Youngstown is the only city in Ohio participating in the adoption program developed by the priest.
BOARDMAN – The Rev. George Clements of Chicago set out to make a better life for others. What he got in return was unexpected and enhanced his life in ways he could only have imagined.
Father Clements, the first Roman Catholic priest to adopt a child, was guest speaker Saturday for a national adoption banquet at Holiday Inn on South Avenue here. The event was hosted by Mahoning County Children Services Board as part of National Adoption Month.
The event celebrated the agency’s One Church, One Child program, which Father Clements founded in the 1980s to encourage religious communities to help recruit adoptive and foster parents for children in the child welfare system.
Since then, more than 200,000 children have been adopted or fostered nationwide through the program.
Father Clements, 76, has four grown sons through adoption. Initially, a cardinal in the church forbade him from adopting, but Pope John Paul II overruled the decision. Unable at the time to persuade his parishioners to adopt, Father Clements said he decided to do it himself.
The resistance he encountered from the church was because officials said priests shouldn’t commit to one family, as they represent everyone in a parish.
“I felt there was an actual command from Jesus [to adopt],” Father Clements said, explaining that Matthew 25:35 in the Bible talks about being taken in while homeless.
“My sons likely would have ended up in jail or on drugs or dead because they were at risk,” Father Clements said before Saturday’s event. “So yes, I think I gave them a better life, and they gave me a better life.”
If one family from every church decided to foster or adopt, the priest said, the problem would be solved.
John Jemison, the One Church, One Child coordinator for Mahoning Children Services, said 12 churches in the Youngstown area are involved in the program. The 22 churches attending the event were invited in hopes they might participate. Youngstown is the only city in Ohio participating in the program.
Jemison said there are 42 children awaiting adoption in Mahoning County and nine have been placed so far this year.
Anita Wainwright, Mahoning Children Services’ independent living coordinator, said the biggest problem is finding homes for older children and siblings. She said it’s an honor to have a priest of such high standing addressing Youngstown churches and hoped his visit would inspire them to act.
Father Clements, an internationally known humanitarian, was the first black priest ordained in the Catholic Diocese in Chicago. His life work was captured in the NBC made-for-TV movie, “The Father Clements Story,” which aired in the late 1980s. The movie starred Lou Gossett Jr. as Father Clements, and supporting cast included Carroll O’Connor as the cardinal. Father Clements said national adoptions soared after the initial broadcast, and each time it re-aired.
He was born in Chicago in 1932 and attended Catholic elementary and high schools before receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary School. He said he entered seminary at 13 and was ordained at 25.
The U.S. religious leader and social activist aligned himself with many causes over the years. He’s been active in the war on drugs and helped African students in the U.S. pursue higher education.
He was active in the civil rights movement and served as chaplain for members of the radical Black Panther organization. He provided a safe place for now-U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., during civil unrest in Chicago during the 1960s. Rush was co-founder of the Illinois chapter of Black Panthers during the 1960s.
When the head of the Chicago chapter “was murdered by police,” Rush feared for his own life. Father Clements said.
In 1969, Father Clements became the first black priest of Holy Angels Catholic Church on Chicago’s south side. After retiring there, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he founded One Church, One Child.
He also spearheaded One Church, One Addict in 1990, pairing church volunteers with addicts in need of support and counseling. In 1991, he founded One Church, One Inmate, which encourages church members to correspond and visit inmates, and maintain relationships after they are released.
Government funding for One Church, One Child was established under the Clinton administration, but revoked under President Bush. Father Clements said he hopes to see funding reinstated when president-elect Barack Obama takes office.
Father Clements said he once encountered a homeless man on the street in Washington D.C. who looked up at him and asked “You the one?” He gave the man a place to stay and later found out the man had decided earlier that day to kill himself. The young man said God told him to hold on and that he was sending someone to help.
“He said ‘You the one,’ but he was not just talking to me,” Father Clements said. “We are all the one.”