Address to the Catholic Interracial Council

Davenport, IA | June 5, 1966

In San Antonio, Texas, a Jewish synagogue rented a hall to a Lutheran church group to conduct pre-school classes for kids from a predominantly Catholic area!

When President Johnson first sent his anti-poverty program to Congress, one of the first questions was: Would the program founder on the church-state issue — would it suffer the fate of earlier aid to education bills and other legislation designed to open up opportunity for all Americans?

There were plenty of "experts" who predicted flatly we could not succeeding mobilizing all the nation's resources including religious ones. Even when the Bill passed through Congress, the experts did not change their position. Instead, they said:

"As soon as the program gets underway; as soon as church organizations become involved in the administration of governmentally- financed projects; a barrage of law suits involving the church-state issue will force the entire anti-poverty program to grind to a halt."

Today, events prove that they were wrong! And they were wrong for one reason - because religious groups involved in the War on Poverty were ready to put aside denominational differences in order to concentrate on the job - and one job only, eradicating poverty.

Individual churches, religiously-affiliated private welfare agencies, clergymen and laity alike — have already, in these first 19 months of the War on Poverty, demonstrated that the fears, the jealousies, the denominational rivalry, the distrust was unfounded.

In community after community -

  • The Church has had a voice without seeking a proprietary interest,
  • The Church has shown leadership, without exclusiveness.
  • The Church has shown a sense of mission, devoid of ulterior motives.
  • The Church has run programs which have shown a taint of proselytizing.

That's a record to be proud of -

  • Proud because poor people, regardless of faith have been helped.
  • Proud, because the Church's record has struck at suspicion, distrust, and bigotry — North, South, East and West.

Here are some examples:

  • In Walla Walla, Washington, the Catholic Family and Child Services, the United Church Women, and the Unitarians have received $315,000 anti-poverty funds to run day care centers together for children of migratory workers.
  • In Michigan and South Carolina, Catholic and Protestant groups joined forces in programs to aid migrants.
  • The New Mexico, State Council of Churches received 1.3 million dollars to establish education centers throughout the State to improve the educational level of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers.
  • In San Antonio, Texas, a Jewish synagogue rented a hall to a Lutheran church group to conduct pre-school classes for kids from a predominantly Catholic area!
  • I am told that the War on Poverty has stimulated more interreligious work, more interracial work, more general brotherhood than any program in recent history. One of the outstanding symbols of this is an organization called WICS — Women in Community Service. For the first time ever, four national organizations — United Church Women, National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Negro Women -demand together to work not as four organizations but as one - for a common goal.

WICS, with its 27 million members, has handled the application of each of the 50,000 girls who has applied thus far, screened 2,500 of them, and done everything imaginable for the 1,500 girls presently in the women's Job Corps. As if that were not enough, WICS is now beginning a broader program in conjunction with the Community Action Program. And all so naturally, it hardly even seems historic.

Two other projects deserve special mention. Each represents a major breakthrough. Each being carried on by a religious institution.

Just this past Wednesday, Marymount College in Boca Raton, Florida, received a grant of $197,427 to run a special program for migrants for the second summer in a row.

Last summer, they ran programs for 750 children from grades 1-6 and 200 men.

Special reading material was developed by having the adults and the children talk into a tape recorder about their experiences. The stories were then typed up and duplicated for use in literacy training.

Fifty of the men will receive stipends and be trained in construction skills — so that they in turn will be able to start a self-help housing project for the migrants.

The other adults will be picked up from the fields with their families at the end of the day, taken to the college for a family banquet – the parents will then go to school while the children play games and watch movies.

Even more unusual, the college is working toward the day when one third of its student body will be drawn from the poor. And many of the staff members of the summer project are migrants and many will continue on the college staff in the Fall.

The second project is Project STAR.

Project STAR was the dream of two priests in Mississippi. They created a new corporation and named it "STAR."

Its purpose is to:

  • Seek out the unemployed poor.
  • To provide basic literacy education to adults.
  • To offer training in basic skills needed by Mississippi's growing industries.
  • To develop job opportunities by assisting areas in creating industry,
  • To provide job counseling, guidance and testing services.
  • To encourage communities to initiate similar programs and other War on Poverty projects and provide personnel to assist in organizing these.

That was a $7,250,000 grant to the Catholic Diocese of Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi — in a state where less than 5% of the population is Catholic.

When I received that application from the Catholic Diocese of Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi, it was as big as a telephone book. In government, usually by the time any grant is given, it has about 25 signatures on it. When I saw this application from the Catholic Diocese of Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi, I thought to myself, what's going on here — who's trying to do me in? I then quickly started looking for those signatures. Right at the top of the list, there sure enough was the signature of a leading member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and under his signature the signature of our General Counsel who has to pass on all constitutional questions. And under his name – one right under the other - there were all 20 signatures — Jews, Protestants and Catholics — each approving on that project in turn. So I decided that I would look into this a little bit more. So I picked up the telephone and telephoned Governor Johnson of Mississippi. And I said -"Governor, what is it with this Project STAR? It comes as an application from the Catholic Diocese of Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi." And Governor Johnson said — "Mr. Shriver, please approve that grant. If any group can get a state-wide program going to educate the people of Mississippi -all the people - it is Project STAR." And I said "Governor, that scratching noise you hear is the sound of my pen signing that grant."

Once again the "experts" have been proven wrong. Not because the "wall between Church and State" has been reached. Not because our lawyers have found some secret opening through the wall.

The experts were wrong because they underestimated the willingness, daring and boldness of religious leaders to seek new ways, to be reborn for each generation, in order to speak with relevance and mission to every age.

And today, even in a government agency like ours, we have a singular example of the sacrifice, the daring and the humility which symbolizes the willingness of religious groups and religious leaders to put aside denominational differences in order to fight poverty.

A year ago, I got a call from Senator Symington. He told me about a fabulous woman, Sister Francetta, President of Webster College. She had decided, at 65 years of age to retire. But she had a strange notion of what retiring meant.

She went to her religious superiors to submit her resignation and they asked her:

"Well, what are you going to do — we need you — your vitality, your vision, your experience and wisdom."

And she said to them: "I would like to apply for a job on the outside.”If I can find someone who will employ me, some work which I can do, no matter how small or insignificant to better this world — I am willing to shed this religious garb — I'll give up our habit, if I can get a job where I can take my work closer to the needs of the people." So she applied for a job. And she was interviewed and interviewed; and we hired her.

That's why we are winning the War on Poverty. It is because of women like Sister Francetta, who are willing to forsake externals because, "they are about their Father's work."

It is because church after church, and agency after agency, has put aside denomination differences.

It is because priests like Father Vizzard live with migrants when others treated them like the untouchables of India.

And, it is because of men and women like you — the Catholic Interracial Council — that we are going to win the War on Poverty.

The Church — all the churches — collectively, and, individually, are dropping what some have jokingly called its "edifice complex" – and have set about — "to walk with the poor."

Among the most moving statements I have ever read was written by the famous Jesuit, Father Berrigan. About two months ago, he wrote:

"I am a member of a deprived and even impoverished church. A church which is too poor in virtue to become poor in fact; Too unsure and unconvinced to preach the gospel with clarity and vision, childishly attached to the bric-a-brac of honors, the double talk of diplomacy, the degrading favors of the rich, the idolatry of structures, the pride of place.

"I am a member of a deprived nation. I speak here of a moral poverty of the most frightful and pervasive kind. It is a poverty which clings to its static goods, and fears mightily the winds of revolution. It clings to its white supremacy, in the face of black excellence, black need, black beauty! It puts off needful revolution, though it was born in revolution, and can only hope to exist if the revolution continues.

"I am finally a member of a deprived race.' Our white poverty is measured by the yardstick of our obsessions, of our fears, the choices we make, and the choices we put off, and the choices we refuse."

When a man can say that, he is no longer poor!

When a church can say that, it is in no peril of dying.

Pope John XXIII wrote:

"The world is poisoned with an unhealthy nationalism based on race and blood in contradiction of the gospel.

"Free me from the races, oh God! Free me from the races."

The Catholic Interracial Council is carrying out that prayer through Project Equality — a project to eliminate discrimination in employment.

Just this past week, at the White House Conference "to fulfill these rights” the-Catholic Interracial Council won wide acclaim for Project Equality.

Taking the position that church institutions have an obligation to spend their money in a moral manner. The Council has started a movement that is daily growing and gaining the support of other religious groups.

And right here in Davenport, both the Council and individual members have started another kind of movement.

They have joined with others to mobilize the entire resources of the community — to bring all groups in Davenport together to fight the causes of poverty.

There are still some people who oppose this effort — just not in Davenport but elsewhere. They say the War on Poverty is a waste. They believe that the poor deserve to be poor. I wish they had been with me three weeks ago.

I met with the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Prevention of Blindness. She told me about the eye examinations she gave to children in Head Start last summer. Eye examinations for children utilize pictures, not letters. Slides with pictures of animals and toys are projected on a screen. One of the pictures projected is a teddy bear.   Last summer, some 40 percent of the children in Project Head Start identified that teddy bear as a rat!

We're working for the day when no four-year old or five-year old American girl or boy — black, yellow, white — speaking Spanish, English, or Hawaiian — will look at the picture of a teddy bear and say: "That's a rat."

And we're working for something else too. We're working for a sense of community — that brings all Americans of all races and creeds together in a common cause — the cause of humanity — the cause of the poor, and the underprivileged.

That's what we mean by community action in the War Against Poverty.

Not just Federal action; not just City Hall action; not just action by the poor.; not just action by religious leaders or the school system or civil rights groups or philanthropic organizations; but action by the total community, by everybody right here in Davenport.

Artists have a special gift of sensitivity — almost of prophecy. And the great poet T. S. Elliot, put the challenge of brotherhood this way:

"Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbors
When the stranger says: What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love one another?
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
To make money from each other?" or "This is a community."

Can you in Davenport answer: This is a community and I am part of it? That's what the Catholic Interracial Council is working for – and that's what the War on Poverty is all about.