Activist spends lifetime battling for civil rights, social justice issues

Activist spends lifetime battling for civil rights, social justice issues

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The 1960s set in motion John Krejci’s radical priesthood. 

Those were heady years for protest and reform in this country, and especially for the man who grew up in the nurturing, narrow community that was South Omaha in the middle years of the 20th century. 

The country was building toward a massive civil rights movement and the church was undergoing a liturgical renewal at the same time. The juxtaposition of those shifts created many changes in purpose and direction. 

He had joined the priesthood in 1962, knowing from sixth grade that’s the direction he wanted to take, but not telling anyone. 

He’s no longer an active priest; he sought dispensation decades ago to pursue his social justice activities, marriage and a family. But a priest is considered a priest for life, and he only freed himself of the rights and responsibilities of the position.

In his mid-30s, he married Jean Gettelfinger — a Benedictine nun who had sought similar dispensation from her order and vows — who became his life partner, and traveling and activism companion.

Since then, his career has been in academics, with multiple degrees and professorships at two Nebraska universities. 

But the motion that was set in place 60 years ago never stopped. 

At 83, Krejci continues to seek change. He testifies on behalf of his causes, popping up at hearings, vigils, sign-carrying protests, making sure Lincoln and Nebraska leaders don’t forget his name or his messages. 

He’s been tagged a radical. He describes himself as a “hard-ass social protester,” but at the same time one who tries to be nice about it. It’s just that he refuses to toe the line with bureaucracy.

“You have to call out people when they’re doing wrong, you know?” Krejci said. “And I’m pretty strong in my opinions.” 

And he’s a faithful man, faithful to his belief in civil rights, human rights and social justice. And, yes, faithful to the Catholic Church, even though he has protested it, too.  

Born in 1937, two years before the start of World War II, Krejci was a fifth-generation Czech who spent his childhood in South Omaha, attending the same Catholic primary school his mother and grandmother had, down the street from the Bohemian Cafe. 

He framed his neighborhood this way: Italians on 10th Street, Czechs on 14th Street, Germans on 16th Street and the Irish “up the street.” 

The family lived in a bungalow; his dad worked for Union Pacific Railroad for 50 years, 7:40 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. every work day. His mom, in the Czech tradition, fed her family dumplings, mashed potatoes and roast beef or fried chicken.

His childhood was typical and happy, he said, hanging out in the streets, climbing trees, drinking pop and looking tough with his pals on the corners, playing hockey with his rag-tag team, a sport he would continue to play until he was 75. And fishing with his mother and grandmother at Riverview Park, now the site of Henry Doorly Zoo.

John Krejci Hockey

John Krejci played on a rag-tag team, as he called it, with childhood friends in South Omaha. He continued to play hockey until he was 75. 

And, of course, attending church. 

His parents were pillars of the church, he said, strong Catholics, well respected.

“The parish was the center of our lives, really,” he said. 

He rubbed elbows with the Sisters of Mercy, Jesuits and Benedictines throughout school, and they strongly influenced him. He graduated in 1955 from Creighton Prep.  

Then his life shifted to a new plane of religion, academics and exploring other realms of the world and society. 

Krejci’s parents didn’t know until about a week before he launched his religious vocation that he had decided to be a priest, to go to a liberal seminary in Missouri rather than attend Creighton University, where he was registered. 

After that it was a seminary in Rome, where he got a four-year degree, taking his oral tests in Latin. 

“That was really stressful. You go, in effect, through the gates of the giants,” he said. 

He spent summers there with other seminarians traveling and living in a villa, like the rich European aristocracy that surrounded him. 

“It’s amazing I didn’t become an arrogant priest, like we have so many of,” he said.  

Far from it. 

When he returned to Nebraska after his ordination in 1962, he served St. Mary’s Church in Bellevue, where he recalled preaching anti-war sermons to the military at Offutt Air Force Base.

One of his heroes, he said, was Dorothy Day, a social activist and anarchist, who became a Catholic without abandoning her activism.

In 1965, he was asked to go to Selma, Alabama, to stand with other clergy in support of those marching and protesting for civil rights. It was one of a few watershed moments in his life. 

For four days, he and other white clergy, priests and nuns, stood together in Selma and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, pushed around by big cops with billy clubs, he said. White clergy were there to make a point and to care for brothers and sisters in protest.

In the next several years, after returning to Nebraska, he worked in the inner city of Omaha doing community organizing, working for open housing and protesting. There were riots in Omaha, and he was working in the Holy Family Parish and the Catholic Social Action Office.

“It was an emotional experience to be involved in the civil rights movement,” he said.  

Because he was looked at as a priest who was “stirring things up,” he said, in the late ’60s he was sent from the inner city to the Omaha and Winnebago reservations for a year. 

Being immersed in that Native culture and its poverty and religious spirit offered other watershed moments.

“I made all sorts of friends up there and it was very powerful,” Krejci said. “It was just so healthy and real. … They had an indigenous religion and a respect for nature.” 

In 1969, Krejci decided to return to school for a master’s degree and his Ph.D., and left for South Bend, Indiana, and the University of Notre Dame. There, much changed for him. 

He met Jean, who had left her convent for Notre Dame. He began work on a master’s degree, a Ph.D., and another master’s degree. And he sought and received a dispensation from priesthood. In June 1971, John and Jean got married.

John Krejci Wedding

John and Jean Krejci were married in 1971 at a chapel at Notre Dame, University, where they met. The two had sought and received dispensations that year to leave the Catholic Church as a priest and a nun.  

There was disruption in the church in the late 1960s, with growing social awareness, politics and the sexual revolution, which brought challenges. Men were leaving the priesthood over such issues as birth control, abortion and the role of women. 

“I was also becoming discouraged with the church’s commitment to civil rights,” he said. “The church wasn’t changing. … A huge number of priests left from ’65 to ’75.”

He could do more, he said, without the constraints of the authoritarian structure.

“I never looked back. That was a good decision I made. Should I have left? Of course,” he said.

Jean left the convent after about 15 years, having joined when she was 16, she said, because things were changing across the United States and women were going to college and getting their doctorates. She, too, felt she could do more in anthropology, her study emphasis for a master’s and Ph.D., as a layperson. 

“Many of us left,” she said. 

After they were married, the couple spent a year in Oaxaca, Mexico, living in an Indian village and doing anthropological fieldwork. They then moved to Kearney, where Krejci became chairman of the sociology department at Kearney State College, and the two started their family. 

Krejci wrote his dissertation there and received his Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology from Notre Dame. When they left Kearney in 1984, the family moved to Lincoln, where Krejci ran the social work program at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He stayed until 2000, retiring at age 63.

Krejci has been a member of Nebraskans for Peace since the mid-1970s. He supported the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s. In the past 20 years, he’s been involved with the United Nations Association, NAACP and Call to Action, which seeks to reform the Catholic Church and which got him and Jean excommunicated from his Lincoln diocese.

Protests of the past, 2002

John Krejci holds a message for Gov. Mike Johanns as he watches a protest in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Lincoln in June 2002. Seven protesters were ticketed for consumption of alcohol on public property after drinking beer on the mansion’s grounds to draw attention to Whiteclay liquor sales.

They don’t acknowledge that excommunication, he said, because the church knew how illegitimate it was. He and Jean continued to attend mass, and found priests who would give them communion. 

Rachel Pokora, a Wesleyan professor who is also a member of Call to Action and has written a book — “Crisis of Catholic Authority” — said every group or movement has some people who are pushing for more action and some who are putting on the brakes. John is one who wants more. 

“He definitely is an activist and wants to make things happen,” she said. “I think he would rather apologize for going too far than not going far enough.” 

Since retirement from NWU, Krejci’s major focus has been criminal justice reform. 

“There are really good people in (the Nebraska Department of) Corrections. Rosalyn Cotton and her staff, and (Director Scott) Frakes isn’t a bad person,” he said. 

But, Krejci said, the criminal justice system in Nebraska is not a good one. The prison industrial complex, he calls it.

Rally and hearing 7.31

John Krejci, a former priest who marched in Selma, Alamaba, in the 1960s and was harassed by police there, testifies to senators during a hearing on a police reform bill   at the state Capitol on July 31. 

So he testifies at the Legislature, writes letters, lobbies, writes for the Nebraska Criminal Justice Review out of Holy Family Church in Omaha, works with inmates and helps ex-inmates, meets with officials.

He still shows up, despite the pandemic, at hearings such as one held during the August session on police reform. 

The Krejcis love Lincoln, their life here and their children — daughter Jeanie, who’s an artist in Lincoln; John Mark, a clinical psychologist in San Diego; and Jennifer, a dermatologist in San Antonio.

When the couple met, they said, it was love at first sight. 

He’s got a good sense of humor, she said.

She thought I was a smart aleck, he said.

John Krejci 8.24

Jean Krejcii plants a kiss on her unexpecting husband.

“You have to be unafraid to be funny,” Jean said. “And he is.”

He was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer 14 years ago. It’s a chronic condition that he treats with diet, attitude, exercise, journaling and immune system treatments.

With the pandemic, they feel fortunate. They have a nice house and neighbors, and a patio where they can conference with their groups and friends. Their daughter brings them food and takes care of them.

“It’s like, this too will pass. Other than feeling kind of guilty, we’re just doing fine,” he said. “We’re so well taken care of, it’s embarrassing.”

These are troubled times, and it’s easy to lose hope, he said. “But get involved with something that helps humanity, whatever it be. … We can make a difference.”

Photos: John Krejci through the years

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or [email protected]

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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