Examining Ecumenicalism: Father Groppi at Calvin College

The above title is correct. On Tuesday evening, May 12, Father Groppi appeared on the platform of the Fine Arts Center at Calvin College.

Twenty years ago such would have been an unheard of thing. There would have been principal objections against having such a man speak to the student-body of a Reformed college. It would have been unheard of ten years ago-probably not because of principle, but from a fear of offending the more conservative element of the Christian Reformed Church farther west. Last Tuesday, Father Groppi not only spoke, hut his message was enthusiastically received by the audience of over 800—mostly students.

Who is Father Groppi? Father Groppi is an assistant pastor of St. Boniface Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is a Homan Catholic priest. His parish includes the ghetto area within that city of Milwaukee. Repeatedly in past years, this youthful priest (about 39 years old) has had his name in the news. It has appeared in Time, Newsweek, as well as in all daily papers, and on all news broadcasts on T.V. and radio. He has been a vocal advocate for civil rights for negroes; has urged the use of any tactic (not excluding violence) in order to attain to the goal of justice for all men. Twelve times he has been arrested and placed in prison for certain “tactics” which he has used. Father Groppi’s appearance at Calvin was sponsored by the Calvin College Lectureship Council.

I heard Father Groppi speak. Frankly, I was ashamed that such a lecture could be sponsored by and given in a Reformed institution of learning. But it was given—and roundly applauded by the audience.

Obviously, Father Groppi was deeply aware of the frustrations, irritations, injustices of the ghetto in Milwaukee. He spoke of the gyp merchants: of rotting tenement buildings infested by rats: of slum landlords who ignored building codes with impunity: of children who received little or no medical and dental care. And no doubt most of his descriptions were accurate. Fact is, these situations exist throughout our land and the world—and have been present for many centuries. Revelation 6:5–6 speaks of the third, black, horse which portrays exactly this situation.

The disturbing elements of the lecture, however, were Groppi’s evaluation of the action of the church, and his own methods and tactics in combating what he considers injustices.

The sin of the churches today, according to Groppi, is the sin of silence. “How many sermons,” he asked, “have you heard on racism? Or how often have you heard sermons on Vietnam?” He insisted that though the church condemned violence as a way of removing injustice, it did not provide a viable alternative. He would not consider prayer (or recitation of the rosary) or reading of Scripture as a proper solution to the problems of the ghetto.

It was obvious that Father Groppi believed that the church must become deeply involved in social action. It must preach that social gospel. And though this man spake approvingly of “black-power,” there was no mention of cross-power; no mention of regeneration and conversion as the only hope of proper change and godly walk. He spoke disparagingly of any church which emphasizes the better life which is to come -but does little towards removing present-day injustices. He did not present Christ crucified as the “power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23, 24).

Groppi favored a “situational ethics,” or rather, what might be described as “the end justifies the means” philosophy. When certain laws are broken, that might be necessary in order that “higher” laws of God are obeyed. He considered these “higher” laws to be the right to eat; the right to vote; the right to basic necessities. To attain these, one had the right to break other of God’s laws: the law against stealing; the law against adultery; etc. Repeatedly, Groppi gave examples of this “situational ethics.” For himself, Father Groppi confessed that he had promised to try not to “cuss” in his lecture—but this, he admitted, was extremely difficult. Apparently, he considered a breaking of the third commandment justified in light of the injustices he was describing.

Groppi described his feelings at the time of the rioting, looting and burning in Milwaukee in 1967. Said he, “I felt pretty good as Milwaukee burned in 1967—as patriotic as the founding fathers must have felt at the time of the American revolution.” He emphasized that violence is sometimes justified. Why, said he, what happened in 1967 was not really looting or stealing—it was “restitution!” He pointed out that the gyp merchants in that ghetto had always charged higher prices to any black—now the black man was only taking back what he had coming to him. Groppi admitted that sometimes innocent parties were also hurt—but so were innocent parties hurt in the Vietnam war. Stealing is justified to satisfy that higher law of “restitution.”

There were many examples given of this “morality” which Groppi favored. When speaking of the rioting in his area in 1007, he described the young men walking past his parish house with “stolen” furniture. One young man with a piece of furniture under his arm, seeing Father Groppi, raised his fist in the air and said, “Black Power, Father!” Croppi responded, “Black Power, Joe. Don’t get caught!”

At another point, Groppi spake of a young boy who came to him. The boy confessed: “I stole, Father.” “What did you steal, son?” “I stole some food from the grocery store.” “Why did you do that, son?” “My brothers and sisters were hungry at home.” “No, son; you didn’t steal. You had a right to that food. It is not right for that store to be filled with all that food, and you go hungry. Everyone has a right to food and to eat.” Groppi insisted that he would never want this boy to grow up with any sort of “guilt feelings.”

Or again, Father Groppi spoke of a black woman who migrated from the South to Milwaukee with her five children. She worked, but earned about 50¢ an hour. With such wages, how could she support her family? She was not eligible for welfare for the first year after arriving in Milwaukee. “And so,” said Father, “on Saturday night she would pour shaving lotion on herself and go to the neighborhood bar to sell the only thing she had to sell—her body. Some pious preachers, with their Bibles in their hands, would say, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ I would say she is a saint.”

Father Groppi said much more. He told how he tal1ght the children to chant, “Judge __ is a racist, children”; how those arrested in the “civil rights struggle” are held up in esteem within the church and school. He boasted of his own arrests: “I’ve been arrested twelve times, and I say that with my head high—I’m proud of everyone of them.” He compared his position with that of Christ or of Paul. He spake concerning Christ, “Jesus Christ was in jail too. He got a little violent—He drove out the money changers from the temple. He died the death of a criminal: He got the chair—He was crucified. And I learned from the Master real good!” He spoke of Paul’s difficulties because of racial problems. And he wanted to know what was so awful about calling the establishment “pigs”; didn’t Christ’s chief prophet, John the Baptist, call the establishment of his day a “generation of snakes?” Is that not even worse than calling people “pigs?”

The message, though radical, was not unexpected. I attended not so much to hear what this man’s theory would be, but how he would express it. What did disturb me immeasurably was the reception this man’s lecture received. Repeatedly the 800 in the audience interrupted the speech with applause. And the applause was in response to the most radical suggestions of the speaker. At the end of the speech the majority of the audience (mostly young people) gave a standing ovation to the speaker. One Calvin College professor, whom I recognized ahead of me, also rose (after a bit of hesitation) to join the standing, clapping audience.

After the lecture, three Calvin professors (whose names I did not clearly hear) served on a panel, each asking the speaker a question on the message. Here at this point, I thought, some objection would be raised against the “tactics” presented in the lecture. Here would be the opportunity for Calvinists to present the positive truths of Scripture without compromise. Or perhaps, for fear of offending the speaker, these might give a mild indication of disapproval. But I misjudged. The first professor prefaced his question with the remark: “Father, this was one of the best sermons I have heard in years. And it is difficult to follow it, except to say: repent!” Could a Calvin professor say this of a message which spoke not one word of the atoning work of Christ, which contained not one word of rebirth? I wonder what sort of sermons this man has been hearing the past years! But that’s what he said. And his question of the speaker? “How would you suggest that we can change our priorities?” The second questioner suggested that the audience there well knew what “cultural separation and ethnic identity was all about.” He wanted to know jf we should resist or break down that type of culture which requires a color T.V. set in every home. The third questioner suggested that he thought that Groppi was not so much a follower of Christ (who was silent often before his enemies), but rather a follower of the Old Testament prophets. The questioner was a bit fearful that some in the audience might go home thinking that Father Groppi said it fine, but that he advocates violence. This questioner wanted Groppi to emphasize that he was not advocating all types of violence (not war, not violence against persons), but only some forms of it. With this Groppi agreed. He pointed out where violence sometimes became necessary. He went on to paint out what a brave man was Bobby Seale. He insisted, by quoting Malcolm X, that “if you’re going to preach non-violence, preach it to both sides.”

Other questions were raised from the floor. Only two of these were mildly critical—the others indicated full agreement. I could not help thinking: “What is happening in the Christian Reformed Church?” What will this church have to face in the next months and years—if its students and professors can be so wholeheartedly in agreement with a man as Father Groppi?

I went home sick.


(Rearranged for reproduction for which permission was granted.)