Published February 24, 2005
In town as a special guest of the second annual Black History Month Mass and Celebration at Sacred Heart Church, Father George Clements was invited by Father Edward Branch and Lyke House, the Catholic Center at Atlanta University, to address an interfaith group of college students and adults in the Manley Student Center atrium on the campus of Spelman College during a lunchtime talk on Feb. 11.
While attendees had their choice of vegetable lasagna, salad, steamed vegetables and bread on the first Friday of Lent, the 73-year-old Father Clements, who is conducting a full-out fast of only juice, water, and vitamins until Holy Saturday on March 26, patiently awaited his opportunity to speak.
As he focused in on his audience, Father Clements told them there was something really important that they needed to understand. He said, “When you get involved in social justice, you do not have to get out here and try to save the world, or try to save America, or save Georgia, or Atlanta, or even your own neighborhoods.”
He emphasized, “The one thing my leader Jesus strongly urged his followers to do was go out there and try to do something about one.” He asked his youthful listeners to ponder the number for a moment and spell it. “O-n-e,” they said in unison. “Once more,” cried out Father Clements. “O-n-e.” With wrinkles in his forehead he said, “One more time!” “O-n-e!” the crowd chanted one last time.
When Father Clements gives a talk, he provides a range of facial expressions and hand gestures as he speaks with deep emotion and passion. And when Father Clements shows those wrinkles on his forehead, look out—he is about to drive home a point.
As he paraphrased the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 26, verses 35-40, Father Clements stressed the importance of understanding the word “one.” He said Jesus was very precise when he said, “When I was hungry, you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was naked, and you clothed me; sick, and you cared for me; in prison, and you visited me. I was homeless, and you took me in.” Noting the questions of when it was that they saw Jesus that way and came to his aid, Father Clements recalled Jesus’ response, “As long as you did to one of these least brothers of mine, you did it for me.”
The problems of addiction, homelessness, poverty, and AIDS/HIV are overwhelming when considered in their totality, but Father Clements said everybody can do something about “one.”
He especially challenged the students, saying, “To whom much has been given, much will be expected. I can take one look at all of you and know how privileged and blessed you are. He (God) expects you to do something about at least one.”
Father Clements shared a story of his personal encounter with oneness. It was a frigid December night in Washington, D.C., and he passed by a homeless man in tattered clothing slumped over a bench. Like we all have done on occasion, he thought to himself, “What a shame!” and proceeded to the comfort of his own apartment where he would call it a day. At least that was his plan. But like God calling out to Samuel in the Old Testament, Father Clements felt God’s tugging because he was unable to fall asleep.
Putting his clothes back on, he drove back to the corner where he first saw the man, walked up to him and asked him if he wanted a bed. The homeless man replied, “Yeah, you the one?” Father Clements drove the man back to his apartment, pulled out a rollaway bed, and gave him some blankets.
The next day Father Clements and some friends, who were recovering addicts, spent the day with the 21-year-old homeless man, whose name was Jamal. They did an extensive inquisition into his background and his life of addiction. When Jamal expressed a desire for help, they made it possible for him to go to a drug treatment center in Kentucky.
As Jamal departed for drug treatment, he offered Father Clements an explanation of his response (“Yeah, you the one?”) the night he was taken off the street. Jamal said, “Just before you came up, I had already made up my mind to commit suicide. God told me to wait because He was sending somebody to me. Well, you the one He sent. You the one.” Father Clements said that he often wonders what might have happened if he had remained in bed and whether Jamal would still be alive. Cleaned up now, Jamal is taking classes and is interested in the field of substance abuse so he can help others.
In closing Father Clements told the students, “Jamal was not just talking about me. He was talking about you. You the one! You are the one God wants to reach out to the ‘Jamals’ of the world and show them your love and kindness.”
Since Father Clements’ 1957 ordination in his hometown of Chicago, he has tackled social justice issues, beginning with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1981 Father Clements gained public attention when he became the first Roman Catholic priest to adopt a child. That adoption was the catalyst for the foundation of an adoption program called “One Church One Child.” Operating in 32 states, the program has placed some 170,000 children in homes over the last 24 years. Altogether, Father Clements has adopted four sons.
He also went on to establish the programs “One Church One Addict” and “One Church One Inmate.”
Today Father Clements operates all three initiatives with a staff of 13 people in an Alexandria, Va., office under the umbrella of “One Church One Family.”
Some may wonder why Father Clements keeps such a hectic pace, traveling to four or five cities a month, sometimes twice a week, preaching his message. That is when he refers to his mentor, Msgr. Ignatius McDermott, who died in Chicago this past New Year’s Eve at the age of 95.
Msgr. McDermott was fondly known as the “skid row priest” in recognition of nearly 69 years of work with people addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Father Clements said, “Up until the time of his death, McDermott was often asked when he was going to retire, and his response would always be, ‘I have all eternity to rest.’ He never retired. He died an active priest. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.”