Regional Worker Follows Social Justice Needs
After 54 years as a Glenmarian and 44 as a Glenmary regional worker, Father Les Schmidt is still driven by the belief that “Jesus came to bring justice to the world, and that’s our mission as his disciples.”
His work as a young associate pastor at Appalachian missions in the 1960s gave him a clear insight into unjust conditions people endured in these impoverished rural areas. His experiences soon led him to take on the job of “regional worker,” a social justice ministry to which he’s been dedicated ever since.
“I began to realize most significant decisions affecting those small communities were made by outside powers,” says Father Les. “I said to myself, ‘I have to understand why, and I really need to stand with people to help them change their situation if it’s not right.’”
With Glenmary’s blessing, he went to Chicago for training in community organizing, and then to New York for master’s degree work in sociology—all so he could help people deal with social injustices in their lives.
“It’s difficult to explain regional work,” he says. “What I do is basically respond to others; where I am isn’t dictated by me but by the situation.” He may go to one place to listen to the problems of poultry or food service workers, and then to the next to meet with a bishop about another social issue.
Father Les, 76, still travels up to 1,000 miles a week. Every situation requires him to use a specific strategy, whether it’s calling on bishops and Church people to raise a moral voice, encouraging other organizers to get involved, or stepping forward as an official Church presence.
Through the years he assisted with a wide range of issues: Two early examples involved standing with coal miners striking for safety and joining a campaign for unionization of mill workers. In addition, he helped organize the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and revitalized the Catholic Committee of the South; both have been invaluable contributors in social justice efforts.
He also played a key role in the creation of two pastoral letters from the Appalachian bishops, the landmark This Land Is Home to Me (1975) and At Home in the Web of Life (1995).
Father Les later played a pivotal part in the development of pastoral letters from the bishops of the South: Voices and Choices on the poultry industry; and an eight-part pastoral on the criminal justice system, released over a six-year period after a 2000 U.S. bishops’ pastoral.
Since completion of the criminal justice pastoral, Father Les and the Grassroots Leadership organization have been involved in efforts—as called for by the bishops—to halt creation of new for-profit, private prisons.
“I work with local church leaders to arouse congregations’ opposition,” he says. “The moral argument is that it’s wrong to make money off of people simply because they’re behind bars. We’ve successfully stopped the building of private prisons in six communities.”
Father Les also works with Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, a group committed to workers’ rights as detailed in Catholic social teachings. “I was recently called to go to two Catholic universities where food service workers began receiving poor treatment once services were outsourced to large corporations. The workers are afraid of losing their jobs if they push for changes,” he says.
“I talked with these workers and emphasized it was morally necessary according to the Church that they be treated justly. They don’t have contracts yet and the outcomes are still uncertain.”
For the past several years Father Les has spoken to many groups on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform, in his role as bishops’ liaison for the Catholic Committee of the South. Over a recent four-week period, he spoke to about 50,000 North Carolina Catholics by invitation of their pastors.
He also recently helped African-American residents of a small, isolated Mississippi town. They asked for Church leaders’ help after civic officials had the town’s first-ever water lines installed, but only in the white section of the town.
Father Les’s strategy was to act as adviser and call on experienced African-American organizers, who brought in an attorney and pointed out that officials were violating federal guidelines. The strategy was successful: water lines have now been extended into the African-American neighborhood.
There are more stories to tell than space to tell them. But the preceding are a few revealing examples of Father Les’s constant work in pursuit of justice.
He believes the regional work he does helps keep the ministries of Glenmary Home Missioners and the Church focused on an important truth stated in the pastoral letter This Land Is Home to Me: “The cry of the poor is the voice of the Lord among us.”
One of only a few Glenmarians who grew up in a Glenmary mission (he was a member of Holy Trinity in West Union, Ohio), Father Les says he’s “really happy to be part of Glenmary, and I’m very grateful that I’ve been given the blessing and mandate to do this work.”
This article first appeared in the April 2011 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.