‘Find one way’ to engage with the poor: Jesuit priest discusses his experiences working towards the greater good

By Jenay Smith
February 20, 2013

The Rev. Fred Kammer speaks during his Founder’s Day presentation at the Mansion on Feb. 19.
The Rev. Fred Kammer speaks during his Founder’s Day presentation at the Mansion on Feb. 19.

For Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J., J.D., the issue of race is what sparked his interest in social justice issues.

“Growing up in New Orleans in the late 1950s, the race issue was just beginning to open up,” Kammer said. “I remember the Supreme Court decision was in ‘54. I was 9.”

Brown v. Board of Education marked a significant change in the history of American education. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared the segregation of schools unconstitutional.

“But it really didn’t hit,” Kammer said. “The glamor of that court decision was the court said, ‘You should desegregate schools with all deliberate speed.’

“The problem is, what is all-deliberate speed? For many states there wasn’t much speed at all,” Kammer said. “States held off, resisted, etc.”

Copies of Kammer’s book “Doing Faithjustice.” (Denine Rohanna /Staff Photographer)
Copies of Kammer’s book “Doing Faithjustice.” (Denine Rohanna /Staff Photographer)

Kammer was under what he calls “extra special pressure” being a young boy attending a Jesuit school in the wake of desegregation. All eyes were on him being a Jesuit schoolboy who was supposed to be representing his Jesuit school.

“The buses were desegregated. I was 13 [when I sat] down next to a person of color for the first time,” Kammer said. “I had grown up in a segregated world, watching other people sit down or not sit down, or a black person sit down next to a white person who got up.”

These are the things that Kammer grew up seeing and had to develop his own view on desegregation despite influences from others.

“The Immorality of Segregation” is an article written by a Jesuit. One of his teachers had the students read this article in class during his sophomore or junior year of high school. That night, Kammer’s father asked him what he learned in school that day.

“He sat me down and lectured me about why segregation was appropriate, that it was the law, that it’s what God wanted and that’s the way we should live,” Kammer said. “‘These people should not be living with us, it should be separate.’”

One summer, Kammer and his younger brother traveled to north Alabama to a camp where Kammer was going to be a counselor and his younger brother a camper. There he ran into desegregation resistance at a county level at a rest stop.

“I signed in the guestbook and I wrote my name and address and it said occupation and I wrote ‘student,’ which I was, I was a high school student,” Kammer said. “The woman behind the counter said, ‘I wish you hadn’t written that there,’ but it was done. My younger brother and I went out. We were at the swimming pool and a little while later, a county police car came in, these guys with helmets on, and came around and rode around the pool and stared at us,” Kammer said.

A desegregation organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was described by Kammer as “integrating lunch counters, schools and buses.” This organization was one of the organizations of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The committee came from student meetings led by Ella Baker at Shaw University in April 1960. They played huge roles in sit-ins and freedom rides.

“They thought we were agitators, as it was called,” Kammer said. “We were right in the midst of the social turmoil.”

The values that drew Kammer to social justice issues have stayed with him throughout the years. As he got older he studied the issues and obtained a deeper sense of the Church’s social teaching.

At the end of his Jesuit schooling, Kammer thought he was going to work in the area of race and poverty. But the Jesuit society suggested he go to law school. He worked in legal services in Atlanta among the poor, then moved to Baton Rouge and did similar work.

Kammer pictured with Chandreyee Banerjee of CRS.
Kammer pictured with Chandreyee Banerjee of CRS. (Jenay Smith/Lifestyles editor)

Kammer says he turns to the Gospel to keep everything going. You plant seeds that are going to be harvested, and even “little victories,” as he calls them, are worth it.

Being active in social justice is not as daunting as people may think it is.

“If you can find one way to be engaged with people who are poor and needy – disadvantaged – and one issue that you get really interested in even for the rest of your life, that’s a wonderful combination,” Kammer said.

You don’t have to do everything in order to do something.

“Often on the advocacy side a lot of what you will be able to do you can actually do through institutions to which you naturally belong,” Kammer said. “By that I mean the school you work in, the neighborhood you’re in, the neighborhood you associate in. You can work as an insider to change institutions and structures that you’re in and, often to get that kind of change, we need people both inside and outside pushing on the institution, inside and outside.”

Kammer’s social justice work comes from his innate want to effectively help people. Connecting your personal engagement with the social issue of your choice is key to keeping your “issue work alive,” as Kammer puts it.

“For caring about one issue, you have to care about the structure,” Kammer said.

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Jenay Smith

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