Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Working Catholic: World Series by Bill Droel

Back in March 2017 I picked the Dodgers in our usually friendly betting pool. I have admired the team, dating from the era that Roger Kahn describes in The Boys of Summer (Harper Collins, 1971). I wasn’t around to experience the debut of Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) in April 1947. In time, however, I followed Robinson and his teammates. (Full disclosure: the Dodgers were never my absolute favorite team, nor are they now.) 

42, Brian Helgeland’s inspiring 2013 movie about Robinson and the Dodger’s president and general manager Branch Rickey (1881-1965) downplays the role of Christian faith in the integration of Major League Baseball. That’s the opinion of Eric Metaxas, the author of Martin Luther (Penguin, 2017) and other biographies. It is also the opinion of Carl Erskine, a Dodger right-hander from 1948 to 1959. 

42 Faith: the Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry (Thomas Nelson, 2017) brings Robinson’s and Rickey’s Christian faith to the center of the drama. Both men were evangelicals who prayed the Scripture. Both men kept holy the Lord’s Day; Rickey by not working on Sunday, first as a player and then as an executive. And, both men took Christianity beyond the strictly private realm and applied their faith to their workday lives.

Henry writes about each man’s doubts. Would Robinson hit and field at the major league level? Would the Dodger players and staff unify behind him? Would Robinson stay calm in the face of taunting? Would the owners of other teams tolerate integration? At a moment of serious doubt, Henry reveals, Rickey drew upon his faith. All the preliminaries for signing Robinson were accomplished, Henry continues. Just then, Rickey had an anguished “dark night of the soul.” His reading of Scripture did not calm him. And so, he walked a short distance from his office to Plymouth Church. There with visible hesitation he “sought spiritual guidance” with Rev. L Wendell Fifield (1891-1964). Rickey, as history knows, then decided to act.

 Don’t get the wrong impression. Yes, Christianity was a major motive behind the integration of baseball, as it was during the subsequent Civil Rights era. But keep in mind that everyone does everything for mixed motives. Robinson wanted to further his athletic achievements and he wanted to use baseball as a means to financially support a family. In principle Rickey favored integration but he also wanted to make money by fielding a winning team.

Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017) features faith in his biography Branch Rickey (Penguin, 2011). But faith had to mix with money to make the April 1947 breakthrough possible. In 1943 the Dodgers were $800,000 in debt to Brooklyn Trust Bank. Rickey needed more money to scout colleges and minor leagues for prospects, including blacks. So Rickey, an evangelical political conservative, went to the bank to meet its president George McLaughlin, a Catholic political liberal. Neither man was into moralizing or into converting individuals. So Rickey consciously avoided the morality of integration at the bank meeting. He simply said the scouting would include black players. “What McLaughlin believes doesn’t matter,” Rickey felt. “How he behaves is what counts.” 

Here is the liberal bank executive’s interesting reply to Rickey: “If you want to do this to get a beat on the other teams and make some money, let’s do it. But if you want to do this for some social change, forget it.” Both the bank executive and the baseball executive were men of faith and both believed that Christianity compelled racial inclusion. But both men were realists who knew that a black (eventually Robinson) was not being scouted to preach integration. He was paid to play baseball excellently and in the process to offer an example to bigots.

It is wrong to say that baseball would not have integrated without the faith of Robinson and Rickey. This notion does not fully appreciate mixed motives. Other executives and players would have integrated the sport. In fact, Bill Veeck (1914-1986), who became a Catholic, was prepared to have black players on the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943—four years ahead of the Dodgers. Owners of other teams blocked Veeck at the time. In July 1947, less than four months after Robinson’s debut, Veeck signed Larry Doby (1923-2003) and thereby integrated his Cleveland Indians.
The faith of Doby, Veeck, Robinson and Rickey, as prudently applied in their workaday settings, is still instructive these weeks and months as professional sports and our entire culture grapple with race relations.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


The news is overwhelming – nuclear war threatened, Texas, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas; if you understand time as programmed, as did St. Paul, Augustine, Hegel and Marx, it is apocalyptic. If you understand time as simply a measure of motion, and events as determined by community choices, contemplation and action are now an imperative.  What do we do about climate change, racism, gun control, income inequality?   

Poet Margaret Rozga writes: “Time is neither a straight line nor a circle.

It is a series of dots, tempting to connect.” 

November 4, 2008, Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, BenuPress, Hopkins, Minnesota, 2012

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Working Catholic: Housing Part III by Bill Droel

 I just returned from St. Paul. In the early 1970s, as part of the War on Poverty, I lived and worked in a St. Paul neighborhood called West Seventh. On this and in previous visits I observe a drastically changed West Seventh. Its anchor, the Xcel Energy Center, opened in September 2000 as the home of the Minnesota Wild. (Lady Gaga performed there just after I left. Too bad she missed me.) There are two hotels, one just opened. Several restaurants and bars line West Seventh, including a brand new brew house. Several medical facilities are there. A short walk down a hill leads to a string of condos on the east bank of the Mississippi River. 

As I walked around West Seventh and around a couple other St. Paul neighborhoods, I thought about Richard Florida, who caused a stir with his Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books [2002]; A city can recover from its post-industrial slump, Florida says, if it can attract and retain a sufficient number of educated young adults. The way to do so includes universities, trendy neighborhoods, an art scene, sports venues, public transportation, medical and research facilities, skilled jobs and more. Florida uses charts, a global creativity index and examples, including (on the positive front) Austin, Seattle, Boston and more. He implies that any place has the potential to thrive. Thus for a time his book and his talks were popular with regional meetings of mayors, at business conferences, among urban planners and professional associations and even some church organizations.

Now, however, Florida realizes that his prescription has a downside. Yes, “the concentration of talent and economic activity” makes a place thrive, he writes in The New Urban Crisis (Basic Books, 2017). But… think about it logically… those places might perhaps be any place, but cannot be all places. In fact, says Florida (again with demographics, charts and several lists of “star cities”), a concentrated thriving place causes inequality and eventually undermines the wider society, including the trendy place itself. Whereas 15 years ago Florida celebrated one side of the story, he now concentrates on the downside.  

Housing issues are a big symptom of the downside—including wide disparity in real estate prices, lack of affordable housing, differences in municipal services and persistent discrimination. A thriving part of town, Florida convincingly shows, is not merely adjacent to another part of town. Concentrated urban prosperity contributes to “chronic, concentrated urban poverty…which remains the most troubling issue facing our cities.” 

A handful of new books wail against gentrification. (These books will be considered in a subsequent blog.) Florida, who once was an unabashed proponent of gentrification, admits the obvious: Gentrification displaces the elderly and poor; it pushes them into neighborhoods that already have too much poverty. But “direct displacement of people by gentrification is not as big an issue as it is made out to be,” Florida explains. It is only a part of the inequality problem which unfortunately “is driven by the same economic motor that powers growth.”

Some illnesses cannot be tackled wholesale and head on. A change in behavior, however, gets at the illness indirectly. That is, treat the symptom to attack the bigger cause. Within that framework an affordable housing effort undertaken by the community organization in my own Chicago neighborhood, Southwest Organizing (, might be the solution to global inequality. SWOP’s rehab of vacant structures will, of course, assist those families who move into the apartments. With some interplay among other advocacy groups and interested developers, this neighborhood project could be replicated and thereby somewhat offset the downside of the trendy growth that occurs in other Chicago neighborhoods and with more pinball effect the project could have some global implications.

Moralizing is not productive. A revitalized neighborhood is hardly in itself a bad thing. The best future for West Seventh, for all of St. Paul, for my neighborhood and for all of Chicago requires intense interaction among many imperfect institutions—each calling the others back to their original good purpose and each contributing to thick relationships that minimize each institution’s occasional miscues and shortsighted behavior.  

To be continued with more housing examples…

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Friday, September 8, 2017

Labor Day 2017

There is a nobility in human work, but Labor Day and Catholic Social Teaching is more than just recognizing that fact.

Labor Day is a good time to reflect on Catholic - Social Teaching;  a response to  the horrors of the industrial revolution.[1]    Work is no longer the laborare est orare of a Benedictine Monk (to work is to pray);  work is matter of survival for many and for some alienating.   Pope John Paul II recognized this in his Encyclical on work.[2]   He also stated that labor unions are a necessity.

The Labor Day march is a wonderful experience of celebrating the work and accomplishments of organized labor.

Since it is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 fair housing marches led by Father James Groppi, I asked people about Father Groppi as a labor leader.  Groppi studied at the seminary in Milwaukee where Catholic Social Teaching was emphasized.  One time Seminary director, Rev. Francis Haas, was later named Bishop of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He was an advisor on labor relations to President Roosevelt and civil rights advisor to President Harry S. Truman.  Groppi was also associated with the Milwaukee Cardijn Center that sponsored ‘Labor Schools’ based on Catholic Social Teaching.

  After he was married Groppi became a Milwaukee County bus driver and was elected as the president of the Bus Drivers Union (A.T.U. 998) in Milwaukee.  The election was disputed  and was finally decided by a coin flip.  A former colleague remembers him as “having a broader view than concern about soap in the bathrooms.”  He looked to community problems such as school bus drivers working for low pay and the need to organize them.

   Latino leader, Jesus Salas remembers Groppi as an ally of Latino workers in Milwaukee.  As a priest Groppi marched with Salas to the Allan Bradley plant to advocate the hiring of  minority workers.  Groppi was also supportive of the farm worker movement.

   This year the Labor Day celebration began with a ‘Fight for Fifteen’ rally.  Young African American leaders led the podium speeches which advocated for better wages for low paid workers and a union.  A large contingent marched from Voces de la Frontera, the immigrant worker center.  A friend commented that the only way this country has a future based on democracy and justice depends on the activism of African Americans and Latinos.  Father Groppi would have agreed.

[1] Rerum Novarum, 1891
[2] Laborem Exercens, 1981

Friday, September 1, 2017


 Despite objections children were included in Father James Groppi’s struggle for justice. 

In a book of poems by Margaret Rozga, the poem, Jeannie’s Birthday Gift, speaks of children involved in the marches.  (200 Nights and one day, Benu Press, Hopkins, MN)

Jeannie’s Birthday Gift

It was Jeannie’s birthday.  We
Had a big family dinner before
Going to St. Boniface to march.

She put on her new tee shirt, just
a plain White shirt, but what she wanted
Mom said no, better not, but she begged

and begged ‘til Mom gave in.  She
never could wash out the egg that
splattered all over Jeannie’s back.

Jesus and the children

People even brought little children to him, but when the disciples saw this they turned them away.  But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Lk. 18, vs. 15-17  

Why go through the organizing, the confrontation of hate and violence for 200 nights, in the hope of getting a fair housing law?

Matthew Desmond, in his award winning book,  Evicted,* writes:

The home is the center of life. (p. 293.) The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Each of these three unalienable --- so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given----requires a stable home. (p .300.)

And so the march to Lincoln Avenue.

*Matthew Desmond, Evicted, Crown Publishers, New York, 2016

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

More Memories of the ’67 racial conflicts in Milwaukee

Comedian and peace activist Dick Gregory died recently and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted him in reference to the ’67 racial conflicts in Milwaukee:

“There is nothing in America that equals what happened here in Milwaukee,” Gregory said at a 2007 event marking the 40th anniversary of the marches.  “When the rest of the country saw what was going on in Milwaukee, it realized that equality was not an Alabama problem, was not a Mississippi problem.  This is an American problem.” MJ.S. 8-21-17,p. 4C

Comments from two current social activists who were students at Marquette:

One remembers the July 30th to August 2nd confrontation when the National Guard was called out and a curfew imposed on Milwaukee.  He was working at Stouffer’s Restaurant and the restaurant had to close , so he and some friends found a bar that was open.  Former Packer great and hall of famer Johnny Blood McNally was holding court.  When asked about Curly Lambeau, McNally responded, “Asshole!”  Six students found refuge at his Wauwatosa family home during the curfew.  The MU student remembers supporting the marches later that month but not participating.  Students cheered the marchers as they started their march across the bridge.

Another remembers protests in 1966 at the whites-only Eagles Club with a membership that included major politicians and judges.  Protesters were met with taunts and Confederate flags.  He said he was more of an observer than a protester on the marches.  He remembers a young man screaming vile epithets at marchers near Kosciusko Park.  “I went and stood in front of the man face to face.  The man stopped his yelling.” The ‘observer’ commented that when people are part of a crowd they feel free to do and say awful things; when confronted individually they are embarrassed.

A question: Is racism still a dominant attitude in our country? Have we made any progress?  Confederate flags, epithets screamed at protesters – the wave of hate even as transmitted by T.V. is difficult to escape.  Maybe we should shift our concerns to the Packers; will they win the Super Bowl?  

Dick Gregory wrote the Forward to Margaret Roszga’s book of poems, 200 Nights and one day.  Gregory quoted a prayer from antiquity, Psalm 23:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow o death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

He commented,

This is America. That day was America. And I am blessed to have been there with these freedom fighters as victory was fought for and won.”
200 Nights and one day, Benu Press, p. viii, 2009.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Photo by Catherine Lange

“I had African American friends not knowing where they were going to move, so this wasn’t a question of why would I get involved (in the marches).  It was a question of why I would not get involved.”  
Margaret Rozga, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 7-30-17

“I marched with Groppi during the Eagles Club protests the year before, but I didn’t join the 1967 demonstrations, for reasons that remain obscure to me.  The counterculture was fast developing two equal and somewhat complimentary dimensions: an inward side focused on questions of personal meaning and an outward side galvanized in opposition the Vietnam War, racial prejudice and a generic bogeyman called the Establishment.  I was already taking the inward path.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 8-6-17

16th Street Viaduct looking north from W. Pierce Street. Photo by Catherine Lange.

In response to this reflection someone said that those “baby boomers” who were concerned with personal meaning to the point of not getting involved are the ones who do not get involved today and probably don’t vote.

A friend and social activist recalled the “riot” of August 2, 1967.  He related that he had graduated from Marquette that spring and was working at a factory the summer before graduate school.  He said he couldn’t go home because travel in the city was restricted.  Suburbanites were terrified.  When the restrictions were lifted He bought a shotgun to protect his Wauwatosa home.

I also talked to a man who was 12 years old at the time of the August 2, ’67 blow up in Milwaukee.  He and his family lived in West Allis and his father worked at Allis Chalmers manufacturing.  His Dad got the hunting rifle out to protect family and property.

Plaque at the end of the 16th Street Viaduct commemorating the 1986 renovations of the bridge by Mayor Henry Maier, an opponent Father Groppi. Photo by Catherine Lange

Bob Graf recalled:
I can remember crossing the 16th street Bridge with the Open Housing marches in 1967 and being met by angry people on the south side of the bridge.  Besides shouting they were throwing rocks and bottles at us. We were flanked on both sides by African-American males, Commandos, and thus felt protected.  We had been warned to not react to the hatred and just keep on marching, chanting and singing.

Now when I cross the 16th street Bridge, now named the Father Groppi Memorial Bridge, I am met by a racially mixed neighborhood of Hispanic, Whites and African American.  There are no more signs of overt racism and a Milwaukee open housing city ordinance has long been passed.

Now when I cross North Ave, I feel a wall dividing black and white.  It is not a feeling of overt racism but it is still one of racism.  North of North Ave. the community is overwhelming black and poor.  Housing and education have deteriorated and crime has increased.  Milwaukee’s racial barrier, in my mind, has moved from the 16th bridge to the wall on North Ave.  We need an Equal Housing March from North Ave. to the predominately white and well off downtown. 

Joan Bleidorn remembered: 

At the time of the civil rights marches in Milwaukee, I was studying for a Masters at Marquette and working at St. Boniface school several mornings a week, as an Elementary School Guidance Counselor.  I saw firsthand the excitement of the school and parish under the prophetic leadership of Father Jim Groppi.  I witnessed firsthand the clashes between Fr. Groppi and school principal Sister Kathleen over the role to be played by the school kids.  He thought they should be out in the streets marching for open housing legislation, while Kathleen vociferously demanded that they stay in school where she felt they belonged.

I  was on the earliest marches, beginning in August of 1967, which often included a tasty meal served at the back of the parish hall fostering a strong sense of community.  When the marches increased to large numbers, it became impossible to continue the meals.

I marched over the 16th Street Viaduct, along with huge numbers of marchers, 
when an angry south side woman hurled a glass bottle at me which struck me on the shoulder.

History was made when the open housing laws were passed,  thanks to the determination of  the thousands of marchers who stood up for justice and an end to racism. 

Scroll down for Margaret Rozga's poem,Peggy:  "Crossing the 16th Street Viaduct"