Address to the St. Vincent De Paul Society of Baltimore

Baltimore, MD | September 19, 1965

The church, collectively, and individually, is dropping what some have jokingly called it's 'edifice complex' -- and has set about -- as St. Vincent de Paul himself did, 'To walk with the poor.'

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 succeed in mobilizing all the nation's resources including religions ones. Even when the bill passed through Congress, they 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 lawsuits involving the church-state issue would 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 one job -- and one job only, eradicating poverty.

The Catholic Church -- archdioceses, individual churches, parochial schools, affiliated private welfare agencies, priests and laity alike -- have already, in these first 10 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 separately and cooperatively -- programs which, having shown no 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, St. Vincent de Paul Workers, the Catholic Family and Child Services, the United Church Women and Unitarians received $167,000 anti- poverty funds to run day care centers together for children of migratory workers.

-- In St. Louis, the archdiocese, using both laymen and nuns staffed twenty Head Start Centers for four and five year olds of all creeds and races.

-- In Chicago, the archdiocese received 2.9 million dollars for Head Start programs which reached over 23 thousand children, children who have a better chance this week in kindergarten and first grade because of those efforts this summer. And across the country, Catholic-sponsored and administered Head Start programs handled over 34 thousand children.

-- In Newark, New Jersey, 345 thousand dollars went to Mr. Carmel Guild (that's the Newark Archdiocesan Welfare Agency) -- to provide 210 high school students of all faiths with part-time jobs working with the blind, deaf and disabled.

-- In Michigan and South Carolina, Catholic and Protestant groups joined forces in programs to aid migrants: And when 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 Detroit, Reverend Paul P. Harbrecht, S.J., the new dean of The University of Detroit Law School, just received $350,000 to utilize the entire city of Detroit as a laboratory for the study of the legal services to the poor, and the needs for law reform relating to poverty.

Two weeks ago, President Johnson announced a national program to employ 17,600 elderly, impoverished Americans. Part of it is known as our "Foster Grandparents" program.

The Catholic Charities Bureau of Cleveland, the St. Cloud Children's Home in Minnesota, the Catholic Charities Counseling Service of New York are participants in that program. For instance, the Cleveland Catholic Charities will provide individualized attention, affection and concern for little babies, toddlers and young children living in orphanages and other institutions. That program -- and those children -- need affection and attention. They need you and your fathers and mothers and elder relatives. Without love and care and concern, those little children stagnate. They turn into vegetables. They don't stand a chance.

That's just how important it is to put aside denominational issues. And that's just what we're proving can be done by Americans of every faith.

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

Just this past Tuesday, September 14, the Center for the Study of Man at Notre Dame University, received $287,000 to learn precisely the different ways, poor people react to their problems, the ways in which they view poverty, and the ways in which they contend with it. Too often, we talk about the poor, as the culturally deprived, as failures. In fact, the poor have their own culture -- many different cultures -- each built on survival, each built on seeking some kind of dignity, some kind of recognition, some kind of minimal security in a seemingly hostile and complex world.

The Center for the Study of Man is going to take a long hard look at that culture of poverty. It's not going to do it from an ivory tower! Specialists will accompany poor people as they go from agency to agency, as they deal with local merchants, police, welfare workers, social workers, to see what happens to the poor and how it affects their hopes and attitudes. Another new part of this study is the development, of a concept called: "The Social Block!" It is not a geographic unit. It is a unit based on the relationships which poor people have with each other. It will not cover a census tract, or a geographical block -- but will include, for instance, the two sides of a street which face each other -- streets spanned by far closer and more intimate relationships between families than geographic units which have been studied in the past.

That's the kind of "Action Research," we need to attack the problems of poverty with greater and greater intelligence and success.

Another major new project is called Project Star. This project is going to reach out statewide to deal with the kind of twentieth century poverty that is self-perpetuating.

Project Star was created by two priests in Mississippi. They created a new corporation and named it "Star."

-- It will seek out and bring into the program the unemployed poor.

-- Provide basic literacy education to adults.

-- Offer training in basic skills needed by Mississippi's growing industries.

-- Develop job opportunities by assisting areas in creating industry.

-- Provide job counseling, guidance and testing services.

-- Help place the newly-qualified and other poor in jobs.

-- Encourage communities to initiate similar programs and other War on Poverty projects and provide personnel to assist in organizing these.

The overall estimate of persons benefitting from the program is 100,000, with 25,000 expected. to be placed in jobs as a direct result. Once again the experts will have been proven wrong. Not because the "wall between church and state" has been breached. Not because our lawyers have found some secret opening through that wall.

The experts are wrong because they underestimated the willingness, daring, and boldness of the Catholic church to seek new ways, as it has always done, in order to be reborn for each generation, in order to speak with relevance and mission to every age!

This group -- the St. Vincent de Paul Society -- has a long tradition, an unparalleled tradition of doing just that -- of laying aside personal ambition, sectarian barriers, and even physical safety to reach the poor and the downtrodden. But today even in a government agency like ours, we have a singular example of the sacrifice, the daring, and the humility, which has come to characterize the church today!

Several months ago, I got a call from Senator Symington. He told me about Sister Francetta, a fabulous woman, 65 years old, ready to retire.

And so, she went to her religious superiors. 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, etc.

She is working with us today in the War Against Poverty. One of her first assignments was to visit the St. Petersburg's Women’s Job Corps Center. Some of the local people resented it -- some charged it was country club -- others that it was a house of ill repute.

And when Sister Francetta went down to investigate, she came back to me saying this: "You know, Mr. Shriver -- none of those stories are true. And the girls -- the enrollees -- they are some of the most wonderful people in the world.....”

"One night after I had been in St. Petersburg, a couple of days, I was walking around the grounds and I saw a little old man stooping and peering into the bushes -- and prodding with his cane at the bushes that surround the center."

I introduced myself -- but he didn't hear me say the word "Sister." And I asked him -- "What are you doing" and he said to me: "Shhh -- You know that is a house of ill repute -- of prostitutes and wicked women." And I said to him. "No, it isn't. Some of the most wonderful girls in the world live there -- some of the most courageous and sweetest young women I have ever met.”

And he said. "Oh, no. Just last night, I was walking along and three of those girls who were standing outside the center accosted me."

And I said to him, "Well, I'm accosting you tonight -- and I am a nun -- a Sister."

And he said: "A sister, how can you be a sister? You are not wearing nun's clothes."

And she told him: "I am still a Sister -- but I have been given permission to shed my nun's clothes because I think so much of those girls that I want to walk with them and be with them -- not separated from them by anything external."

And so, shaking his head, he bid goodnight with the words: "I will say a rosary for you, tonight, Sister!"

That's why we are winning the War Against 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 catholic agency after agency has put aside denomination differences.

It is because priests like Father Barone in Washington have set about organizing credit unions for the poor.

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

And, it is because of men like you -- and this entire society -- that we are going to win the War on Poverty.

The church, collectively, and individually, is dropping what some have jokingly called it's "edifice complex" -- and has set about -- as St. Vincent de Paul himself did, "To walk with the poor."

St. Vincent's life is a symbol for us all!

At thirty, he was comfortably fixed with a benefice which he had fought hard to obtain...And which assured him of a decent income and a life of modest elegance. He had station and prestige. As a man of solid sanctity, he was consulted by saints like Francis de Sales.

But beneath the surface success, he felt haunted by a fear that he was being "successfully trapped in the drawing rooms of the great."

He therefore made a retreat and changed his life. He put himself and the great ladies of France in service to the poor. They became ladies of charity. They left the elegance of their surroundings to give service to what de Paul always called: "Our Lords, the poor." He called them that because he realized as you do, that we learn much more from the poor than the poor learn from us.

And he left for us all a vision of the church's mission on earth that retains its vitality today -- across the nation -- across the world -- a vision that this society has kept alive.

Among the most moving statements I have ever read came from a Jesuit, Father Berrigan. About two months ago, he wrote:

I am a member of a deprived and ever 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 deprived Nation. I speak here of a moral poverty of the most frightful and pervasive kind. It is a poverty which clings with the grasp of death itself, to material well-being. It 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, of 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.

And, in the War on Poverty, the Catholic Church is saying that daily in a thousand different ways!

We in the governmental headquarters of the War on Poverty hoped that we, too, are saying that daily.

Or how many of us are willing to walk in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul, and think of the poor, in our hearts as "the poor, our lords." When one considers the work of you here in this audience today -- and of religious groups, clergymen and dedicated laymen across the Nation -- I think the answer is clear.