Father Charles Dahm: Dominican, Pastor, Organizer, Change Agent

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Father Charles Dahm
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Father Charles Dahm is a dyed-in-the-wool activist, following in the footsteps of old-school, firebrand Catholic priests. He has never shied away from an opportunity to challenge authority or hesitated to speak his mind. But he says it is always in service of a single goal: bringing about a more just and peaceful world for all, in other words, putting his faith into action.

“I take a principle from Thomas Aquinas that every act is a political act. Even if you don’t do anything, that’s a political act,” he said from his office on South Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, surrounded by images of Cesar Chavez, Oscar Romero, and Rudy Lozano. Since 1986, he has served as pastor or associate pastor of St. Pius V Church, across the street.

“You can stand by and watch things happen, or you can try to make things better,” he said.

He says he’s been arrested during political demonstrations more times than he can count for acts of civil disobedience, such as occupying a senator’s office, blocking doorways in the Federal Building in downtown Chicago, and dyeing the Chicago River red to draw attention to the bloodshed in El Salvador in the ‘80s. Back then, he was a key Midwest organizer for the sanctuary movement and helped shuttle hundreds of Central American refugees through a national underground railroad of sorts to safe havens in the U.S.

And then there was that book…

When Dahm arrived in Chicago as a young priest in the summer of 1973, he found an archdiocese that he says was marred by deep divisions and run by a man who had centralized power.

His began his career as an instigator at a young age in suburban Elmhurst, where he grew up. But he was always devout. Even as a young boy, his parents never had to wake him up to attend mass. In fact, more often than not, it was his idea to go – even during the week.

Father Chuck entered the Dominican Order (in the Central Province of St Albert the Great) at the age of twenty. He had to break off a relationship with his high school sweetheart to pursue the priesthood.

“I had to say goodbye,” he said. “It was rough, very rough.”

He spent his early years as a Dominican working with university students in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba and later in La Paz, the capital city. He chose the assignment. It was an electrifying time to be working with young idealists in Latin America, he says. In Cuba, Fidel Castro had just taken power and was implementing broad social reforms. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, activists were fighting to restore the gains of that country’s short-lived, 1952 leftist revolution.

“[The Dominicans] were doing social ministry stuff, social justice stuff. And not just…baptizing people and so forth,” he said. “So that really interested me.”

He worked with students. “We had small groups that met, studied, prayed, and we had talks and a lot of political organizing,” explains Dahm. “And we had parties, lots of parties.”

In 1970, a small cadre of Bolivian students began to suspect that the Dominicans were agents of the U.S. government and that Dahm himself was a CIA agent, so the Dominicans called him back to the U.S.

Wanting to develop the tools to better analyze and influence systems of oppression and power, he enrolled in the political science program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and began work towards his doctorate.

He moved to Chicago in 1973, where he found the subject for his dissertation, which eventually became his book on the power dynamics in the Chicago Archdiocese.

That same year, he was elected to be the promoter of justice and peace for his Dominican province. Rather than work alone, he rallied clergy and women religious from throughout the Chicago area and co-founded the 8th Day Center for Justice. Named after St. Augustine’s belief that humanity is in the “everlasting eighth day” of creation, in which the role of believers is to help usher the world into its intended peaceful and just state, the center worked internationally as well as at home in the United States. They challenged apartheid in South Africa, fought to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the U.S., and held corporations accountable for union busting, strip mining, discriminatory labor practices, and other human rights violations around the globe.

Father Dahm also became a regional point person for the national sanctuary movement, which at that time was helping thousands of Central American refugees flee violence in Guatemala and El Salvador. He co-founded the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, which became the national headquarters for the movement and eventually organized 423 different sanctuary hubs across the United States.

His radical politics, combined with his criticism of church hierarchy, earned him a reputation in the Chicago Archdiocese.

“Oh, no, I was not popular,” he said. “I’m still not popular with bishops.”

But he spoke Spanish. So after twelve years of full-time, political activism, his Provincial moved to assign him a parish. And so, Father Dahm moved to Pilsen and became pastor at St. Pius V.  

The Pilsen that Dahm entered in 1986 was very different than the one that exists today. Neighborhood gangs were splintering and battling for territory. Homes were dilapidated and overcrowded, the rental market dominated by slumlords. City services like garbage pick-up and street sweeping were sparse and inconsistent.

“The place was filthy,” Dahm recalls.

Meanwhile, Dahm says he found a prevailing attitude of resignation at St. Pius V. Parishioners tended to hold traditional Catholic beliefs, such as believing that suffering in life is a virtue.

“You have to understand that the Mexican Catholic Church was way behind the Catholic Church in the United States in terms of understanding some progressive concepts,” Dahm explains. “It was a way of getting people, especially the poor, to be resigned and passive, to tell them ‘Don’t worry about sufferings. In fact, it’s going to get you a higher place in Heaven.’”

As pastor of St. Pius V, he got to work challenging these ideas and promoting an incarnational theology, one which sees Jesus’s time on Earth as an affirmation of human dignity and which calls upon believers to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to usher in the kingdom of God on Earth.

That, he says, requires active engagement.

“God wants us to live in peace and in love,” Dahm explains. “He wants us to grow and use our talents, not only for ourselves, but for others…to build the society which itself is permeated by the kingdom of God, [which is] present to the extent that there is justice, peace, and love. How do you do that? We have to get our children to not be killing each other on the streets, for one. And not being individualists but rather be servants of others.”

 

(22 December 2017)