Doing God's work through social activism

Richard E. Ullrich: Former teacher found his calling as a fighter against injustice.

May 20, 2001

RICHARD E. ULLRICH'S e-mails conclude with kernels of his life philosophy. One such maxim quotes Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."

"Demand does not mean violence, obviously," Dick Ullrich amplifies. "But it means you have to speak up, it means you have to take a stand."

Mr. Ullrich knows. Demanding has become his life work. So has boycotting and protesting. "Moral persuasion by itself will not work," he contends.

Dick Ullrich's name is not widely known in his hometown of 61 years. But for decades this former Cardinal Gibbons High School teacher has been a voice in the wilderness, working to correct injustices and social ills. His past and present causes include campaigns against the death penalty, apartheid, racism, poverty, sweatshops and U.S. military spending.

A lay person, he has chaired the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was among the founders of Baltimore Clergy and Laity Concerned (now called Interfaith Action for Racial Justice). In 1987, when the city created an official commission on federal military spending, Mr. Ullrich spearheaded it. (Voters, with the support of The Sun, last year discontinued the commission.)

For 24 years, Mr. Ullrich has headed the Office of Justice and Peace of the Marianist Brothers and Priests, a Roman Catholic order that was begun in France in 1800. The Marianists seek to imitate the faith, humility, simplicity and hospitality of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Their provincial headquarters is in Roland Park, in a mansion donated by a wealthy supporter.

From the earliest days, Christians have argued about how they should live and express their faith. Some favor practicing personal piety and introspection and forsaking the evils of the outside world. Others contend that they should witness through social activism.

Within the Catholic Church, this debate intensified after 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical favoring trade unions and just wages. The Second Vatican Council became another turning point in the church's positions, creating a wave of religious and social activism. The great upheavals of the 1960s also spawned the National Catholic Peace and Justice Movement and gave renewed vigor to the Catholic Worker movement, which had been established during the Great Depression in 1933.

The church's latest collective expression on activism came six months ago when 36 Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter, "Bread Not Stones," calling for a change in the nation's priorities.

They wrote: "The United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world and one of the lowest adult literacy rates. Many of our working poor are struggling in low-paying jobs with no family healthcare benefits and inadequate childcare for their little ones. This is a tragic consequence of a nation which chooses to spend only 6 cents on education and 4 cents on healthcare for every 50 cents which it spends on the military."

The Marianist Office of Justice and Peace has been in the forefront of such reform efforts. Its clergy and lay members hold seminars and workshops, sign petitions and demonstrate. Over the past 25 years, the order has also used its Marianist Sharing Fund as an instrument for change, awarding close to $5 million to activist organizations around the country. Mr. Ullrich is its executive secretary.

Over the years, Marianists have realized that by owning stocks they can attend annual shareholders' meetings and affect the policies of publicly owned companies. Nestle, American Home Products, Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, IBM, Mobil, General Motors, Philip Van Heusen and Crown Petroleum are just a sampling of companies they have challenged. In dealings with such big corporations, the Marianists have shown shrewdness and flexibility.

In the 1980s, the Marianists rejected the anti-apartheid movement's call for a worldwide boycott of businesses transacting with white-supremacist South Africa. Instead, the order kept its shares in those companies and used them as leverage. "We were in the boardrooms and stockholders' meetings as well as part of the street action," Mr. Ullrich recalls.

Opposing apartheid was a clear-cut human and moral question. "Today's issues are more difficult and complicated," says Mr. Ullrich. Entrenched racism in Baltimore, compounded by debilitating poverty, defies easy solutions.

Mr. Ullrich's positions or methods are sometimes controversial. It's hard, though, not to admire him and the Marianists for their courage and assiduity in working for improvement of the human condition. In their faith in a better world, they are true champions of hope.

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