Aurora man helps Naperville church work for justice

 
Updated 1/17/2011 10:27 AM
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  • Tom Cordaro, justice and outreach minister at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Naperville, said his role sometimes inspires controversy. Behind him, a framed quote from former Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara of Brazil expresses the difference between charity and social advocacy, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."

      Tom Cordaro, justice and outreach minister at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Naperville, said his role sometimes inspires controversy. Behind him, a framed quote from former Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara of Brazil expresses the difference between charity and social advocacy, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." DANIEL WHITE | Staff Photographer

  • Tom Cordaro says his 13 years as justice and outreach minister at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Naperville have been both challenging and enriching as he has learned to work with people different from himself.

      Tom Cordaro says his 13 years as justice and outreach minister at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Naperville have been both challenging and enriching as he has learned to work with people different from himself. DANIEL WHITE | Staff Photographer

By Susan Dibble

Tom Cordaro, minister of justice and outreach at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Naperville, is explaining the difference between charity and justice work.

Charity, giving direct aid to the poor, is widely supported and respected, he says. Justice asks thorny questions about why poverty exists in the first place and offers answers that are not easy and often controversial.

Cordaro's work is justice.

"My job in doing this is to raise the kinds of issues and ask the kind of questions that make people inherently uncomfortable," he said. "It's a very big challenge."

Cordaro has invited undocumented immigrants and Muslims to speak to parishioners. He's held discussions on Social Security and health care reform, demonstrated against the war in Iraq and spoken against the death penalty.

Cordaro estimates about 10 percent of the 2,800-family parish would like to see him fired and another 10 percent think he's great. The majority may not be quite sure who he is, but it's his job to make them aware of the Catholic Church's teachings on social issues.

The Rev. Paul Hottinger, pastor of St. Margaret Mary, agreed that Cordaro's role is not an easy one.

"A lot of Catholics are not always aware of the social teaching of the church," he said. "He (Cordaro) puts himself on the firing line. He willingly does this because he's a true believer."

The Catholic Church's social teachings can't be categorized as conservative or liberal, and its stances on some issues may be surprising to those unfamiliar with them, Cordaro said. For instance, the Catholic Church teaches a preferential option for the poor that should be the lens through which a governmental budget is viewed, he said.

"When judging a budget … the question we ask is, how is this going to affect the poorest among us," he said.

Heath care should be viewed within the same framework, he said.

"Catholic teaching states that health care is a human right," he said.

Cordaro doesn't claim to have all the answers himself. After laying out what he considers basic principles, he often invites speakers with different points of views to discuss an issue. That's the approach he'll take in planning a panel discussion of energy and global climate change for April.

"I'm not going to enforce orthodoxy on people," he said. "Just like any other Catholic, I struggle with a lot of the church's teachings."

Beginning in justice

Serving in a church in Chicago's Western suburbs, an area known as predominantly Republican and conservative, is not what Cordaro would have envisioned for himself 20 years ago. His roots in social activism go deep.

Among his heroes, he cites Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Dan and Phil Barrigan, two Catholic priests who were brothers and became known for their protests against the Vietnam War. Cordaro's own parents taught him a preference toward the poor.

"Life that had meaning was a life of service," he said. "Caring for those who were vulnerable and powerless was part of what it meant to be a Catholic Christian."

While a college student in his native Iowa, Cordaro volunteered in a house for the homeless and poor that his brother, Frank, had opened as part of the Catholic Worker Movement.

After college, Cordaro served in campus ministry at Iowa State University and eventually opened his own hospitality house. He moved on to work in the national office of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organization, and then returned to campus work at the University of Miami in Florida.

Cordaro and his wife, Brigid, wanted to return to the Midwest when he saw the ad St. Margaret Mary Parish had placed in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. That was 13 years ago.

Cordaro, a self-acknowledged liberal, admits he came with preconceived notions about Republicans and conservatives. Living in this area has been a growing experience, the Aurora resident said.

"I've learned many of my preconceived notions and stereotypes were wrong," he said. "I have a good deal of conservative, Republican friends who have taught me they care as much about the poor as I do."

Cordaro counts parishioner Nick Mercadante of Lisle as one of his Republican friends. Mercadante said although he differs from Cordaro politically, they have found common ground on issues such as the abolition of the death penalty and projects to help people.

"By having people who look at things slightly differently, we learn from each other," Mercadante said. "Tom is a good man. His heart is in the right place."

Cordaro said he still finds it challenging to be in the minority and to have to explain himself again and again, but he takes a broader view of the church.

"The bottom line for everything is we're all brothers and sisters of the same Lord Jesus Christ," he said. "Family is family. You stay together and you don't write them off. You agree to disagree and you find ways of being together."

Community outreach

Cordaro has reached far beyond St. Margaret Mary Parish to find commonality with people different from himself. An active member of the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Association, he worked with other congregations to start Naperville CARES to provide emergency help to those in need.

He's an organizer of the World Peace Day Inter-Faith Prayer Service that was held in Naperville earlier this month. Ahmed A. Qadeer, a member of the Islamic Center of Naperville, said he initially was reluctant to be part of the interfaith prayer service until Cordaro convinced him to become involved.

"He's a great guy. He's so focused on peace and justice issues," Qadeer said. "Tom has in his heart concern for all of humanity."

Greg Skiba, co-pastor of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Naperville, where this year's prayer service was held, said Cordaro inspired him to join demonstrations calling for fairness for workers and immigration reform.

"He's not only a resource for his own church, but a resource for the rest of the community," Skiba said. "He's an inspiration for a lot of us clergy, not only in Naperville, but throughout the Chicago area."

Cordaro said he finds it relatively easy to work with people of other faiths on peace and justice issues.

"When you talk about the issues, there are very few differences between different faiths," he said.

Man with a mission

Cordaro has continued his association with Pax Christi as a member, speaker and writer. His most recent book, "Be Not Afraid: An Alternative to the War on Terror," was published by the Catholic peace organization, and he works within Pax Christi on issues of racism.

Most of his direct advocacy -- such as demonstrating against the war in Iraq, for immigration reform and against the death penalty -- also has been done as a member of Pax Christi, rather than as a representative of the parish, he said.

Within the parish, Cordaro keeps up with world news and passes on information and legislative updates to parishioners and others who have expressed an interest in a particular issue. He seeks to give parishioners opportunities to put their beliefs in action with events such as an electronics recycling day Jan. 16.

Cordaro said he would like the parish to become more mission-centered in living out its Christian faith. Most churches take a market-centered approach to ministry by asking what members want and then developing programs to meet those needs, he said. But a congregation that believes it was called into being by God should have a different focus, he said.

"The question we need to have constantly before us is what is God calling us to do," he said.

Cordaro knows that type of change in thinking doesn't come easily, but he continues to work for it.

"It would be easier to be with like-minded people," he said, "but, again, I don't think I would have learned as much or grown as much."