Regional Worker Still Seeking Social Justice
In talking about his 47 years as a Glenmary regional worker (and 57 as a Glenmarian), Father Les Schmidt says simply, "My primary role is to respond to justice issues as they emerge. Jesus came to bring justice, and as one of his disciples that's my responsibility, too."
When asked why he hasn't retired at age 80, he reflects that "Jesus allowed his whole life to be poured out, right up to the cross." Father Les says he's blessed with good health and is as busy as ever.
In the 1960s, as associate pastor at Appalachian missions, he saw unjust conditions people faced in these impoverished areas. He soon felt called to take on his social justice ministry.
"I began to realize most significant decisions affecting them were made by outside powers," says Father Les. "I knew I needed to stand with people to help them change their situation if it wasn't right.'"
To prepare to be a regional worker, he traveled to Chicago and New York for training in community organizing and amaster's degree work in sociology, with Glenmary's blessing.
"In my job," he says, "where I am isn't dictated by me but by the situation." He still travels up to a 1,000 miles a week, and every case requires him to use a specific strategy.
Over the years Father Les has assisted with a wide range of issues such as workers' rights (e.g., coal-miner safety and mill-worker unionization), immigration reform, mountaintop removal and criminal justice. In addition, he helped organize the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and helped revitalize the Catholic Committee of the South (CCS); both have been invaluable contributors in social justice efforts.
In 1975 and 1995, he had a significant role in the development of two CCA-driven pastoral letters from the Appalachian bishops—the landmark This Land Is Home to Me, and At Home in the Web of Life. He later played a pivotal part in developing pastoral letters from the Southern bishops: Voices and Choices on the poultry industry, and an eight-part pastoral on the criminal justice system.
Now in 2015, he is collaborating on a third CCA-coordinated pastoral letter with the working title, The People's Pastoral. "It will lift up the voices of the people—‘the magisterium of the poor'—rather than coming from the Catholic bishops," says Father Les. "The whole emphasis is ‘the last shall be first.' It's being done in cooperation with all the major religious bodies in Appalachia."
His job is to make this unique project happen. He and others are gathering more than 1,000 "listenings" (stories) directly from Appalachia residents on the margins and those who work with them. He is serving as a consultant on (1) completion/publication of the pastoral letter; (2) creation of a reflection tool, a one-page version of the letter for distribution by local churches and advocacy groups; and (3) development of an off-off-Broadway stage version at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.
Meanwhile, he has continued his six-year effort to speak to as many groups and congregations as possible—in his role as bishops' liaison for the CCS—on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform. "There are no outsiders in God's kingdom," he says. For now, however, he has just temporarily changed the focus of these appearances, engaging these groups and congregations in the "listening" process for the new pastoral.
He and the Grassroots Leadership organization have also been involved in ongoing efforts—as called for by the Southern bishops—to halt creation of new for-profit, private prisons. "I work with local church leaders to arouse congregations' awareness and concerns," he says. "The moral argument is that it's wrong to make money off of people simply because they're behind bars. We've stopped the building of private prisons in a significant number of communities. And efforts are in progress in several other places."
Father Les also works with Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, a group committed to workers' rights supported in Catholic social teachings. "In 2010, I was called to two Catholic universities where food service workers were receiving poor treatment but were afraid to ask for change," he says. "I emphasized to them it was morally necessary according to the Church that they be treated justly. By 2012, both groups of workers had secured fair contracts."
Most recently, he's been acting as a moral voice for adjunct professors in several state university systems, who are asking for the same just treatment as full-time professors.
Father Les and Catholic Scholars members will meet with Pope Francis in Rome at a yet-to-be-confirmed time this year. They hope he'll give them his public support.
Another prime example of his bishops' liaison role is his annual responsibility for identifying and presenting to the Southern bishops—for their possible action—the key social justice challenges faced by CCS members. Father Les also helps prepare a field report for those bishops to present to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He emphasizes that bishops' and others' respect for Glenmary's work always enhances his credibility. "Through the years, Glenmary has given me the mandate and support I need to perform my ministry," he says. "I'm extremely thankful and proud to be a Glenmarian."
This article appeared in the February 2015 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.