By Samuel G. Freedman, author, professor and former New York Times columnist

One humid morning early in the summer of 2008, I drove through the mottled hills of northeastern Iowa toward the notorious hamlet of Postville. This afterthought of a place, with its single somnolent main street, had grown disproportionately infamous over the preceding several years for its meat-packing plant, Agriprocessors.

The Hasidic Jews who had journeyed from Brooklyn in 1987 to buy the former Hygrade facility and retrofit it to kosher standards had run up a tawdry record of exploiting immigrants on pay, overtime and workplace safety. Their first wave of victims, mostly from the remnants of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, had mostly moved up and out by the time of my visit.

Their replacements were Hispanics, many from Mexico and Guatemala, a large portion of them undocumented. That precarious status left them especially vulnerable, fearful of reporting their abuse to any governmental authorities. Indeed, federal immigration officers had swept through Postville about two months earlier, rounding up 400 men who were now in detention and awaiting deportation.

My exact destination that morning was St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church. The women and children left behind, some of them required to wear ankle bracelets as a form of house arrest, had taken shelter and sought solace there. And the church had responded. Its former pastor, the Rev. Paul Ouderkirk, had come out of retirement at age 75 to help the parish administrator, Sister Mary McCauley, and the Spanish-speaking lay pastor, Paul Real, reckon with all the human damage.

Father Ouderkirk hired four temporary staff members to help track the court cases and distribute food and financial aid to the affected families. Along with other religious leaders around Iowa, he prepared for a march in defense of immigrants’ rights. St. Bridget’s parish, with only about 350 members, was spending $500,000 in the relief effort. One month after the raid, St. Bridget’s held a Mass in remembrance of the detainees. The name of every one was recited from the altar, and after every 20 names, a candle was lighted, usually by a persona con brazalete—the phrase referring to the mothers and wives with ankle bracelets.

“I came to the church because I feel safe there, I feel secure,” said Irma López, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, who was arrested along with her husband, Marcelo, after they had worked at Agriprocessors for six years. “I feel protected. I feel at peace. I feel comforted.”

My formal duty in Postville was to write about the St. Bridget’s efforts in my “On Religion” column for The New York Times, and I fulfilled my professional responsibilities. Journalistic detachment aside, however, I felt doubly humbled by what I had seen in town. As an observant Jew who keeps a kosher kitchen at home, I was repulsed by the revelation that one of the largest kosher meat companies in the nation dealt with human beings far less morally than with cattle or chickens. (As a matter of fact, in the wake of the Agriprocessors scandal, a principled rabbi in St. Paul, Minnesota, Morris Allen, tried for many years to alter the system of kosher certification to consider how employees, as well as animals, were treated.)

I was simultaneously moved—awed, really—by the profoundly moral work being done by the clergy and congregants at St. Bridget’s. And it seemed very evident to me that the efforts of Father Ouderkirk and the rest spoke to a larger truth I had seen in my years of writing about American religion, and have continued to see in the eight years since my morning in Postville. That constant is the luminous model of Catholic service.

This is my commandment: Love one another as I love you.

John 15:12

In my roles as a columnist and author, I’m not supposed to take sides or play favorites among denominations. And just about every religion I have covered has a word or phrase for its ethic of doing for others—“good works,” in the Protestant lexicon, tzedakah for Jews, zaka for Muslims. Because I am drawn to writing about the positive role that religion can have in the real world, especially because organized religion is so commonly criticized in the secular quarters of journalism, I have seen laudable examples across the spiritual landscape. There were Muslims who helped families rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, evangelical Christians who repaired cars for single mothers free of charge, African-American churches building affordable houses in once-blighted neighborhoods, the aforementioned Rabbi Allen embodying the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Yet when I was giving a workshop on religion journalism in 2014 to the staff of Tablet, an award-winning Jewish webzine, I found myself blurting out an impolitic and even heretical opinion: Catholics did social justice better than Jews. The more I thought about my momentary, almost involuntary declaration over the succeeding weeks and months, the more I came to believe that Catholics did social justice better than any denomination I knew.

In saying so, I have no data to offer, no metrics. I cannot prove that the outcomes for Catholics are superior to those for Mormons, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Wiccans or humanists to name the religious (and atheist) communities I have covered in my column. But I do have an admittedly broad-brush argument for why I have arrived at my conclusion.

To be extremely general—and yet also, I think, defensible—the motives for social-justice work and voluntarism in many other faiths are limited either by reach or motive. Orthodox Jews and Muslims practice “in-reach,” addressing needs that lie largely within their own communities. Mainline Protestants and non-Orthodox Jews impressively extend aid outside their boundaries, but too often with the condescension of the privileged pitying their lessers. Mormons and evangelical Christians employ goodwill as a means of winning converts.

Starting with the very lexicon, the Catholic version differs. The preferred word is not “charity,” with its aroma of noblesse oblige, but “service.” Charity is a vertical act, handed down from above, from the comfortable to the afflicted, who are perceived only in terms of affliction. Service is a horizontal concept, a meeting on level ground between giver and receiver that, if it is done correctly, reinforces the human dignity of both parties.

I am reminded of a story told by my friend and fellow author, Nicholas Lemann. In The Promised Land, his epic book about the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North, Nick wrote extensively about a woman named Ruby Haynes, who had left sharecropping in Mississippi for the promise of factory work in Chicago, only to wind up living for decades in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public-housing complex so horrific it was ultimately razed. By any objective standard, Haynes was abjectly poor. She resided in a census tract with the lowest per capita income in the nation, or close to it. Yet when Haynes read The Promised Land, she had one complaint for Nick: “You made me sound like poor folks.”

For a contrast, I think of the Cristo Rey and Nativity Network schools that have revived Catholic education in some of the poorest and most violent inner cities in America. These schools require every student to make some contribution—often in the range of $1,000 annually—to his or her own tuition. That system makes a principled partnership out of what otherwise would be only charity. And it reminds me of the sacrificial way that African-American churches have self-funded even in statistically impoverished neighborhoods.

The second key attribute of the American Catholic model, at least from my perspective, is its demographic range. These days, “diversity” has been overused to the point of being cliché and meaningless. But the large-scale immigration of Hispanics to the United States (in which I include Filipinos as well as Central and South Americans) has markedly changed the color, language and culture of the Catholic polity here. Catholic leadership on immigration reform and in the sanctuary movement is the public-policy application of that transformation. And Catholic schools, especially in cities, educate vast numbers of non-Catholic students. The goal for those schools is not evangelism but service in the form of offering a lifeline toward college in places where the public schools rampantly fail.

Thirdly, Catholic service forms part of a consistent theology, what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin famously called a “seamless garment of life.” That garment holds together positions nominally ascribed to the political right (against abortion and same-sex marriage) and identified with the political left (opposed to the death penalty, in favor of a preferential option for the poor). As a result, I tend to think, Catholic service exerts a hold on the faithful who, in the privacy of the voting booth, would otherwise cleave into red and blue factions. Importantly, the “seamless garment” of Catholic social teaching makes service an explicit element of religious belief—not, as is often the case with liberal Jews and Protestants, just a good value to have.

Now, it could be that I’m just predisposed to appreciate Catholicism by several accidents of my upbringing. (When I once mentioned to a priest that I was a philo-Catholic, he quipped back, “Better than being filo dough.”) During my 4th-grade year, my family moved from one side of my New Jersey hometown to the other, which put me in a different elementary school district from all my friends. So my mother took grateful notice when a new family with a boy just one year older than me moved in across the street.

The Lyons family, I soon discovered, was something like Catholic America circa 1965 under one roof. The parents had what then qualified as a mixed marriage—he Irish, she Italian. Mr. Lyons taught in a labor-education program at Rutgers, while Mrs. Lyons, née D’Eustachio, oversaw a brood of five children. (Lucky thing for them that the Italian parent did the cooking …). Those kids ran the gamut from an anti-war activist to an officer in the Strategic Air Command to a nascent environmentalist to a diehard Notre Dame football fan.

A Sister of Mercy tends to a wounded Union soldier in a tent hospital in Vicksburg, MS during the Civil War. This detail is from a painting reputedly commissioned by Abraham Lincoln.

A Sister of Mercy tends to a wounded Union soldier in a tent hospital in Vicksburg, MS during the Civil War. This detail is from a painting reputedly commissioned by Abraham Lincoln.

While Jimmy, my peer and friend, was naturally enough my direct link to the family, it was the oldest child, Arthur, who had the most lasting effect on me. By the time the Lyonses became my neighbors, Artie (as everyone called him) was a Jesuit seminarian who was deeply involved with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union during its epic lettuce boycott. Having grown up the child of secular, left-wing Jews, who rarely used the noun “religion” without preceding it with the adjectives “sectarian and materialistic,” I saw in Artie my first example of idealistic action predicated on religious belief. Even after he left the Jesuits before ordination to marry a former nun, he remained personally observant and politically motivated by his faith as he took on issues of racial discrimination and income inequality in Chicago.

Then, while in college at the University of Wisconsin, I started working on the school newspaper and made a tight-knit group of friends among its sportswriters. Over the decades since then, two of those friends left respected journalism careers on big-city dailies to enter the priesthood. The last I knew, one was based on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, the other in Rome—quite the Catholic spectrum. The mere fact of knowing these two, Father Pete and Father Jay, put an accessible face on the priesthood. That may not sound like something important, but when the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal broke, it was valuable, as both a journalist and a citizen, to be familiar with some of the overwhelming majority of priests who did not abuse children.

Just to be clear, as a journalist and a parent and a citizen, I am grateful for the investigative reporting (indelibly portrayed in last year’s Oscar-winning film “Spotlight”) that exposed the church’s pedophile priests and those bishops and archbishops who had tried to protect the perpetrators. Those disclosures helped put the larger issue of sexual abuse onto the public radar, both within and outside religious bodies, and in some way contributed to the subsequent disclosures about the Orthodox Jewish rabbis Baruch Lanner and Mordecai Gafni, the Zen Buddhist master Eido Shimano Roshi, and Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Yet the sexual scandal of the Catholic Church got a lasting traction in the media and the popular culture that none of the other examples did. The church’s scandal began to seem less like a narrative of American Catholicism than the narrative. As a columnist, and as a product of my personal history, I felt compelled to capture the many other elements of the Catholic story.

[W]e are all one in Christ and bear an equal burden of service under one and the same master … Only for one reason we are distinguished in His sight: namely, if we are found to be eminent in good works and in humility.

Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia

Service is a horizontal concept, a meeting on level ground between giver and receiver that, if it is done correctly, reinforces the human dignity of both parties.

That search took me in October 2012 to Tucson, Arizona, to write about the intentional community house occupied by eight recent college graduates. All were teaching in high-needs parochial schools there as part of the Alliance for Catholic Education program, better-known by the acronym ACE. Founded by the University of Notre Dame, ACE is often described as a Catholic version of Teach For America. But I found that comparison severely lacking. Over its 25-year history, Teach For America had gradually shifted its recruiting pitch from the idealistic to the transactional, emphasizing how good a two-year stint there would look on an application for law school or a McKinsey analyst’s job. Here was social justice work reduced to a resume item.

I had never heard any such rhetoric around the ACE program. It was a direct outgrowth of Catholic social teaching, and in some ways it harked back to the origins of the faith. The ACE teachers lived together under almost literal vows of poverty—each one’s monthly stipend of about $1,000 was on par with the federal poverty level. The night I visited with the teachers, they swapped tips of successful lessons, and they also prayed together. The previous night, the Rev. Nathan Wills, a former ACE teacher, had said Mass in the intentional house.

“It’s a reflection of the disciples,” he told me later. “This is what the apostles did when Jesus sent them to teach. They set up communities in the midst of difficult circumstances.”

FreedHeadshot photo Samuel G. Freedmanman Awarded 2017 Goldziher Prize

Samuel G. Freedman won the 2017 Goldziher Prize for his coverage of Muslim Americans in his “On Religion” columns in the New York Times from 2010 to 2016—including the one reprinted here. The Goldziher Prize is awarded by the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, in collaboration with the William and Mary Greve Foundation.

Freedman worked as a staff reporter for The New York Times from 1981 through 1987. He wrote for “On Education” columns, which won first prize in the Education Writers Association’s annual competition, from 2004 through 2008. Freedman began writing the “On Religion” column in 2006 and recently retired from the New York Times.

“In my decade of writing the ‘On Religion’ column,” said Freedman, “one of my primary goals was to be a voice against Islamophobia, and to be that voice by bearing witness to the actual lives and history of our fellow citizens.”

From 2005 through 2009, Freedman was also a regular columnist on American Jewish issues for the The Jerusalem Post. He has contributed to numerous other publications and websites, including The New Yorker, Daily Beast, New York, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Salon, Tablet, The Forward and BeliefNet.