My father and I disagreed vehemently about politics and religion in the late 1960s. He was a World War II veteran and a colonel in the Wisconsin National Guard. I was a long-haired student at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, helping to organize antiwar demonstrations. He was a devout Catholic. I was an agnostic. My younger siblings remember all too vividly the violent arguments he and I would have. There was nowhere to hide from them in the small home where we lived. Once, my father ended up chasing me around the kitchen table, intent on hitting me for the first time in his life—and then he broke down crying.
The memory of those tears says more to me about who my father was than the memories of our arguments. He was a man who cared passionately—about the people he knew and loved, but also about people in need he didn’t know at all. He taught me to care with the same intensity. I never doubted that he loved me, even in those moments when I felt least understood by him. And his life spoke eloquently about how much he cared for the less fortunate. He and my mother always did charitable work—preparing and serving meals for homeless people at St. Ben’s parish in Milwaukee’s inner city, for example—but after my father retired, he took his social action to a new level.
He was admitted to a lay ministry program sponsored by the Milwaukee Archdiocese, a program that introduced him to contemporary theology and the history of Catholic social action. This was heady stuff for a man who had never gone to college—one of the greatest regrets of his life, by the way. Suddenly, my conservative father sounded like someone from Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement of the 1930s. He became incensed about how unconcerned the wealthy people in his suburban parish were about the plight of the less fortunate. When he graduated from the program, he became the Social Programs Coordinator for his parish, and until he died at eighty-one, he was a thorn in the side of his fellow parishioners, continually exhorting them to give more to, and do more for, those in need.
It is in large part because of the example set by my father, Arthur Kessenich, that I believe I have a responsibility to give of myself—not just to those I know and love, but to those I would never know if I didn’t seek them out: the poor, the disabled, the imprisoned. It is because of my father’s example that I try to tithe, to give 10 percent of my income to charity; that I spend two hours a week assisting a blind man; that I help lead Alternatives to Violence workshops in prisons.
I don’t do it out of guilt or fear of damnation, but out of love. Because I saw love in action, in my father’s tears and in the way he lived his life. Because of him, I believe in love.