In powerful speech, San Diego bishop challenges organizers to disrupt, rebuild

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy addresses the U.S. regional meeting of the World Meeting of Popular Movements Feb. 18, in Modesto, Calif. (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy addresses the U.S. regional meeting of the World Meeting of Popular Movements Feb. 18, in Modesto, Calif. (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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It took all of six minutes for San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy to rouse a crowd of nearly 700 community organizers and social justice "protagonistas" by calling them to become disrupters and rebuilders amid current American politics.

The speech, 20 minutes in length but interrupted nearly two dozen times by cheers and applause, took head on key policies of the early presidency of Donald Trump.

"President Trump was the candidate of disruption. He was the disrupter, he said," McElroy told those gathered here Saturday morning for the U.S. regional meeting of the World Meeting of Popular Movements. "Well now, we must all become disrupters."

"We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies, rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men and women and children as sources of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children," the bishop said.

Read the earlier story: 'Unbreakable': World Meeting for justice opens in California, Pope Francis hails the nearly 700 participants in his message to the gathering in Modesto.

McElroy was not the first bishop to speak at this popular movements gathering, nor the first to rally the audience or address actions of the Trump administration. A day earlier, Archbishop José Gomez, whose see of Los Angeles has nearly 1 million immigrants without legal documentation, called for comprehensive immigration reform in condemning deportation policies of the past two presidents, but in particular the tone of Trump.

"I do not like the harsh tone, the sense of indifference and cruelty that seems to be coming out of this new administration in Washington. They are playing with our emotions, with people's emotions, toying with their lives and futures, and that's not right," Gomez said, later adding "A person is still a person even though he is without papers."

But the San Diego prelate benefited from the blessing of timing. He followed two days of speakers and participants clamoring for leaders in the Catholic church to step up their involvement in the issues on the board -- land, work, housing, racism, and immigration, the latter McElroy identified as "the key one we have to face now in our local church" -- and during a panel on labor and lodging, he delivered the message they were waiting to hear.

"I thought it really powerful," said Christopher Newsome of the Farm at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, made even more powerful for him, who is black, that the words came from the mouth of a powerful white man. "It made me feel so excited to be Catholic."

John Gehring, Catholic program director of Faith in Public Life, tweeted that the address "was one of the most powerful speeches I've ever seen a bishop give."

McElroy couched his remarks to the grass-roots leaders in what he described as the "powerful pathway" of past Catholic movements of "see, act, judge": to see the situation clearly, to judge with principles that foster the integral development of people, and to act "in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone's unique situation."

The "simple but rich architecture" constructed by these principles, he said, guided Catholic social actions in the past century in Europe and Latin America. But the words "which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in the service of the dignity of the human person," McElroy continued, "must be renewed and re-examined in every age, and seen against the background of those social, economic, and political forces in each historical moment."

That moment in the U.S., he said, was "a pivotal moment as a people and a nation, in which bitter divisions cleave our country and pollute our actual dialogue."

"We must make the issues of jobs, housing, immigration, economic disparities, and the environment foundations for common efforts, rather than of division. We must seek prophetic words and prophetic actions which produce unity and cohesion, and we must do so in a spirit of hope, which is realistic," McElroy said.

The principle of seeing "is the starting point for transformative justice" and served as the backbone of Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si', on the Care for Our Common Home," McElroy added, but "has seldom been more difficult in our society in the United States."

"This is an especially important anchor for us in an age in which truth itself is under attack. Pope Benedict lamented the diminishment of attention to the importance of objective truth in public life and discourse. Now we've come to a time when alternate facts compete with real facts, and whole industries have arisen to shape public opinion in destructively isolated and dishonest patterns," said McElroy, an observation that elicited a cry of "Preach!" from the audience.  

He urged people to never be afraid to speak the truth, which lay in empirical reality and the "realities of injustice and marginalization that confront our nation." He then quoted Francis' own address to the 2015 World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia, where the pope stated, "When we look into the eyes of the suffering, when they see the faces of the endangered campesino, the poor laborer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, the exploited child, we have seen and heard not a cold statistic, but the pain of a suffering humanity, our own pain, our own flesh."

"‘See clearly the situation' is not merely a step in your work on behalf of justice," McElroy told the audience filled with faith-based and secular community organizers. "It shapes everything that you do to transform our world."

From there, McElroy hit his stride.

The San Diego bishop said that "the fundamental political question of our age" was whether current U.S. economic structures will receive greater freedom or be directed in a way "to safeguard the dignity of the human person and the common good of our nation."

"In that battle, the tradition of Catholic social teaching is unequivocally on the side of strong governmental and societal protections for the powerless, the worker, the homeless, the hungry, those without decent medical care, the unemployed," McElroy said to rolling applause.

"This stance of the church's teaching flows from teaching of the Book of Genesis, that creation is the gift of God to all of humanity. Thus in the most fundamental way, there is a universal destination for all of the material goods that exist in this world. Wealth is a common heritage, not at its core a right of lineage or of acquisition."

At one point, McElroy said he often drew pushback when he quoted Francis in saying the current economy is "one that kills," that people accused him of exaggerating what was meant merely as a figure of speech. He then asked the assembly in Modesto's Central Catholic High School gymnasium to close their eyes and think of someone they have known killed by the economy: "A senior who can't afford medicine or rent. A mother or father who are dying working two and three jobs, and really dying because even then they can't provide for their kids. Young people who can't find their way in the world in which there is no job for them, and they turn to drugs and gangs and suicide."

Afterward, McElroy asked people to first mourn those in their thoughts, and then shout out their names. Frank, Danielle, Ruth, Sarah, Jeffrey were among those exclaimed.

"Let all the world know that this economy kills," the bishop said.

"For Catholic social teaching, the surest pathway to economic justice is the provision of meaningful and sustainable work for all men and women capable of work. … Work is thus a profoundly sacred reality. It protects human dignity even as it spiritually enriches that dignity. If we truly are in our work co-creators with God, don't we think that deserves at least $15 an hour?" McElroy asked, in his first of three endorsements of an increase in the minimum wage to that level.

In addition to becoming disrupters, McElroy called everyone to also become rebuilders in solidarity.

"We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person, and asserts what that flag behind us asserts and is our heritage: Every man and woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal," he said.

That nation must pay a higher minimum wage, provide decent housing and basic needs to its poor, and "rebuild our earth, which is so much endangered by our own industries," with forces attempting to "obscure the scientific realities of climate change" in the same manner used earlier by tobacco companies.

"So let us see and judge and act. Let us disrupt and rebuild. And let us do God's work," McElroy concluded to a final robust round of applause.

Afterward, one of the participants was overheard saying, "We need more bishops like that."

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 10-23, 2017 print issue under the headline: San Diego bishop urges crowd to become disrupters and rebuilders.

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