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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Msgr. Ray East is no stranger to the nation's social ministry leaders.
The pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, and a frequent speaker at Catholic events, has been the kickoff speaker at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington for 20 years.
He's like an old friend to the group and they respond right away to his frequent calls for "can I hear an amen?" or join him when he bursts into song.
This year was no exception. Msgr. East encouraged the 500 social ministry activists attending the Feb. 2-5 gathering in Washington with the theme -- "Let Justice Flow: A Call to Restore and Reconcile" -- to keep up the good work and to remember, in case they could forget, that they had a lot more work ahead of them.
He told the group, which filled a Washington hotel ballroom Feb. 2, that they were "set apart for God's service" but he also reminded them: "It's a long-distance race."
The priest spoke of a few of the big challenges facing the church right now: mainly its outreach to Latinos, youths, especially the "nones," who claim no religious faith, as well as its response to the scourge of racism.
"We're still trying to hide our collective sin of racism," he said, of the Catholic Church.
Regarding the church's outreach to Latino Catholics, he said this work is critical to the church and so far it's been insufficient. "We have to get this right or I don't know how we'll recover or survive as a church," he said.
Msgr. East also pointed out the need for more outreach to young people, stressing that "nones" are all part of us, in our families and neighborhoods, and "we've failed them."
Even though he laid out some pretty big challenges, his overall message was one of hope, reminding the group that even when times are hard, God is there to help.
"Church, sometimes we feel that we are ankle-deep in mud and the water is already up to our neck," he said, recalling images of previous hurricanes when many were grasping for their lives. "But God does not want us to die!"
We take that next step as pilgrims, he reminded them, stressing that they are not just tourists in their walk of faith but pilgrims who would have to "go through pain to get to their destination" but always with support of each other and prayer.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, of Venice, Florida, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, similarly encouraged the social ministry leaders during his homily at the event's opening liturgy.
He stressed that the time to act is now but that action always needs to be connected with God in order for people to be personally transformed before transforming the world.
He outlined many modern challenges -- poverty, racism, violence, abuse and immigration -- all which would be delved into during many of the workshops during the four-day gathering sponsored by 15 Catholic organizations.
"Go forward with the good efforts so many of you make in so many ways," he said, urging the participants to listen to one another and be rooted in faith.
Of the many challenges placed before them, he added: "Don't forget you can't do it on a human level."
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim