As a young child in the late 1960s and early 70s, I loved our family sojourns into the city. We would encounter a variety of people and places that in my mind’s eye were woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of cultures and customs that seemed so very different than my own. I guess they did not “seem different” — they were different. There was a newness to the lively and rich liturgy I would experience at my birth parish of St. Elizabeth’s, now St. Martin de Porres. I reveled in the cultural enclaves throughout the city that bursted with friendly faces, delicious food, exuberant dance and joyful celebration.
However, time marches on and, as I grew older, I came to notice and question the economic disparity that became increasingly apparent on these frequent trips into the heart of Milwaukee. And by questioning, it was inevitable that difficult dialogue would ensue. Fast forward to the present, and it is strikingly apparent that this is what Pope Francis meant when he said that in our cities “the Church is called to be at the service of a difficult dialogue”(Evangeli Gaudium). It is likewise apparent that this “difficult dialogue” is both at the root of, and provides some framework for, the synodal priority of establishing the Office of Urban Ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
In our city, and in our churches, this difficult dialogue is rooted in both the personal and systemic racism that underlies Milwaukee’s dismal record when it comes to segregation, poverty, joblessness, homelessness and mass incarceration. Three months ago, in an effort to address this painful reality, we took a first step by gathering every Friday at the Cathedral to pray for reconciliation and healing for the sin of racism. These prayer gatherings led to a grand celebration of the Mass on Sept. 9, which was both the Feast Day of St. Peter Claver and the Bishops Day of Prayer for Peace in our Communities. People from all over the city gathered to share in the Eucharist tying us together as the Body of Christ. It is our prayer that our faith community will come to a place where forgiveness and healing can lead to that aforementioned difficult dialogue. For it is only then that broad-based, authentic relationships can develop and lead us, by the grace of God and the joy of the Gospel, to bear great fruit in this city through personal and systemic change.
Emerging from the Synod, the Urban Ministry in Milwaukee is identified as the focal point of evangelization and missionary action for charity and justice. This makes sense in light of the fact that our Holy Father exhorts that the “fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city.” To answer the call of the synod, Urban Ministry is working to identify and build coalitions between individuals, groups and organizations doing the work of addressing those maladies that plague our city. Whether it’s pregnancy and parenting help programs, jail, prison, or re-entry ministry, support for women who are victims of human trafficking, or adult literacy programs, this work is underway. We especially have our sights on creating a hub in the central city, a “center in the center” of sorts, to act as a connection point for the many services that are available to address the needs of those in our urban center. A strong archdiocesan presence that is visible and accessible in our central city will allow us to be authentically present to our neighbors and augment the good work that is being done already. With true encounter, we can truly accompany. And when we travel together, we are all able to experience the joy of the Gospel in a way that is otherwise allusive and incomplete.
Additionally, Urban Ministry is engaged in some initiatives already underway, such as the burial of those who are indigent, programming for central city women who have had an abortion or miscarriage, a Coordinated Catholic Emergency Response Team that is on call should a major crisis arise in our city, efforts to educate and engage Seton School students in service through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, the growth of an urban 12-parish coalition working together on issues that affect our central city and the establishment of “Laundry Love”(which offers free laundromat access to those in need a half day a month).
I don’t have to travel far these days to enjoy the beauty and deep faith of the people in our central city. Living, teaching and working in our urban center is a gift beyond measure. It brings great joy. So does teaming with arguably one of the most exuberant and joyful faith leaders I know, Fr. Tim Kitzke, Vicar General for Urban Ministry. However, I also do not need to travel far to painfully see an even deeper disparity than I witnessed as a child. Surely, it is the Joy of the Gospel that lies at the heart of addressing this sin. Let us build a city of God.