by Becky Sindelar
February 14, 2014 — Social justice, the promotion of human rights and the dignity of every person, has long been at the heart of the mission of the Society of Jesus. In fact, the term “social justice” was coined by Italian Jesuit Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio in the 1840s. Today, the Society works for justice in many of its ministries across the country. This week, meet Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, who dedicates himself to working on poverty and race issues.
A Life Devoted to a Faith that Does Justice
Growing up in New Orleans during the 1950s and 60s, Fr. Kammer experienced a segregated world that changed before his eyes. Inspired by the Jesuit scholastics who taught him at Jesuit High School of New Orleans and Jesuit Father Louis J. Twomey, of the Institute for Human Relations at Loyola University, he embarked on a vocation to the Society of Jesus and a commitment to social justice that has spanned the last 50 years.
Fr. Kammer witnessed the desegregation of buses and street cars — along with Jesuit High — while in high school. “It was the Jesuits, my homeroom teachers freshman, sophomore and junior year, who were basically confronting us about the traditional problems of the South that we had grown up with,” he recalls. “They were bringing into the classroom the realities of what was going on in the city and in the South.”
Fr. Kammer saw the struggle for social justice firsthand: “We didn’t have to go out on a mission trip. It was all around us. It was watching what I call a ‘social laboratory’ as people of different races began sitting next to one another.”
Fr. Kammer entered the Society of Jesus after high school at age 18. After completing the Jesuit novitiate and juniorate in Grand Coteau, La., he studied philosophy at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., and then earned his law degree at Yale Law School.
After he finished studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, Fr. Kammer served in several roles, including director of the Senior Citizen’s Law Project for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society; executive director of Catholic Community Services of Baton Rouge; and policy advisor for health and welfare issues at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In 1992, Fr. Kammer became president of Catholic Charities USA, the nation's largest voluntary human service network. “My work was to be the voice of Catholic Charities in the public sphere in terms of highlighting the work of Catholic Charities agencies across the country,” Fr. Kammer says. “We also coordinated the domestic disaster relief efforts for the Catholic Church in America.”
His work also involved traveling around the country to talk to local Catholic Charities boards and lead days of reflection for local Catholic Charities staff. These talks would later lead Fr. Kammer to write the book “Faith. Works. Wonders.: An Insider's Guide to Catholic Charities,” as an effort to help staff and boards of Catholic Charities agencies understand their mission and challenges and to give them insights and resources to help them do their jobs.
After nine years at Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Kammer was appointed as provincial of the New Orleans Province Jesuits from 2002 to 2008, during which he lead the province through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath — when the issues of race and poverty in the South were once again on display for the world.
The province offices and Jesuit High School were flooded with about seven feet of water, and parish ministries had sustained flooding and damages as well. Immediately following Katrina, the province offices moved 150 miles away to Grand Coteau, La., for five months as planning for the future began.
Fr. Kammer and the province worked to get their ministries back up and running — many of which served the poor, including Café Reconcile, a program for inner-city youth to become trained and employed in the food industry; the Good Shepherd School, a Nativity school for low-income, urban youth; and the Harry Tompson Center, a daytime drop-in center for the homeless, which moved and is now in a brand-new building post-Katrina.
Today, Fr. Kammer serves as the director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans, founded in partnership with the New Orleans Province in 2007. The institute focuses on race, poverty and migration in the Gulf South through research, education and advocacy.
“The institute came out of our province planning and received strong impetus from Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina happened and again revealed to the nation and to the world the realities of poverty and racism in this city and in the South, we moved forward with forming the institute,” Fr. Kammer says.
“I think we still need to stay focused on racism and poverty as they continue to be major problems not just in the South, but across the whole country,” he says. “As we’ve heard from both Pope Francis and President Obama, we have a serious problem in this country in terms of inequality, and we need to continue to address that.”
Educating others about social justice is an important part of Fr. Kammer’s work. “I give talks on social justice and on the thinking of Pope Francis and Catholic social teaching in terms of the least among us, as the Scriptures put it,” he explains. “I love talking to audiences and finding people who are excited about trying to help their neighbor, and I try to help them in terms of giving a moral framework for what they do.”
Fr. Kammer also educates through his writing. His first book, “Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought” takes readers from the Old Testament through to contemporary social justice issues. He wrote “Salted with Fire: Spirituality for the Faithjustice Journey” for those working in the trenches. “It deals with issues like burnout and compassion fatigue and also how you sustain yourself spiritually in doing this kind of work,” he says.
For Fr. Kammer, it’s the fellowship of Jesuits and his lay colleagues over the past 50 years who have sustained him in his work for social justice. “There is a tremendous array of ministries of people helping people across the United States and having the opportunity to travel and see that has been very gratifying.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.