Camden, N.J., population 79,000, is a tough place. Just ask Msgr. Bob McDermott. Pastor of St. Joseph Pro Cathedral in the city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Msgr. McDermott has a tough task ministering in a city ridden with serious crime, terrorized by violent gangs, plagued by dire poverty and rife with skepticism that life can be much different. But that doesn’t dissuade him a bit.
For 26 years he has worked at his home parish, one of 38 churches that belong to Camden Churches Organized for People, a faith-based organization working to transform the violence-marred city. The group works to develop local leaders who can effectively speak about community needs and work for the needed changes to make their lives better.
The tool for doing that? Community organizing.
Msgr. McDermott believes organizing — which moves beyond pure charity — is the most effective tool he knows to help people speak for themselves and move beyond the margins of society.
“What organizing helped me to do is to learn from people, to really understand what their concept of God and justice was about, what their pain and suffering was like and how far they would be willing to go to change things in their lives,” he said during an April 6 symposium sponsored by The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.
Above all, the Camden church organization’s work is rooted in the Bible’s underlying message of justice for all, the 69-year-old priest told those gathered for a program that reviewed the role of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in promoting Catholic social teaching by funding different models of faith-based organizing since its inception in 1970.
One of three panelists to address the symposium, Msgr. McDermott said the Gospel calls the Catholic Church to do more to give marginalized people a voice.
Another panelist echoed Msgr. McDermott.
Janine Carreiro, the 2010 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award recipient from CCHD, said people of faith are called to move beyond providing a handout to the hungry and poor and to give them a hand up.
“I’m giving them back their voice and helping them find it on their own,” explained Carreiro, lead organizer of the Brockton Interfaith Community in Massachusetts. “Everybody’s got it within them and they just need a little bit of help and hope.”
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