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placeholder  January 5, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA

Mark McKimmey reads the commendation on a lifetime achievement award to Gwen Watson, right.
MICHELE JURICH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE

Advocate and fighter for justice: Gwen Watson

When the Catholic Campaign for Human Development honored Gwen Watson with a lifetime achievement award at its fall gathering, in which grants were distributed to East Bay-based organizations working for justice, Watson accepted the award with more than herself in mind.

And not just because there were eight tables of her friends in the room. "It was very awkward for me," she recalled. "I wanted my friends and fellow parishioners to go because I wanted us to be together with Father Paulson (Mundanmani), Father Brian (Joyce), Father Aidan (McAleenan) and Father (Brian) Timoney and be with our bishop."

That's the essence of how Gwen Watson works — by inviting others, said John Watkins, coordinator of life and justice for the Diocese of Oakland, who nominated the longtime parishioner at Christ the King in Pleasant Hill for the award.

Watson's words to live by just might be these: "I try not to force my ideas on anyone, but I'm very happy to tell you about it if you ask me," she said.

Watson's advocacy was nurtured during her marriage, where she and her husband Hilrey Watson worked side-by-side for justice.

"My parents are Catholic. My parents were generous to groups like Catholic Charities," she said. In marriage, she found a like-minded partner. "When you need to change something, my husband and I were on the same page."

His career with Chevron took them to many places, bringing them to San Francisco, where they made their home in Contra Costa County.

"When we moved to Christ the King, close to 30 years ago, social justice was all charity," she recalled. But that changed over the years.

"When Father Brian Joyce came we started looking at the justice issue and how we could change the mindset and make it different so we didn't need so much charity," she said.

For Gwen Watson, it's all about building relationships.

Parishioners learned how to advocate for issues and how to be sure they were sending letters to the right people. "Father Joyce helped us get deeper into that," she said. They attended interfaith workshops in Sacramento that helped them hone their advocacy skills.

They even borrowed a page out of the playbook of one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot, who in 1994 appeared in TV using charts.

"Well, we had charts, too," Watson said. "We found there were people who could not exist without welfare." At Christ the King, they went a step further. "We wrote a white paper and then we divided into teams taking on the Senate, U.S. Congress and we let them know there was a need for some form of welfare."

After Hilrey Watson's death in 1996, Gwen carried on. "He died as chair of the social justice organizing committee," she said. "His adult life has been related to social justice."

Their children grew up with an understanding of the importance of social justice.

Their son Mark was ordained in 1996, with family in California and Louisiana gathering for his ordination in the Diocese of Shreveport. It was bittersweet for Gwen Watson, who went without her husband. The ordination was June 10; her husband had died in January.

"He is so social justice," she says with a touch of admiration in her voice for her son, the priest, who, even as a new priest, was called to do some social justice work.

"I am very proud of him. Louisiana is a place that needs some social justice speaking."

Some of that work is rooted in experiences he had with his parents, including meeting Cesar Chavez. He said a meeting with Chavez inspired the young man to become a priest.

"I was very happy to hear that," Watson said.

While she may collect arrest warrants like some people collect souvenirs, Watson said, "I am not like Father Louis Vitale. Father Louis loves jail. They value it there. They minister when they go.

"Me? I like a warm bed. I am not looking forward to jail."

But that desire does not keep her from protests. Her last warrant is dated Aug. 7, 2014. She's no stranger to being arrested on Good Friday in protesting nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore lab.

But that want of a warm bed is something that resonates in her other work. As the driving force of the founding of the Winter Nights Shelter in Contra Costa County, she navigated a series of loopholes, scouring sites for a permanent location before creation of a series of churches and congregations sharing the hosting.

Now, after serving as a volunteer executive director, she has handed over the reins.

She is also active in immigration work, walking with people who have been released from detention in West Contra Costa County and need to get home, whether it be locally, Los Angeles or Texas.

If it were up to her, she'd "unleash the big secret," she said.

"The best kept secret is the social teaching of our church," she said.

But if some in the church need further instruction in Catholic social teaching, she's not worried about Pope Francis. She's also read his "The Joy of the Gospel."

"The pope is already there," she said.

 
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