WASHINGTON — Making realities of the dreams that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his 1963 address at the March on Washington will mean Catholics must stop being complacent about militarism, racism and poverty, summed up Sr. Patricia Chappell, executive director of Pax Christi USA.
In a "Catholic conversation" on the church, race and the march Aug. 25 amid events marking the 50th anniversary of the march, Sr. Patricia, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, drew applause and cries of support from the audience of nearly 200 people at the mostly full sanctuary of historically African-American Holy Redeemer Catholic Church.
She called for the church to "go back to Catholic social teaching" because it clearly lays out responsibility to speak up in support of education, housing and job programs that would help the poor.
Sr. Patricia said the institutional church has done too little recently to speak up about the systems that allow racism to continue to exist. "We need to make a connection between militarism, racism and poverty," she said. "As Catholics we need to either put up or shut up."
She was joined on the panel by Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a parishioner at Holy Redeemer, who touched on the intersection of issues stemming from his previous position as head of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice and his current position.
Perez observed that while there is an African-American president, an African-American attorney general and women and minorities on the Supreme Court, too many people, especially minorities and immigrants, live in the shadows of society. He said it should be a "moral and economic imperative" for Americans and people of faith to support issues like universal health care access, comprehensive immigration reform, restoring the Voting Rights Act and raising the minimum wage.
"Nobody who works a 40-hour week should live in poverty," he said, adding that every eligible voter "ought to be able to get to the polls."
Perez, who served as a special counselor for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, said the senator "often said civil rights are the unfinished business of America."
In addition to Sr. Patricia and Perez, the event co-sponsored by Catholic Democrats, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Pax Christi, USA, included John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. Carr voiced regret that political parties seem to use or ignore religion instead of letting it play a key part in confronting the issues highlighted by the 1963 march and its anniversary events.
"I think we're losing a sense that the March on Washington was as much a religious experience as it was a political experience," said Carr, who previously served as the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He described Rev. King's "I Have a Dream" address as "a sermon, not a speech."
Carr pointed out that in 1963 then-Washington Archbishop (eventually Cardinal) Patrick O'Boyle offered the invocation at the march and encouraged parishes to host out-of-town participants and to join the march, Carr said, "We (Catholics) were there then, and we belong there now."
Carr said Cardinal O'Boyle was a pioneer in integrating Catholic schools and expanding educational opportunities for minority children. Today, however, Carr observed, the overall quality of the nation's urban schools is a national scandal. The solution, he added, should involve "acting like everybody's kids are our kids."
Carr said Pope Francis, who after being elected pope was reminded not to forget the poor, should be an example for U.S. Catholics. "Our Holy Father is calling us to the edges, to the streets, to stand up for human rights and dignity."
A fourth panelist, Donna Toliver Grimes, assistant director of African-American Affairs in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the USCCB, said dealing with the contemporary versions of such problems requires "new language, tools and strategy."
She noted that Rev. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, said every generation must take up the battles for justice and opportunity. Today's Catholics must use new technology and rely on their church's social justice teachings in the effort, she said.
African-Americans have endured racism and discrimination in the continuing struggle for civil rights in our country, Grimes said, but faith has helped them remain strong. "What helped them was their deep spirituality and the recognition this was a spiritual battle," Grimes said.
The panel's moderator, Ralph McCloud, director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty program of the U.S. bishops, said it was fitting for the church to host such a dialogue, considering its history of defending the poor, immigrants and the dignity of human life in all its stages.
"Pope Francis reminds us to be a church of and for the poor, and to be brothers and sisters to each other," he said.
Contributing to this story were Patricia Zapor and Mark Zimmerman in Washington.