Growing up in New Orleans in the 50s and 60s, Fr Fred Kammer SJ was quite used to witnessing the injustices of the times.
As a privileged white kid taking the bus to school he was separated from his fellow black students; his parents – a well-heeled lawyer dad and trained vocalist mum – had an African American maid to run their household, something that was “very common” in the South; and the effects of poverty could be seen everywhere on the streets of the city.
But it was on a bus ride coming home from a holiday in the Florida Panhandle that the enormity of the battle for civil rights and justice really hit home for the then young teenager.
“It was somewhere around Mississippi on that bus that things got very quiet,” he recalled.
“There were a lot of African Americans on the bus and I heard someone behind me say, ‘this is where the lynching was’.
“I found I was just waking up to the social issues at this point.”
As he ventured through high school Fr Kammer said the “significant influence” of the young Jesuits who were explaining Catholic Social Teachings in the classroom brought even more clarity to him. Eventually, he realised he was being called to the priesthood, and a lifetime of service to God – and justice.
Joining the Jesuits, he embarked on a law degree – mainly because of his interest in the civil rights movement and his desire for change – and after graduating worked on a number of programs for the underprivileged and in legal aid.
Over the years he served as the head of Catholic Charities USA and was the Provincial Superior of the New Orleans Jesuit Province, guiding their post-Katrina recovery and service to those in need in the devastated region.
For 12 years until his retirement last year, he was the director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute, which addresses poverty, race and immigration through research, education and advocacy. Along the way he also managed to author three books, the first released in 1991 and aptly called, Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought.
Visiting Adelaide last month as part of a sabbatical year, Fr Kammer was the guest speaker at an event hosted by the Adelaide Catholic Council for Integral Ecology for Laudato Si’ Week. He spoke passionately about the urgent need for Catholics to heed the call in Pope Francis’ encyclical to ‘care for the common home’.
The nearly 77 year old also drew on his lifetime of experience working in social justice, admitting that while it may seem a daunting task to fix the planet, there should always be hope.
“When you are dealing with these complex and very difficult issues it’s important for us as Catholics to be people of hope,” he told The Southern Cross.
“We talk about faith, hope and charity, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to hope.
“At times it can seem very hopeless, but what I say to people when it comes to social problems is that you need to get involved.
“Get involved with one person who is poor or disadvantaged, tutor a child, work one night a week in a soup kitchen, drive an old person to a shop – whatever it is, get involved with Christ in the poor.
“Then, get involved in one issue and if it ties back to the person you are helping, well that’s terrific. If you can connect the two, all power to you!
“If you are tutoring a kid, join a school reform group. If you’re taking an older person to shop, join a nursing home reform group.
“If you’re working in a soup kitchen, join Bread for the World (an organisation that advocates for policy changes to end hunger).”
Fr Kammer said everyone had the ability to make small changes that make a difference, citing as an examples the wooden cutlery he ‘discovered’ on his flight from the USA, or the five recycling containers in the kitchen at the Jesuits community in Norwood.
“The demon is at work when you say you can’t do anything about this,” he said.
Touring around Australia over the past 10 weeks as a guest of the Jesuits – which also included a quick visit to Ceduna – Fr Kammer said he was heartened to witness the reverence shown by Australians through the “acknowledgement of place and the elders”.
“That is striking,” he said.
“In a way, the people in Australia have a hope to hang a set of concerns on, and that is their First Nations people. Hearing the ‘cry of the earth, the cry of the poor’ come together pretty naturally here because of their connection to the land.”Jump to next article