Honouring the Prophets: Kitty McKinley

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 37, Pentecost 2006

Anyone who has ever met Kitty McKinley will never forget her. Bright-eyed, energetic, compassionate and full of fun, Kitty has been a mainstay of social justice action in her Wellington region for many years. She is the founder of Challenge 2000, a community-based agency committed to responding to the gospel and assisting people in their search for social responsibility, social justice and personal dignity. In July 2002 she was interviewed for Tui Motu by Katie O’Connor. We appreciate permission to reprint.

Kitty says:

I grew up in Napier in an ordinary – yet extraordinary – working class family. I had a family who cared about other people, who instilled in me a sense of justice, a sense of love and commitment to other people. Some of my teachers at school and priests in the parish helped me understand the international and national scene. So, very early on, I had this desire to save the world and make it a better place. I came down to Victoria University and went to Law School. I thought ‘I don’t belong here’. I saw people who seemed to be more concerned about litigation than justice issues. There were no Social Work degrees so I did an Arts Degree.

I began as a Social Worker at Catholic Social Services in 1977 and for the next nine years I was a Social Worker, Senior Social Worker, Acting Principal Residential Facilities, prison chaplain, Training Officer, dogsbody and car cleaner at CSS in Wellington. It was a great preparation for being able to lead Challenge.

Social justice is a very interesting area in the church. I believe there’s a very definite set of double standards. The dream versus the reality: it’s still a challenge the church has yet to face. I think in the ’60s with Vatican II and Pope John XXIII, the documents on social change were out there, up there. But I think we’ve lost courage – the church actually ‘living’ it – and with that has gone some of our credibility as well.

As I’m getting older, I’m getting more mellow about this. I’m not so much frustrated as disappointed. The gospels give me my sense of who I am and what I’m called to be. It was the church that formed me in that and somehow I kept on going with it. It seemed the church fell away. The message of Christ is actually a very good message for today’s world. It has truth in it, it has hope, it has a way to belong, it has a way of social change, a way of people being happy and fulfilled that lots of other things don’t have; and yet we can’t seem to live that. We have a really good product and good message that people are needing now because society is disintegrating. Woody Allen said 98 percent of success is showing up. I think the church has to show up more.

At Challenge we are supported by the local church. But as a whole I think we’ve lost confidence in ‘being church’, lost confidence in proclaiming our message generally as a collective body. I believe it’s to do with social pressure, economic pressure, the individualisation of society. People are so tied up in their own world, getting their education paid for, their mortgages, making their own little part of the universe work, that they are not outward-looking any more. Their faith is not extroverted.

I’m the sort of person who keeps on asking: ‘When is enough, enough?’ If you’re a Christian, how do you measure ‘enough’? Enough is enough when you’re dead – and crucified. That’s the measure of ‘enough’. I ask myself: do I see the institutional church hurting through that sort of crucifixion and giving in relation to social justice?

I think the church is hurting and crucified in relation to paedophilia and that sort of thing. But in terms of the message of the gospel and Christ, being anointed ‘to bring liberty to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, set the down-trodden free and proclaim the year of the Lord’ – are we out there doing that? Some individuals are, but if you were to say ‘Catholic Church’ to people, would justice jump into their minds immediately?

I’m passionate about the gospel, about people having hope, people having life and having it to the full, people being happy, people being alert to the opportunities in front of them, people being confident about their own ability, their own goodness, their own uniqueness. If you call all that ‘social justice’, I’m passionate about it.

I’m regarded as a bit of a strange person in some ways both within the church and outside. I’ve been called many things – a stirrer, a trouble-maker, a sinner, a saint, a prophet, a leader, a priest. I think I’ve gained some credibility because I’ve stuck it out, and most people my age haven’t. Others have spat the dummy, and understandably so. But I’m still doing the same thing.

I don’t think older people who leave the church are selfish. It’s simply that at this stage of their journey they find the answers to their own deepest yearnings elsewhere. In his letter Novo Millennio Ineunte Pope John Paul said: ‘Let’s launch into the deep, be the face of Christ, see the face of Christ in all the people around you’.

So let’s do that! Let’s look at different ways of being church, being creative. Let’s look at different ways of celebrating liturgy, let’s open up the doors. I think the church is afraid to launch into the deep.

How many parishes or churches have a sign saying ‘We appreciate the earth’. What signs are there in a parish church in New Zealand that this is Aotearoa New Zealand, that we are on about helping our people, about saving our planet, about modelling ourselves on Christ. How would you know that in most parishes?

In terms of being a Catholic, mine has been a very difficult journey. I try to establish an identity as a Catholic in this country with links to a multinational Rome as part of a universal church in this millennium. I love the Catholic Church and am loyal to it. It has given me opportunities.

The message of Christ is a wonderful message of change, adaptation, of dying, living. The church has got the understanding, it’s got the wisdom, it’s got the knowledge – but it can’t seem to apply it to itself. ‘Unless a mustard seed dies…’ So why are we so worried about launching into the deep and dying?

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