Infiltrating the Church: The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism

Screenshot 2014-03-23 at 9.05.17 AMIn a meeting room under Holy Name Cathedral, a rapt group of black Roman Catholics listened as Barack Obama, a 25-year-old community organizer, trained them to lobby their fellow delegates to a national congress in Washington on issues like empowering lay leaders and attracting more believers.

“He so quickly got us,” said Andrew Lyke, a participant in the meeting who is now the director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics. The group succeeded in inserting its priorities into the congress’s plan for churches, Mr. Lyke said, and “Barack Obama was key in helping us do that.”

By the time of that session in the spring of 1987, Mr. Obama — himself not Catholic — was already well known in Chicago’s black Catholic circles. He had arrived two years earlier to fill an organizing position paid for by a church grant, and had spent his first months here surrounded by Catholic pastors and congregations. In this often overlooked period of the president’s life, he had a desk in a South Side parish and became steeped in the social justice wing of the church, which played a powerful role in his political formation.

This Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican after a three-decade divergence with the church. By the late 1980s, the Catholic hierarchy had taken a conservative turn that de-emphasized social engagement and elevated the culture wars that would eventually cast Mr. Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Mr. Obama, who went on to find his own faith with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s Trinity United Church of Christ, drifted from his youthful, church-backed activism to become a pragmatic politician and the president with a terrorist “kill list.” The meeting this week is a potential point of confluence.

A White House accustomed to archbishop antagonists hopes the president will find a strategic ally and kindred spirit in a pope who preaches a gospel of social justice and inclusion. Mr. Obama’s old friends in the priesthood pray that Francis will discover a president freed from concerns about re-election and willing to rededicate himself to the vulnerable.

But the Vatican — aware that Mr. Obama has far more to gain from the encounter than the pope does, and wary of being used for American political consumption — warns that this will hardly be like the 1982 meeting at which President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II agreed to fight Communism in Eastern Europe.

“We’re not in the old days of the great alliance,” said a senior Vatican official who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the mind-set inside the Holy See. While Mr. Obama’s early work with the church is “not on the radar screen,” the official said, his recent arguments with American bishops over issues of religious freedom are: Catholic leaders have objected to a provision in the administration’s health care law that requires employers to cover contraception costs, and have sharply questioned the morality of the administration’s use of drones to fight terrorism.

As in many reunions, expectations, and the possibility for disappointment, run high.

A Fast Learner

In 1967, as the modernizing changes of the Second Vatican Council began to transform the Catholic world, Ann Dunham, Mr. Obama’s mother, took her chubby 6-year-old son occasionally to Mass and enrolled him in a new Catholic elementary school in Jakarta, Indonesia, called Santo Fransiskus Asisi. At school, the future president began and ended his days with prayer. At home, his mother read him the Bible with an anthropologist’s eye.

Pious he was not. “When it came time to pray, I would pretend to close my eyes, then peek around the room,” Mr. Obama wrote in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.” “Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and 30 brown children, muttering words.”

In 1969, Mr. Obama transferred to a more exclusive, state-run school with a mosque, but a development in the United States would have a greater impact on his future career. American Catholic bishops responded to the call of the Second Vatican Council to focus on the poor by creating what is now known as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an antipoverty and social justice program that became one of the country’s most influential supporters of grass-roots groups.

By the early 1980s, when Mr. Obama was an undergraduate at Columbia University, the campaign was financing a project to help neighborhoods after the collapse of the steel mills near Chicago. The program’s leaders, eager to expand beyond Catholic parishes to the black Protestant churches where more of the affected community worshiped, sought an African-American for the task. In 1985, they found one in Mr. Obama, a fledgling community organizer in New York who answered a want ad for a job with the Developing Communities Project. The faith-based program aimed to unify South Side residents against unsafe streets, poor living conditions and political neglect. Mr. Obama’s salary was less than $10,000 a year.

The future president arrived in Chicago with little knowledge of Catholicism other than the Graham Greene novels and “Confessions” of St. Augustine he had read during a period of spiritual exploration at Columbia. But he fit seamlessly into a 1980s Catholic cityscape forged by the spirit of Vatican II, the influence of liberation theology and the progressivism of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, who called for a “consistent ethic of life” that wove life and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

On one of his first days on the job, Mr. Obama heard Cardinal Bernardin speak at an economic development meeting. He felt like a Catholic novice there, he wrote in his memoir, and later decided “not to ask what a catechism was.” But he was a quick study.

“He had to do a power analysis of each Catholic church,” said one of his mentors at the time, Gregory Galluzzo, a former Jesuit priest and disciple of the organizer Saul Alinsky. Mr. Obama, Mr. Galluzzo said, soon understood the chain of command and who had influence in individual parishes.

Mr. Obama had a small office with two cloudy glass-block windows on the ground floor of Holy Rosary, a handsome red brick parish on the South Side, where he would pop down the hall to the office of the Rev. William Stenzel, raise a phantom cigarette to his lips and ask, “Want to go out for lunch?” Besides sneaking smoke breaks with the priest on the roof, Mr. Obama listened to him during Mass. “He was on an exposure curve to organized religion,” Father Stenzel said.

The future president’s education included evangelizing. Mr. Obama often plotted strategy with the recent Catholic convert who had hired him, Gerald Kellman, about how to bring people into the program and closer to the church. The effort to fill the pews “was what Bernardin really bought into,” Mr. Kellman said.

To expand congregations as well as the reach of his organizing program, Mr. Obama went to Holy Ghost Catholic Church in South Holland, Ill., to ask Wilton D. Gregory, an African-American bishop and a rising star in the hierarchy, for a grant for operating costs. Archbishop Gregory, who now leads the Archdiocese of Atlanta, recalled Mr. Obama as a persuasive man who “wanted to engage the people of the neighborhood.” He recommended that Cardinal Bernardin release the funds.

As the months went on, Mr. Obama became a familiar face in South Side black parishes. At Holy Angels Church, considered a center of black Catholic life, he talked to the pastor and the pastor’s adopted son about finding families willing to adopt troubled children. At Our Lady of the Gardens, he attended peace and black history Masses and conferred with the Rev. Dominic Carmon on programs to battle unemployment and violence. At the neo-Gothic St. Sabina, he struck up a friendship with the Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, the firebrand white pastor of one of the city’s largest black parishes. The two would huddle in a back room and commiserate about the liquor stores and payday loan businesses in the neighborhood.

This article continues at nytimes.com

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