Following a sense of right: Laws Award winner shaped by Jesus’ love, justice issues

The winner of the 2019 William R. Laws Human Rights Award, a man described as having "a clear set of values around justice, non-discrimination, support for communities of color and inclusiveness," lived in a self-described "bubble" during his formative youth, a predominantly white Chicago suburb where he was shielded from social tensions and hardships experienced by others.

But during the Rev. Clement T. Davis’ teen and college years, exposure to people outside his small world and to social issues gripping the country shaped his views into what have become strong, actionable beliefs about the importance of loving and helping others.

In high school, a priest who led the Young Christian Students organization of which Davis was part took the students to meet a black friend of his, a postal worker. For Davis, it was the first time he’d ever been in a black person’s home.

Davis, pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church and known to many simply as "Father Clem," said the exposure helped him understand the global ramifications of the Christian faith.

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David credits the priest for introducing the students "to people and situations that were very different from what we might have experienced at home, and to see that people of color and different economic means are still people — are people of value."

That exposure later factored into Davis joining an interracial community of Benedictine monks when he was in college in the early 1960s.

The writings and speeches of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. also impacted Davis’ views about justice.

"Riots were breaking out in cities all around the place, and here was somebody calling for nonviolence, and here’s someone who had been inspired by Gandhi," Davis said.

"Going up against an implacable force with nothing but your words and your firm belief that this is just and this is right, and he would just speak the Gospel, the words of Scripture, and say this is what God ordains, this is what God wants from us, that we learn to live together in peace, and that no one should be disadvantaged because of the color of his skin, or thought less of because of his racial background. All of that made sense to me," he said.

Davis’ views about peace, justice, non-discrimination and inclusiveness have been evident locally since he became pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church on Aug. 1, 1997.

A lengthy nomination letter for the Laws award cites Davis’ efforts to:

  • Foster understanding and relationships between Christian and Muslims
  • Protect the rights of others
  • Eliminate barriers faced by people of color
  • Increase sensitivity toward people of color

The William R. Laws Award will be presented by the Columbus Human Rights Commissions to Davis at 6:30 p.m. June 20 at The Commons, 300 Washington St. in downtown Columbus, during the organization’s annual dinner.

Davis, 75, said he’s honored and grateful to receive the Laws Award, although he considers his contributions little in comparison to the sacrifices others have made, or the suffering they endured, for taking a stand for the sake of racial equity and racial justice, and equality for any groups that are marginalized.

"I feel unworthy of the honor, frankly. I appreciate the fact that people think I have done a good job, whether speaking about this from the pulpit or speaking about it individually in conversations. I don’t know that I’ve done much heavy lifting in the whole issue of human rights. And there’s clearly so much more to be done," he said.

"I’m convinced we are all of us children of God, and the God Jesus called ‘Father’ is a God who is all embracing in his love, and he expects us, particularly those who are called Christian, to love as he loves, to be as universal in our love as he is in his. That’s something I’m just absolutely convinced of."

Those who nominated Davis for the award, though, describe a man who has done his share of "heavy lifting" to further human rights locally.

New friendships

The detailed nomination letter for Davis cites, for example, his role in turning a negative moment in the community into a positive learning experience for people of different faiths.

On Aug. 31, 2014, parishioners at three Columbus churches — St. Bartholomew, East Columbus Christian and Lakeview Church of Christ — found graffiti spray painted on their buildings.

The word "infidels" was spray painted on the churches in reference to a chapter and verse in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, police said at the time.

According to the nomination letter, "Fr. Clem’s first concern was the potential negative impact this event could have on the relationships among Christians and Muslims in Columbus."

Davis said the graffiti was more an act of vandalism than a religious message, and shared that belief with Marwan Wafa, a leader in the Columbus Muslim community, who was then IUPUC’s vice chancellor and dean.

Soon after the vandalism incident, Davis worked with Wafa and the St. Bartholomew Peace and Justice Ministry to create a Christian-Muslim dialogue program called "In the Spirit of St. Francis and The Sultan." The program, in which Davis was a participant, brought together seven Christians and seven Muslims over several months to discuss faith traditions. The group even visited Muslim mosques and Christian churches.

After the program ended, the participants discussed their experiences and goals at well-attended public presentations. Also, a monthly breakfast event started — which still continues — that allows Christian and Muslim friends to gather publicly, share stories and offer support.

"I think we have things that we can learn from one another. One of the really interesting things about the Christian-Muslim dialogue was that we share the aspects of our prayer, our communal prayer, our private prayer, and that there is a good deal of similarity in the things we do," Davis said.

Taking a stand

Davis also has stood up for groups of people that have been marginalized, the nomination letter noted.

For example, Davis was one of small number of local ministers who spoke in support of Cummins Engine Co.’s decision in March 2000 to begin offering domestic partner benefits to its employees.

Davis said he couldn’t believe the uproar over an issue regarding health insurance, a common work benefit given to those doing their job.

"I just don’t understand punishing someone. There are enough hurdles to overcome in life without throwing up more hurdles," Davis said.

"Do I have the right to stand in the way of this person getting health insurance for the person he or she loves, just because that individual doesn’t fit into my church’s understanding or even my understanding of marriage?" he added.

Doing so would be to create a system to oppress people, Davis said.

The nomination letter also referenced a time in Columbus when homophobic and racist graffiti was appearing around the city. Davis attempted to rally with other local Christian ministers to preach and speak out against the incidents, but he found support from only three others. So, the foursome formed the "Different Ministers" group and met monthly to discuss justice issues and provide mutual support.

Show of support

Another example of Davis’ support for people came in 2012, when the local Catholic community lost the only priest who had been saying Mass in Spanish at St. Bartholomew, according to the nomination letter.

At the time, the local Spanish-speaking population in the parish was increasing rapidly.

In response, Davis learned Spanish well enough to deliver his homilies in Spanish during Mass on Sundays, and encouraged English-speaking parishioners to attend Spanish Mass services to show support for the Hispanic/Latino community.

Davis is "truly dedicated to improving relationships among all people and increasing sensitivity of different groups towards each other," the nomination letter said.

Today, the Spanish Mass services continue, the letter noted.

Transition period

Davis said he plans to assist as needed, including with the Spanish language Mass services, when he steps down as St. Bartholomew’s lead pastor.

He’ll shift to a new, part-time, non-administrative role of senior associate pastor at noon July 3, when the Rev. Christopher Wadelton will take over as pastor. Wadelton currently leads St. Philip Neri in Indianapolis.

"The parish needs a younger man, a younger man with more energy than I’ve got now. I’m ready to retire from the pastoring job. But, I’ll always be a priest and I want to be of help. So long as God gives me the health, I want to be able to assist," Davis said.

And Davis will remain involved in causes and issues that motivate him, including racial inequities, equal pay for women and care for the environment.

Davis said the people he’s come to know in Columbus, with whom he’s formed friendships over the decades, have "been good examples for me of what it means to be a citizen in this community, of what it means to be engaged."

"I really value what Columbus does very intentionally in terms of extending a welcome and being a place that wants to be home to people of different cultures and backgrounds. That is a value I embrace," he added.

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What: Columbus Human Rights Commission’s annual meeting

When: 6:30 p.m. June 20

Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St., Columbus

Discussion panelists (topic of immigration): Neeraj Kaushal, professor of social policy at Columbus University School of Social Work; Angela Adams, of Adams Immigration Law LLC

Honorees:

  • The Rev. Clement T. Davis, pastor St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, with the 2019 William R. Laws Award
  • Benjamin M. King Essay winners (Esther Michel, Parkside Elementary School; Kate Russell, St. Bartholomew Catholic School)
  • J. Irwin Miller Art Contest winners (Grace McMahon, St. Bartholomew Catholic School; Fareeha Parvin, Central Middle School; Maya Federle, Columbus East High School)

Tickets: $30 per person, but tables of eight may be purchased. Deadline to purchase tickets is 5 p.m. June 17. Tickets available at the Human Rights Commission office in City Hall, at 123 Washington St., or online at columbus.in.gov/human-rights/.

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The William R. Laws Award is named after the man who helped create the city’s human rights commission, and was a strong advocate of civil rights in the 1960s while he was pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Columbus.

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Who: The Rev. Clement T. Davis, pastor St. Bartholomew Catholic Church

Age: 75

Birthplace: Chicago

Grew up in: River Grove, Illinois

Birth name: Thomas Davis. Clement was given to him when he joined an interracial community of Benedictine monks in 1963.

Education: 

  • St. Patrick High School, Chicago
  • English major at St. Mary’s College, in Winona, Minnesota
  • Saint John’s University, in Collegeville, Minnesota
  • St. Maur’s Priory, a foundation of Saint John’s Abbey, located in South Union, Kentucky
  • St. Procopius College, west side of Chicago
  • Eight years in Germany studying theology at the University of Munich

Ordination: Aug. 8, 1970

Professional career:

  • Teacher at Catholic Seminary of Indianapolis for two years
  • Teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis one year
  • Worked in Office of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis 1977-79
  • Assigned to Holy Spirit Parish on east side of Indianapolis, 1979-83
  • Assigned to St. Monica Parish on northwest side of Indianapolis 1983-1997
  • Assigned to St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in 1997

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