CLEVELAND — Although Jesuit Father Fred Kammer is stepping down as executive director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute in his native New Orleans come July 31, he’s nowhere near ready to fully retire and stop his work to end racism, ease poverty and promote immigrant justice.
As the center’s director since 2009, Father Kammer has kept the needs of people on society’s margins foremost by using critical analysis, innovative reports and collaborative campaigns that address challenges to human dignity.
After a six-month sabbatical during which he plans to finish the fourth edition of his popular book “Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought,” the 76-year-old priest plans to search for a place where he can utilize the knowledge accrued over more than four decades of advocacy.
“I would prefer it would be something involving faith and justice,” he told Catholic News Service.
From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Louisiana parishes where residents are raising their voices about pollution caused by chemical companies in the bayou, Father Kammer has stood with people who have few partners to advocate on their behalf.
At JSRI, which has offices at Loyola University New Orleans, Father Kammer has spearheaded research that highlighted economic inequalities and educational opportunities.
He said he was particularly proud of the work published in the institute’s periodic Just South Index that measures the progress, or as he has described, the lack of it, in the areas of racism, poverty and “immigrant exclusion” in five states: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Each index measures nine social conditions such as the average income of poor households, school segregation, housing costs, and the wage gap between white and minority people. Each report compares how the five states of the Deep South fare in comparison with rest of the country.
“Sadly, Louisiana was on the bottom of the first three and was only edged out by Mississippi in the fourth,” Father Kammer said.
The work at JSRI, he admitted, was not easy at times because of the time he had to spend raising funds. He was able to stabilize the institute’s finances with support from foundation grants, the Jesuits’ Central and Southern province, based in St. Louis, the university and proceeds from a modest endowment.
Still, Father Kammer’s thirst for justice fueled his desire to carry out the institute’s mission. Friends and colleagues credit him for his tireless work that saw him build networking with partner organizations while lobbying state legislators for justice.
Father Kammer traces his interest in social justice to his teenage days when he attended the Jesuit-sponsored Summer School for Catholic Action in Dallas in 1961. He attended sessions led by Jesuit Father Louis Twomey, one of the “labor priests” of the 20th century.
“I sat at his feet for three four-day courses, one on race, one on labor and the third on anti-communism. The big battle in those days was between the church and communism for the hearts and minds of labor people,” Father Kammer said.
He soon realized he wanted to be an advocate like Father Twomey.
In 1963, he entered the Jesuits, thinking eventually “I’d get a doctorate in sociology and work on race and poverty issues.”
His Jesuit superiors later decided to send him to law school, an unusual step for his province, then based in New Orleans. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1972 and headed to Atlanta where he joined the Legal Aid Society as an attorney. He often worked on senior citizen concerns during his six years there.
In early 1974, he began studying theology on the way to the priesthood. He was ordained in 1977.
Father Kammer became executive director of Catholic Community Services of Baton Rouge in Louisiana, in 1984, establishing himself as an innovator and leading voice for poor people.
That’s when his spiritual adviser suggested Father Kammer take his message to a broader — meaning nationwide — audience. So the priest joined the U.S. Catholic Conference, a forerunner to the USCCB, as a policy adviser for health and welfare issues. Within two years he was named president of Catholic Charities USA.
From 1992 to 2001, Father Kammer traveled the country visiting the various agencies in the Catholic Charities network and advocating for stronger support for social services for the homeless, poor and elderly. He also helped shape federal social policy to address poverty, homeless and other concerns.
Then his Jesuit province elected him superior, a position he held from 2002 to 2008. As superior he played a key role in establishing JSRI in 2007. When his term as provincial ended, his successor named him the institute’s executive director.
Throughout his tenure, Father Kammer has seen JSRI’s work being used more widely among other organizations to raise awareness about social issues. “I’m really proud of that, too,” he said.
After he completes updating his book by early 2022, Father Kammer has not settled on what he will do other than that he plans to use his voice to speak for justice.
He said he realizes the political environment in more conservative areas of the country, especially the South, makes it more difficult to address social concerns, but that he’s not going to give up trying.
“We’ve just got to keep chipping away at it,” he said. “I’ll do my part, whatever that may be.”