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Where the action is.

For a handful of generations the names Jack Egan and Peggy Roach are synonymous with Catholic social action. Both individually and as a team, Egan and Roach have been at or near the center of just about every major social movement of this century, including the Christian Family Movement, the labor, civil rights, and ecumenical movements, and the urban renewal movement through community organizing.

Informed and inspired by the church's social teachings, they are indefatigable champions of workers' rights, interracial justice, lay ministries, and interreligious cooperation. Currently running the Office for Community Affairs at DePaul University in Chicago, Egan and Roach began their longtime association in the mid-1960s, working on race relations and civil rights. At the request of Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. they left for the University of Notre Dame in 1970 to serve at the Institute of Pastoral and Social Ministry and head the Catholic Committee for Urban Ministry. In 1983 they returned to Chicago when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin appointed Egan director of the archdiocesan Office of Human Relations and Ecumenism.

Often serving as the other's editor or coauthor, Egan and Roach have each written numerous articles and lectured widely. Egan's biography, An Alley in Chicago (Ave Maria Press, 1991) by Margaret Frisbie, is available online at

Is there much activism in Catholic parishes these days?

EGAN: I believe there is--on many levels. Let me give you an example. Peggy and I had an extraordinary experience last night. We attended a United Power community organizing meeting in the heart of Chicago, and there were 1,000 people there--ministers and laypeople; white, black, Latino, and Asian; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim; suburbanites and city folk. It was an extraordinary gathering.

They were talking about affordable housing and health care, which are two of the main concerns of United Power. And last night's meeting was just one of about eight other regional groupings. There's something new and exciting happening here with all the faiths getting together to talk about issues that the community itself has specifically identified. That's the genius and uniqueness of United Power's approach to community organizing. When United Power began in Chicago, reporters would call me and ask what the group's agenda was, and I'd say, "It's going to come from the people." And so it did.

To answer your question, there is significant activism in many Catholic parishes, and those involved with United Power and its umbrella group, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), are experiencing church in a new way.

Why is the IAF more effective than individual groups working for change?

ROACH: It's highly organized, and the agenda comes from a diverse cross-section of the community. Participating groups pay their dues to support the organization--they own it. They're not beholden to foundations, corporations, or particular churches.

EGAN: Activist Saul Alinsky was the original mastermind behind this kind of high-level, grand-scale community organizing, but it took his successor Ed Chambers to create an organization with staying power. Why? When Chambers comes to a community, he establishes an organization in three ways: 1. He puts an organizer in relationship to every organization, and the organizer stays with the group. 2. That organizer is accountable to the people, and the people are accountable to him or her. And there's accountability all the way up and down the line with Chambers, his cabinet, and his organizers. 3. Every action is thoroughly evaluated. After last night's meeting, for example, the people who had organized the gathering assembled in the basement of the church and critiqued the meeting. Did the program run smoothly and stay on schedule? What did we do wrong? What did we do right? You said you'd bring 50 people to the meeting. You brought 35. What happened? That kind of evaluation takes place at every meeting.

How important is the interfaith aspect of community organizing?

EGAN: If you're talking about a theological relationship, I'd say it exists in each group's quest for peace and justice in the world. But there's not a lot of faith sharing, per se.

ROACH: I agree it's not a theological thing, although they may say an ecumenical prayer at the beginning of the meeting. The participants come out of their own tradition to view a common problem--a problem that calls for justice. And the fact that all these different religious groups are united on a particular issue adds credibility to their proposals. That's the power behind the IAF and United Power.

EGAN: If you haven't guessed, we're rather in favor of the IAF.

We get that impression. But how does community organizing fit in with being Catholic?

EGAN: Community organizing is a way to express your faith and your belief in the social teachings of the church. If we're supposed to be the church in the modern world, we'd better get out where the world is and the people and issues are.

Do you think most Catholics know why they should care about community organizing?

EGAN: No, probably not. But we've got to make sure that they at least know about the church's belief in the dignity of the human person and that each of us has a right to food, shelter, and education; that we deserve a living wage to care for ourselves and our families; and that each person has an obligation to the entire community for the common good.

Wouldn't a lot of Catholics argue that they support Catholic social teaching through charitable works whereas community organizing gets "too political"?

ROACH: It's very difficult to move people from social service to social action. We all know very good people who would volunteer at a soup kitchen and ladle out soup forever without ever stopping to ask why all those people are standing in line for food in the first place. They see the line getting longer and they'll say, "We need to build more kitchens."

The same can be said for the growing number of homeless people. But the question is: Why? Because there's no affordable housing for minimum-wage earners. Well, obviously there's something wrong with the economic system if that's the case. Looking at the bigger picture takes us beyond charitable work and is totally consistent with Catholic social teaching.

So we shouldn't be afraid to get too involved in politics?

EGAN: You use the word politics as though there were something wrong with it. As human beings we must be involved in the welfare of one another. That goes back to Cain and Abel, Matthew 25, and everything else we've been taught as Christians.

There's an important difference between social service and social justice. The work that Catholic Charities does, for example, is essential, but it is not the end of the story. We have to change the systems that deny people affordable housing, jobs, political freedom, and so forth.

If you want to call this type of justice work politics, fine, but it's not political. Yes, we demand that the politicians listen to the people, but that's their job. And the issues come from diverse citizens united for the common good--not special-interest groups concerned only for themselves. It is appropriate and essential for us to deal with politicians to effect change.

How do we get Catholics active in social justice?

EGAN: Three minutes once a year from priests across the United States would just about do the trick. We have to talk openly about our social teachings and develop organizations and mechanisms within the parish that would serve as outlets for justice work. Organizers tell me you only need about 4 percent of the people in a neighborhood who are truly organized to change a neighborhood.

ROACH: And a lot of people who want to get involved don't know where to go, so it's up to us as individuals and as a church community to provide the opportunities people are looking for. Somebody needs to be in place at the parish to plug people in.

You sound optimistic that if people were just educated and knew where to go, they'd all be on board.

ROACH: Of course, there are selfish people out there whom you can never make care. But, yes, overall I am optimistic that there's a lot of goodwill among people. I witness it every day. And people aren't as afraid of controversy as you might think.

EGAN: Speaking of controversy, I'm reminded of an exchange between Chicago's then-Cardinal Albert Meyer and Saul Alinsky. The church was working with Alinsky on a neighborhood integration issue. Alinsky told the cardinal that there may be controversy and they'd have to be ready for it. The cardinal replied, "Mr. Alinsky, we're not of the same faith. But I don't know of anything more controversial than a man hanging on a cross."

There's a prevalent attitude that the market knows best how to handle our economic and social woes. How do you respond to that?

EGAN: The market doesn't give the people a voice in their own destiny. And that is crucial to saving our democracy. Take the example of United Power. We didn't have an agenda to begin with except to have 5,000 individual conversations with people to determine common concerns. Housing and health insurance kept coming up. So now the individual voices on these issues are combined into a powerful voice that will be heard on the local, state, and national level.

But wouldn't the market take care of these issues eventually?

ROACH: I look to the horror stories about health maintenance organizations to argue that the market doesn't always know best. My two sisters were kicked out of their insurance programs. Why? Because they were senior citizens, and seniors cost too much.

Along the same lines, strong market supporters will argue that labor unions are unnecessary because the companies with satisfied employees will eventually rise to the top.

EGAN: Workers need to be organized to stand in solidarity and protect themselves, because even the best-intentioned employers can too easily take advantage of their workers. In a market-driven economy, workers become a commodity-dispensable and easily replaced, and this stands in direct opposition to the church's teaching on the dignity of the human being.

The Egan-Roach team has been working for a long time on social change. Have you made progress?

ROACH: You have to be in there for the long haul. If you're waiting for something to happen overnight, you'll be sadly disappointed. Yes, we've been knocking around the same kinds of issues for years. But you do see a little progress here and there.

EGAN: Every generation has to bring about change. I'm just one person. Peggy's just one person. We realize how little we can do. But then I look at the Cana Conference, for example, which began in 1947 with me as its first director. Our group changed the pattern of marriage preparation not only in our diocese but throughout the United States and eventually around the globe.

And did I effect change through my work in the Office of Urban Affairs, an ecumenical group that met every few weeks and worked on housing and health issues? At the very least we established the churches and the synagogues as actors in the formation of the city's public policy.

Then-Cardinal John Cody sent me to Presentation Parish, one of the poorest parishes in the city. That was the finest experience I've ever had because it spurred me in my work on civil rights.

Later I went to Notre Dame with Peggy, and we established the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry, where we educated a whole generation of priests, sisters, and laypeople on the social teachings of the church.

ROACH: We held annual meetings there that served as connection points for people who were going into urban ministry. And we put out a newsletter and fielded hundreds of calls. So we reached a lot of people there.

EGAN: And when we came back to Chicago under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, we established the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. This was the first time in the history of Chicago that Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders got together monthly. The cardinal attended every single meeting except two until his death. The group still meets. In my opinion Bernardin's most important accomplishment in his 14 years in Chicago was his interfaith work. Did we effect any social change there? Yes.

And then there's United Power and the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice--a movement of Christians and Jews that director Kim Bobo asked me to help form three years ago to aid labor unions in organizing workers. These organizations are in their infancy but already they're making things happen. But all of this work has to be done in each generation.

How hopeful are you about the younger generation's involvement?

EGAN: Peggy's younger, maybe she should answer. I will say that at DePaul University and Notre Dame, I have seen a large number of young people who are interested in the community and working for social change.

ROACH: I agree. I find a great generosity among young people. I believe much of it is faith-based. We have a number of parishes throughout the city that make tremendous connections with young adults, who are generous and involved.

What drew you in to social action?

ROACH: In high school I had heard about Friendship House, founded by Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a Russian immigrant who became renowned for her work in interracial justice. The idea behind Friendship House was to establish a space where blacks and whites could get together to dialogue about their needs and wants. I couldn't get anybody to go with me to the meetings, and my mother wouldn't let me go alone. So finally she came with me, and the experience of attending those meetings opened my eyes to the whole question of racial injustice.

EGAN: There were three instances that opened me to social action. The first was when I was about 12 and my mother allowed me to go downtown alone on the streetcar. On the ride home an old black man got on the streetcar, and the conductor started to argue with the man about the validity of his transfer. Suddenly the conductor came around his metal bar and threw the old man off the streetcar, which at that moment was going very fast. I remember looking back and seeing a few people gathering around the poor man lying in the street. The conductor turned to me and said, "You see him pull a knife on me? "He didn't pull a knife on you," I blurted out and jumped off the car at the next stop. I was scared to death.

Then when I was a student at DePaul University, before I went into the seminary, my history professor asked whether any of us had read the Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum on the rights of labor. I hadn't even heard of it. One student said he thought it was crazy, which made me more curious than ever to read it.

The third thing that influenced me was hanging out with the Catholic Worker people after I went to the seminary. Then things began to come together for me at Mundelein Seminary under the guidance of Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, and at that point I was hooked on social action.

Tell us more of your involvement in the civil rights movement.

EGAN: Peggy is going to diminish her contribution to civil rights, but hers was far greater than mine. I get a lot of credit for going to Selma after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put the call out to ministers to join the front lines. But, heck, I was in Selma for 48 hours. Sure, my picture appeared in the Chicago Daily News and that opened the door for a lot of other priests and laypeople to get involved, but Peggy was making things happen.

ROACH: Mathew Ahmann, who was head of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, had this marvelous idea that we should celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963 by bringing together all the religious denominations on the question of race. But he was afraid it would be too much work for his small staff to organize. I was working for John McDermott at the time at the Chicago Catholic Interracial Council just upstairs from Matt's office. John told me to go down and talk to Matt, which I did, and I assured him that we could get the help he needed starting with me that instant. We set the date and worked back from there to plan each step. We had Martin Luther King for the first time in Chicago. In all, about 800 delegates, representing their various denominations, attended. It really was a smashing event.

Then I went to Washington with the Council of Catholic Women and worked on the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I did a lot of support work with people from the unions who were working directly with the representatives on the Hill. We did work very hard on the passage of the act. I was with my friend Jane who worked for the AFL/CIO the day the bill passed. We listened on the radio as the bill was being signed and just cried our eyes out.

Shortly afterward I got a call from Msgr. Frank Hurley, now archbishop of Anchorage, who had just come from the White House. He said, "I'm going to say Mass, and then I thought I'd stop over and see you." I said, "Please wait for Jane and me, and we'll have a Mass of thanksgiving together." So we ran down the street to the little chapel where Msgr. Hurley was, and the three of us had our Mass of thanksgiving for the passage of the bill.

Later after we had a drink at my house and they were getting ready to go, Msgr. Hurley said, "Peggy I have a present for you." He reached into his pocket, pulled out a little box, and he handed it to me. Inside was a pen with a piece of paper that read, "This pen was used to sign HR7165, 1964." He said, "You deserve this because you did a lot more work on this bill than anybody else." "No," I insisted, "I couldn't take your pen." He laughed and said, "You don't think I'd give it to you if I didn't have another one?"

So I took that pen and carried it in my purse for 10 years. Then while Jack and I were at Notre Dame, President Nixon fired Father Ted Hesburgh from the Commission on Civil Rights. I was so mad that I presented Hesburgh with the pen as my tribute to him for all the work he had done for civil rights. It's now in the civil rights museum at Notre Dame.

How has your faith sustained you in your work?

ROACH: I just do better if I start with the Lord first thing in the morning. It's all part of the big picture.

EGAN: I feel much the same way. As a priest, the Eucharist is very important in my life. I get the strength to go out into the street and serve others through the Eucharist. It's part and parcel of my life, and I think it should be part and parcel of everybody's life. Someone recently said to me, you seem to be in good humor all the time. Well, why shouldn't we be in good humor? We're trying to do God's work in our particular, peculiar way.

People ask me what else would I like to do if I had the chance to do it over again. And I say, "God has been so good to me. I would want to do it the same way." I have never had an unhappy day in my 56 years of priesthood. I've had some disappointing days, but never unhappy days. I honestly think it is because the Mass sustains me.


IT MAY NOT BE FAIR to say he looks for fights, but Jack Egan certainly knows where to find them. His newest battle is with payday loan operators, who, he contends, prey on desperate and vulnerable people by encouraging them to spend money they don't have and borrow more money than they need. These slick operators then turn around and charge interest at astounding, impossible-to-pay rates of up to 500 percent per year. A number of borrowers have lost their homes or cars, and many risk perpetual poverty. "Whether or not their activity can be legislated, we must expose these businesses for the predators they are," says Egan, who last November handpicked a group of lawyers, community organizers, union representatives, religious leaders, and legislators to meet monthly to create public awareness of this issue and propose legislation to limit interest rates on payday and title loans.

The Illinois state's attorney is now investigating the business practices of payday loan operators, as are several other state's attorneys across the country.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
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Date:Mar 1, 2000
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