Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 26, 2000
Bob McKeon walks the talk
Community activist honoured for putting Church's social teaching into practice
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Bob McKeon walks the talk. The dedicated inner city resident, community activist and theology professor has spent almost a quarter century trying to put Catholic social teaching into action.
In the process, he has helped shape the social conscience of the local Church and has made the inner city a better place to live.
As his friends and colleagues put it, McKeon practises what he preaches, working tirelessly to improve the lives of others.
His work has resulted in innumerable benefits to the McCauley community, his neighbourhood, including affordable housing for low-income families, health facilities for the community, food for the hungry and financial loans for those whom the big banks won't touch.
To McKeon's surprise, his work hasn't gone unnoticed. On May 31, Mayor Bill Smith presented him with one of the City of Edmonton's highest recognitions for individuals who have contributed to the city's quality of life - a citation award for outstanding community service.
"I feel good that the work is recognized but I have mixed feelings of simply singling out me because almost all the work is done through groups in the community, not one person," McKeon, 53, said with his characteristic modesty.
The award is well deserved, said his long-time friend and colleague Kathleen Quinn, director of the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation.
"Bob is a wise and compassionate visionary who lives what he believes," Quinn said. "He is a person of great integrity who has chosen to work with the poor and to share with them the knowledge of how to create options. His life is an example of what he believes."
The Rev. Faith Brace of the Inner City Pastoral Ministry agrees.
"Bob is a person who practises what he preaches," she says. "He is a big man with a big heart, a huge measure of compassion for his neighbours in need and a willingness to commit his energy and expertise to the betterment of his community. This neighbourhood is a kinder, gentler place because Bob McKeon has chosen to live here."
McKeon, a professor of social teaching and systematic theology at both Newman Theological College and St. Joseph's University College, helped found the Edmonton Inner City Housing Society and was instrumental in envisioning and planning for the construction of the Boyle-McCauley Health Centre.
He was a member of the original committee that established the Edmonton Food Bank, is a member of the board of directors of the Inner City Pastoral Ministry and is involved in the Edmonton Community Loan Fund Society, a non-profit group that gives loans to low-income people to start up small businesses.
What drives McKeon? "Part of it is a religious motivation of attempting to live out the Gospel as a lay person with my gifts and abilities," he replied.
"Part of it is enjoyable. I have these incredible mentors. I work with these incredible people in the Church and in the community. You can't buy an opportunity like that."
He also thinks that as a professor of social teaching he has to teach by example, otherwise the teaching, and the professor, would lose credibility.
Born in New York City in 1947, McKeon began his community involvement in 1973 as a lay volunteer with the Jesuits volunteer corps in Montana. After a year with the group, he moved to northern British Columbia to volunteer as a teacher with the Frontier Apostolate, a group that recruited volunteer teachers for the Catholic school system.
In mid-1974 he moved to Edmonton to study for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary. The venture only lasted until early 1977, when McKeon realized he wasn't called to be a priest.
From the seminary he moved to the inner city to live in community with a group of lay people and a Scarboro Missions priest. There he met and married his wife Mary Amerongen, a Catholic social activist who was then staff member with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. Together their raised their twin daughters, Sara and Margaret, both 22.
Soon after his arrival in the neighbourhood McKeon helped establish the Innroads Housing Cooperative, of which there are now four buildings shared by numerous families and individuals.
McKeon and his family have lived in one of the co-op houses for more than 20 years and still share it with other members of the co-op.
In the early 1980s, shocked by the increasing lack of proper housing, he organized the community and got the Inner City Housing Society started. Today the non-profit society houses over 200 people in 11 projects.
More recently, McKeon has been one of the "brains" behind the Edmonton Community Land Trust, another cooperative effort to provide affordable housing, a scheme that makes it possible for people on limited incomes to own their own homes, and at the same time, restores properties which may otherwise become derelict.
In 1977 McKeon joined Father Duncan MacDonnell and other Catholics in setting up the Social Justice Commission of the Edmonton Archdiocese. He became the commission's first staffperson, serving in that position for 12 years.
Under his leadership, the commission became a powerful advocate for labour rights, native rights, medicare, the poor and the unemployed. Through the commission McKeon also helped start up the Edmonton Food Bank, the first food bank in Canada.
He credits the commission with helping "shape the social conscience of the Church" and with "making social justice an integral part of being Church."
In the early 1990s, McKeon led the community into organizing the Edmonton Community Loan Fund, an organization that raises funds and make them available to needy individuals and groups to start up small businesses. So far the fund has given over 80 loans and has in excess of half a million dollars.
"This is another example of trying to put Catholic social teaching in action," he said. "It's building community."