A Theologian in Town Hall: How a small-town mayor implemented Catholic social teaching

Several years ago, I unexpectedly found myself serving as the elected mayor of a small, economically depressed town in rural Nebraska. Previously I had been a tenured theology professor at a Catholic women’s college in the East. I had returned to my Nebraska hometown the summer after completing a sabbatical leave to finish up some family business. Once there, the idea of being able to do full-time research and writing on the role of the laity in the church grew irresistible, and I decided to resign my teaching position and stay.


My hometown was no longer the thriving farming and ranching community it had been when I was growing up. While the farms and ranches had grown much larger, there were far fewer families operating them. The arrival of a Wal-Mart 20 miles away had the usual dampening effect on local business. I was dismayed to discover that all the social ills of the big city could be found here in small-town America as well: widespread drug and alcohol abuse, limited educational opportunities, few new jobs and high unemployment. Social services were stressed, and not a few residents experienced grinding poverty. Later, during my door-to-door campaigning, I came across two homes that “borrowed” electricity from their neighbors, thanks to a very long orange extension cord.

After many lengthy conversations and strategy sessions with friends about what might be done to stem the town’s decline, I agreed, at their urging and with some reluctance, to run for mayor. But this decision was, I must confess, also prompted by a set of interests and concerns I had as a teacher and lay theologian. Let me explain.

Throughout my career, I had regularly taught courses in Catholic social ethics and was gratified to find students altruistic and enthusiastic about the idea that society could be transformed by their decisions and actions. Yet the more I taught these courses, the more I wanted to know how to translate this body of teaching into practical, everyday decisions and actions. What could educated Catholic professionals do to make the social, economic and political networks of their communities more fair and just, more supportive of the common good? How does one live out a preferential option for the poor in one’s professional life? How does the principle of solidarity apply to one’s daily use of money?

While I could remind students of the Gospel charge to do hands-on charity and service, such actions do not really address the structural causes of injustice, which, as Paul VI taught, must be a primary focus of the Catholic witness in our time. The pope described the need for Catholics to bring to conversion “the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieu which are theirs.” The question was how.

Clearly Catholic social teaching supplies the vision and goal. Yet it was evident that “macro” notions regarding radical, systemic change, like those in the church’s social teaching, must be tested and borne out through application and experience; this could only be done locally and through an ongoing, educative practice.

What the Mayor Learned

Once elected mayor, I had regular opportunities to turn Catholic social theory into practice. By the time I completed my term, I had learned some things about relating the church’s social ethic to the circumstances of the local community.

First, I learned that service as an elected official or as an appointee to a board or committee is a rich opportunity for Christian witness. Here one can directly affect the way taxes are raised and spent and create opportunities for employment, education and job training; one can work to ensure that affordable housing is provided and that building codes, safety and health standards are enforced. Above all I came to see such service as a vital way the baptized can heed the call of the Second Vatican Council to seek “the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.” In this way, too, U.S. Catholics can practice what our bishops have come to call “faithful citizenship.”

But my time as mayor also gave me insight into some of the individual things that must be attended to if our collective institutions are to be humanized. And while most of what I learned was hardly revolutionary, my experience proved that St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, had it absolutely right: it is in the practice of love in the small details that we really begin to redirect the world to God’s purposes.

For those seeking ideas about how to pursue the work of social justice locally, I recommend looking to four important aspects of community life. I provide below a brief illustration for each. I also offer a set of questions that can help identify where inequalities may persist and where, for some, justice is denied.

1. Bring services to the people; do not make people come to the services.

As mayor I discovered that state and federal government provided a number of services and help to the working poor and the destitute. This assistance, however, was often inaccessible for reasons of time and place. For those who earned their living by holding down several part-time jobs, it was a serious burden, if not impossible, to take a day off to go to the social services offices to fill out forms and meet with counselors. I learned about the inordinate amount of time people spent just waiting in government offices.

In Nebraska, the distance of rural towns from the available services presented another obstacle. For people in my town, getting help frequently required a drive of 70-plus miles. Given the lack of public transportation, individuals needed a car and money for gas or else a ride with someone else. It was obvious that to meet the needs of their clients better, agencies should schedule evening and weekend hours and/or periodically arrange to set up meetings with clients in their home towns.

In what ways could services to the disadvantaged of your community be better delivered? What can be done to deliver them more expeditiously? Are there new needs for public services that currently go unmet? Are there groups whose needs are presently underserved?

2. Remove the obstacles that prevent people from participating in social systems.

My city was responsible for hiring lifeguards for the summer swim season. Because of the dearth of employment opportunities, high school students from all over the area were eager to get these minimum-wage jobs. New hires had to complete a lifesaving and guard training program that was held periodically in a nearby town and that required a nominal fee. But for students from low-income families, getting to the class and paying the modest fee were barriers. The city decided to offer need-based scholarships and to arrange students’ transportation to the classes on the senior citizens’ bus. While the city could not discriminate in hiring, it could at least level the playing field for all who were seeking the summer jobs.

What are some of the obstacles (like lack of affordable day care, cheap transportation, low wages, need for updated job skills) that hinder people from taking a more active role in your local economy? Do all community members have equal access to the political process? Are there barriers to voting? Are certain groups excluded from the area’s cultural attractions and other services (like parks, libraries, clinics and hospitals)? What action needs to be taken to eliminate such barriers?

3. Exercise a preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged by representing their perspectives in the development and implementation of local policies and programs.

The church’s social documents rarely state the obvious truth: in order to adopt a Catholic social point of view, one must first learn to listen to the poor and come to understand how people on the margins see themselves and their lives. An all too common sin of public officials, service providers and well-meaning community activists is to assume that they know how the poor think. Time and again I learned that this was not the case.

One of my efforts as mayor was to be as accessible to the people as I could. It was important to them to be listened to, that someone in authority heard their views. As I listened, I discovered that while many did not expect me to remove the inequalities and roadblocks they faced, they did want me to see and understand their problems. Above all, they expected me to bring this understanding to any decisions about policies and programs that I might make. In short, I was expected to be their advocate and voice at all of those public hearings and meetings where for good reasons—not for lack of interest, as many supposed—they themselves could not be physically present.

How can Catholics in your community make a preferential option for the poor in the coming elections? What candidates support the church’s social justice agenda? Are there ballot initiatives that discriminate against certain groups within the community? Are there legislative issues directly affecting the working poor and immigrants that Catholic citizens should urge elected officials to support?

4. Keep the information flowing, and find ways to keep people connected.

It is amazing that in this age of instant communication, perhaps the most difficult challenge I faced had to do with information: getting into the information loop and connecting others to it and then, once in, keeping abreast of the data flow. Very early I found that because we were a small jurisdiction, located far from the state capital, decisions affecting our town were regularly made without the benefit of our input. We were either overlooked, or pertinent information was late in getting out to us.

But if being left out of the information loop was a problem, it was also a mistake to presume that everyone was in touch and connected to the same information sources. Keeping in contact with the townspeople required multiple strategies. Many people living on fixed incomes did not subscribe to the local newspaper, and the nearest television station had no interest in giving our town coverage because it is 70 miles away. Since only a minority of households had computers, online bulletin boards were of limited use. A typical and effective way to get people’s attention was to post notices on the windows of local businesses and on the bulletin board at the post office and the bank. I also spent many hours in the restaurants and bars talking to people, which proved a valuable way of taking the pulse of the citizenry.

Sometimes information was so sketchy or distilled that it was meaningless. This was true of the program descriptions prepared for the innumerable brochures and pamphlets handed out by service providers and government agencies. There were some troubling instances when information was deliberately withheld. This was the case with a company with whom the city had an exclusive contract to provide cable television service. While the contract required that an inexpensive package be offered to low-income residents, the company did not include this special rate in their published price schedules.

Is everyone in your community connected to the major information sources? Is Internet access readily available to your population? Is important information provided in a clear, easily digestible form? Do low-income members of the community know how to get legal aid assistance? What formal opportunities are there for different groups within the community to interact?

To be honest, I was relieved when my mayoral duties came to an end. To do such work takes vast amounts of time, humility, patience, a thick skin and a good sense of humor. Despite the challenges, I came away with a clearer grasp of what lay Catholics can do to renew society and its institutions. But the dearth of attention parishes give to promoting and then preparing laypeople for such indispensable work has been a continuing disappointment. How often does one hear homilies treating the great themes of Catholic social ethics: the dignity of work, the obligation to care for creation, the rights and duties associated with life in community? When and where are laypeople educated in the practical ways of using their learning, professional expertise and gifts of the Spirit to root out the conditions that give rise to hunger, homelessness and discrimination?

Pastors’ lack of attention to the laity’s work of faithful citizenship is unfortunate. As I learned, transforming community is not impossible; what seem to be intractable problems need not be so if they can be addressed at their origins and in their local permutations. My hope is that what I have recounted here will encourage others to take a good look at their own communities. I hope that once they have educated themselves in the principles of the church’s social tradition, they will join with their fellow Catholics to apply themselves to breaking the structures of sin that burden and oppress so many of their neighbors. Such an effort is a right response to the Gospel’s call to love and solidarity. It is in serving the common good that lay Catholics serve the coming of God’s kingdom.


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10 years 7 months ago
I have read your very interesting an intelligent article. In my adult life- I am 73- I have concluded , after devoting most of my time to community affairs to help the dispossesed the most important activity is to listen to the poor and evaluate their statements, For examplem when I became President of the National Helath Panning assocaition the best board memeber was an old black lady- agricultural worker of farms in South Dade in te Homestead area. I learned more from her about the health system to the poor athn from PHD's on the same Baord. kudos to the writer, Dr. Bernardo Benes President & CEO Our Elder Brothers ans Sisters Foundation www.ourelderbrothers.org
Robert Garavaglia
10 years 7 months ago
As a morality teacher I appreciate your article because it met my need for a case study for catholic social teaching.
10 years 7 months ago
Georgia Masters Keightley's article on how, as a public official, one can implement Catholic Social Teaching is a very valuable illustration. As Robert Garavaglia said the use of the article as a case study will be invaluable. As a former public school board member I know that serving the people in a public position is a very positive way to bring needed change.
10 years 7 months ago
I have just returned from an immersion trip to El Salvador with 14 college prep students and 2 faculty colleagues and was overjoyed to find this article waiting for my in my weekly issue of America. Our journey convinced our students of the complex injustices that plague the poor of the world...even in a country so "shaped" by the United States. This article will help my students see that they can, in fact, apply Catholic Social Teaching in a very public and organized way through policies and programs that show compassion and loving action.
William Ferguson
10 years 7 months ago
A great article; it’s encouraging to see how accomplishments have been made. As you describe in your 1st and 4th aspects, the People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, a South Florida congregation-based community organization to help fight injustices against the poor, has similarly also realized good results by getting already planned and committed government services more easily accessible by the poor.
9 years 10 months ago
I am in a Just Faith group (in the 30 wk committment/learning period) at St. John Vianney Parish in Walnut Creek. We are reading the JF books and selecting experiences to share that relate to the topics. This article (which I found while reading some unread, older issues of America) was the extremely on point with our group. We are all working professionals, trying to get a grasp on social justice and Catholic social teaching, trying to get practical with what we can do, how to proceed, how to choose our "Border Crossing" experiences, how to get speakers - those who are doing social justice work. It is amazing how you (the author) integrated the ideals of Catholic social teaching with realistic application. If you ever want to speak to our Just Faith groups, or send us more information on how others have applied their social justice foundation, contact our parish - let us know. Just ask for the current JF group - supported by our parish in Walnut Creek.


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