By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

From a childhood spent in northwest Ohio along the shores of Lake Erie, to his teen years in the coal mining country of West Virginia, the roots of social justice were planted in Father Rick Andrus SVD at an early age.  

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Father Rick Andrus helps distribute pet food to people affected by the 2016 flood in Baton Rouge. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

His ministry is witness to his relentless crusade to eradicating racism, reaching out to those often ignored by society and finding ways to mediate peace even in the most threatening of circumstances.  

During his six years in Baton Rouge, Father Andrus has established himself as an articulate leader in the African-American community, especially in north Baton Rouge where he is pastor at St. Paul Church. In 2015 he helped organize a rally at the state Capitol, where he also spoke, when Baton Rouge General Hospital announced the closing of its emergency room in north Baton Rouge.  

Father Andrus was also outspoken in his efforts to establish peace during the tumultuous time following the shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016.  

For his commitment to touching the lives of those in need, including his work with Together Baton Rouge, Father Andrus was recently awarded the Louisiana Urban League Award for 2019. He was presented the award during a banquet in New Orleans.  

“To be recognized for the work that I’ve done on a state level was a real honor and very humbling,” said Father Andrus.  

“The direction of my ministry has been working with the poor, with the captive, with those unjustly prisoned, those who are justly prisoned, with the hungry, and the hurting and with the broken,” Father Andrus said, adding the Gospel messages of St. Luke and St. Matthew have been his spiritual exemplar. “The award has been because of my tireless and unrelenting work for justice for all of the people. And Together Baton Rouge was recognized for a lot of the work that we have done especially in those areas, working for reform in the community.”  

Father Andrus, raised in an integrated neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio, recalls childhood memories of his grandparents being members of St. Theresa Church in Toledo, Ohio, at the time the only predominantly African-American church in the area. He was one of many volunteers who helped turn the basement into a church.  

“There were African-Americans and whites that lived in the neighborhood,” he said. “So I was brought up in a community that was pretty much mixed. I never stopped to think about people (of all races) not living together.”  

Father Andrus’s family then moved to West Virginia, where poverty was prevalent but also an area that included an integrated school system as well as a local skating rink where white and African-American young people mixed freely.  

Social justice took an ever stronger hold on Father Andrus when he was assigned in the late 1960s to work at St. Augustine in New Orleans during his formation. That era was a time of unrest, with the controversial Vietnam crisis coming to an end, race riots dividing the country, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  

“I felt the division and I felt that somebody has got to do something,” Father Andrus said. “I realized somewhere along the line I was going to be one of those somebodies.”  

During his novitiate year at St. Rose De Lima Church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Father Andrus ingratiated himself into the African-American community, spending many hours in “back of town,” which even today is considered the African-American area of the city.  

“There was a very divisive line of demarcation, a division where African-Americans lived and whites lived, and I thought this just isn’t right,” said Father Andrus, who also protested the closing of St. Rose School.  

He said the experience taught him what he calls the systemic pieces of racism and how that is built into society, including racial and economic divides.  

“A lot of things kind of came to me,” Father Andrus said, adding that is what makes the award so special to him. “Even though nobody sees it, I see it covering the entire scope of my ministry. It’s been what it’s about, not so much in the last six years but in the last 36 years because I’ve done a lot of work dealing with the same kinds of things.”

Father Andrus was part of a group that included Together Baton Rouge in developing a list of proposals for police reform in the community, a list that East Baton Rouge Mayor/President Sharon Broome enacted via executive order during her first day in office.  

Father Andrus also established a distribution center at the church’s parish center during the flood of 2016, as well as a place serving meals. Some displaced flood victims were also able to use the center for temporary housing.  

“Those were the kind of things that we were doing, putting the Gospel into practice,” he said. “And I can remember a number of people telling me they never expected to see the parish center being used as a shelter for homeless people.”  

Father Andrus said he will continue to be a voice for social justice because, quite simply, “Jesus did the same things.” He cited Gospel passages where Jesus went out of his way to minister to those in need or those shamed by society.  

“Jesus often addressed the physical needs of people before he even dealt with the spiritual,” he said. “We want to take care of spiritual needs, and we want people to meet our expectations.   

“Jesus told the church to go into the world. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts that I have learned.”