological statement. The statement liberally cites constitutional principles of liberty and justice for all, declares that a nation must be measured by how decently or indecently it treats its most vulnerable population, and warns against the evils of perpetuating “economic slavery.” For Lawson, a protege of Martin Luther King Jr. and chair of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in ‘68, CLUE is a direct descendant of King’s poor people‘s campaign, which linked racism to economics and regarded the battle for economic equality as nothing less than holy. Lawson is optimistic now but still harshly critical of America’s political community — including unions — which essentially dropped the battle from its agenda after King died. “CLUE is a symbol of our nation‘s failure to address the needs of ordinary people,” he said dryly at the organization’s recent annual breakfast. “Our churches, synagogues and other places of worship have been far too silent for too long. But we‘re at a new juncture in the labor movement. I found out during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., that CLUE has become a national model for other efforts. We have the most activist unions here now. L.A.’s on the cutting edge.”

A subset of the labor-faith coalition is the Jewish-Latino alliance, which strengthens as Jews reconnect with certain activist traditions and Latinos make up more and more of the city‘s exploited, working-class poor. Three years ago, the Los Angeles Jewish Sweatshop Commission, chaired by Leonard Beerman, formed in response to sweatshop conditions in L.A., including those at the Guess? clothing company. Several rabbis confounded the owners of the swank Summit Rodeo Hotel in Beverly Hills last year when they participated in protests against the owner’s refusal to sign a union contract with its largely Latino work force. One of the city‘s chief clerical agitators is Aaron Kriegel, a San Fernando Valley rabbi of a Conservative temple — a bit of a break from a Jewish activist tradition that tends to be more secular than religious. But Rick Chertoff, former head of the local chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee and currently a consultant for HERE’s Local 11, believes that the importance of an inflamed conscience, from the story of Moses on down, is central to the Jewish ethos, and “therefore alliances with oppressed groups are inevitable. That‘s how you integrate God with the community.” Altagracia Perez agrees, noting that in the process of integrating faith with action, members of various clergy are also integrating themselves. “This is really an opportunity to work ecumenically with people of other beliefs,” she says. “It’s radically different from just having breakfasts and talking with each other.”

Another labor battle that looks to have heavy clerical involvement — and which reeks with the greatest irony — is the ongoing unionization effort of health-care workers at three local Catholic-run hospitals, managed by a group of nine nuns‘ orders called Catholic Healthcare West. The SEIU has been fighting vigorously on the workers’ behalf for two years, but nothing terribly significant happened until Cardinal Roger Mahony brokered a meeting this summer between representatives of workers and management. SEIU spokeswoman Lisa Hubbard says the union is hopeful that the meeting will persuade Catholic Healthcare West to drop its union-busting tactics and allow workers to hold union elections freely. The situation puts the church at odds with its own activist past and its own teachings, both of which are clearly pro-labor — the farm workers‘ cause comes to mind — though it also puts it at odds with its considerable wealth and corporate interests. Hubbard and others are betting that the David, rather than the Goliath, tendencies will win out here. “We got to Mahony through a program called ’Labor in the Pulpit,‘ where hospital employees just stood up in church and told their stories,” says Hubbard. “It upped the ante. It’s one thing to say you believe in worker rights and dignity, but practice is another thing.”

Food-service worker Juan Marquez knows the power of that practice. So does the Rev. James Lawson, who also knows the corrupting power of words that never make it into practice — faith without works, which to him is no faith at all. But he‘s seen all the scenarios and consequently doesn’t worry about any. “There‘s a myth that the church was very involved in social justice back in the ’60s,” he says. “It wasn‘t. But we all know that it doesn’t take a majority to make new history.”

LA Weekly