The study of the rectory at Holy Angels Church is a maze of black and white. Black and white psychedelic wallpaper, black and white checked rug. Black and white chairs, black and white ashtrays. The base of the telephone atop Father George C. Clement's desk is black; the receiver is white. The theme, he says, evolved from a saying of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Black and white together, we shall overcome." A spot of color in the room comes from the jacket of a book on the windowsill -- "Uncommon Prayer" by Daniel Berrigan.
Clements, caught in the midst of a turmoil of his own making, is sitting behind his chrome and glass desk with a business-as-usual pose. Whether by design or by circumstance, the balding, athletic-looking priest has attracted worldwide attention to himself and the South Side ghetto church where he is pastor. By his own count, he received 272 telephone calls in 62 hours last week. Every majaor news gathering organization in the United States and several abroad have been clamoring for a few minutes of his time. Johnny Carson is the only national television talk-show host who has not requested an interview.
Never before has taking a risk in order to take a stand so singled out Clements from the Causes he believes in. Not the civil rights marches with King, not hsi position as chaplain to the Black Panthers, not he bestowal of his church's "Black Man of the Month" award to a white Sears, Roebuck & Co. evecutive.
But last week, the 48-year-old priest stood at athe pulpit of his Roman Catholic Church and an announced to his congregation that he was going to become a father.
Lower case father, as in daddy.
"I'm going to need your help," Clements, who is black, later told a friend.
"But I'm going to do it."
Clements leans back in his black chair and folds his hands across his chest.
He speaks almost mechanically about why he plans to adopt a child, raising his voice for emphasis at selected words, not out of excitement. Perhaps the two-day retreat he took last week has contributed to his serenity. Perhaps his spiritual training has given Clements the kind of inner peace that makes the words he uses appear so fervent but his delivery seem so detached.
What he is saying is that there are some 2,500 homeless black children in the Chicago area and too few families willing to adopt them. He has been working with the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, trying to get some of his 4,000 parishioners to take a child into their homes. His efforts until recently, says, had generated "a notable lack of enthusiasm."
And so, Clements decided, "If they won't adopt, I will."
Holy Angels was an Irish Catholic parish until the neighborhood changed. Now the area is a puzzle of neatly painted row houses, empty lots and vacant apartment buildings with no glass in the windows. A block from the convent, rectory, church and school is the gialy painted headquarters of one of the most notorious black gangs in the city. Last week, a Holy Angels worker got mugged while walking home from the church.
Clements grew up five blocks away, one of six children. His father was an auditor for the city of Chicago; his mother was a housewife. The family was close, and Catholic.
He attended a Catholic elementary school and entered Quigley Seminary when he was 13 years old. He was the only black. He worked his way through Quigley, setting pins in a bowling alley, polishing shoes, scrubbing toilets. He was ordained in 1957 and became pastor of Holy Angels in 1969.
As a youth, he played baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Now, he plays chess.
That Clements' study should be such a bold statment does not surprise those who know him. He takes stands in broad brushstrokes, not subtle lines. Like honoring George O'Hare, the Sears executive, for his years of work in the civil rights movement. Like dyeing the water in a lagoon near the church black for St. Patrick's Day when the city of Chicago dyed the Chicago River green for the same celebration. Like allowing a local artist to paint a mural of the Last Supper on the wall of the rectory's dining room. Each of Jesus' apostles had been replaced with the face of a famous black.
Some might call him a renegade. Clements prefers to see himself das a trend-setter. Still . . . . adopting a child? Does he realize the responsibility? Will he have time for partenthood? Who will pay for the child's care? Won't a child interfere with his priestly duties?
There is no hesitation in his voice. When he speaks, creases form on his face at right angles to his mouth and stretch almost from his cheekbones to his jaw. When he laughs, the lines seem to make his freckles bounce. His arms and hands makes a flurry of gestures -- palms open, fists clenched, arms wide apart. Hands clasped, then unclasped.
"I know only too well what I'm getting into. My life has been spent with children," the priest is saying. "If anything, I'm overqualified to become a father." He says he has counseled "tens of thousand" of young people on topics ranging from drugs to sex to crime. He overseas 1,300 students at Holy Angels School and communicates with at least some of them daily.
Fatherhood appeals to him on a personal level as well as a humanitarian one, he says. "I feel strongly that all of us need a sense of continuty. Perhaps I see adopting a child as compensation coming to me for whatever sacrifices I have made. I am looking forward to enjoying for the first time that sense of continuity that is the fabric of human personality."
Four years ago, he allowed Kevin, a 17-year-old boy, to move into the rectory. Kevin lived there until recently under Clements' supervision, becoming close enough to the priest's family to call Clements' 80-year-old mother "Grandma." Clements and Kevin "went our separte ways" when Kevin decided not to go to college, the priest says.
"I dam inclined to be too severe with black children because of my expectations and desires for them," he says. "If I had to child of my own, I would have to temper my feelings so the child would not feel pressured."
Clements leads a busy life, rising at 6 a.m., celebrating mass, teaching religion, visiting the sick and the incarcerated, meeting with other church organizations and counseling those in need. He goes to sleep about 1:30 a.m.
Still, he maintains, there would have to "rearrange some duties. . . . but who ever has enough time?" The most important thing about parenting. Clements says, is "to be avaiable when you are needed and to have the sense to know when you are needed." Furthmore, there are the church's support services: secretaries, da domestic worker, a laundress, a cook and the nuns. "I don't think I'll ever need a babysitter," he says.
Money is no problem, he says. "First of all, I feel this is a nation that pays tribute to resourcefulness." Clements says. Children, he believes, should begin working at an early age and "what they need will come form their own creativity."
Besides, the church already is giving room and board to three priests and a Nigerian student who live in the rectory. One more won't matter, Clement says. "The pastor should have certain privileges, I think, and this should be one of them."
Parenting would add another facet to his life, but would not interfere with it, Clements says. "I do not feel I would be giving any loss of myself to others any more than a mother gives less of herself to her husband when she has children. The bottom line is that all beings do the things they really want to do. . . . "
Clements says he is not too old to adopt a child, and the Illinois Department of Child, and Family Services has told him so. Bringing up that child in a rectory would be better, he feels, than having the child grow up in an institutional environment or "bouncing from one foster home to another."
Still, he is in the process of making plans for the child's care should he no longer be able to provide for it. "If something happens to me, I would presume my closest friend (another priest) would handle everything, including a child," he says.
Last Sunday, a black orphan baby under the state's care was brought to the church. More than 50 people put in application to adopt her.
The campaign apparently is working.
Nonetheless, Clements says his position is still the same. He wants to adopt. He has not decided whether to try to adopt a male or a female child or how old the child should be. He plans to "consult with experts" for guidance: hAnd to pray.
The Arhdiocesse of Chicago has reacted neither positively nor negatively to Clements' decision.
Its only public statment said that Clements is playing "a socially valuable role" by calling attention to the adoption problem but added that "it may be more appropriate for a priest to leave adoptions to those who are less encumbered by pastoral responsibilities."
Clements had a "very positive" telephone conversation with Cardinal John Cody last week. "He did not tell me to adopt and he did not tell me not to adopt," Clements says. But if Cardinal Cody told him not to? "I'd say, 'If that's the way you feel aboaut it, fine.' And then I'd go ahead and do what I want to do.
"Catholicism is my religion almost to the same extent that blackness is my race," he says. "I do not feel that people in position-making roles in the church have any authority to dictate to me what my posture is within Catholicism."