The Great Potential of Youth by Reilly O’Hara

Bull City LeadersLived Theology Intern, Reilly O’Hara, a double-major in Religious Studies and Foreign Affairs, is spending his summer in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC with the School for Conversion and Urban Hope. In this post, he chronicles the job-skills performed by 6th and 7th graders demonstrating their potential, and the potential of all of us, to participate in changing the world.

The Great Potential of Youth

My second week of Urban Hope is almost halfway through and my eyes have already been opened to the deep potential displayed by the campers that I work with. I just came from Duke Divinity School where two four-person teams of 6th and 7th graders fed close to 80 guests at the Duke Youth Academy (DYA). Each team was tasked with creating its own theme, planning its menu (with vegetarian and vegan options), and decorating their tables. They prepared the meals days in advance following strict restaurant health regulations and procedures. The day of the event the two teams served the DYA students, filling every role that one would find in a restaurant: hostess, waiter, chef, and many more. The dinner was a huge success, both with our campers and our patrons, and everyone was ecstatic to have succeeded so well.

The intense effort given by these kids toward this particular entrepreneurial challenge was both humbling and inspiring for me on a theoretical and personal level. While we don’t live in a society that fully dismisses the power of the youth, adults seem to be favored as the more important and impacting age group in society. Whether its intelligence, maturity, or wisdom, the youth never seem to have enough of it.

Bull City LeadersThis is, in fact, something that I personally have often been thinking about as I move closer to graduation and am asked again and again that inevitable question: “So what are going to do after college?” Most of the talk about my generation’s career options paints a dismal picture of what the future holds. The hope of obtaining a good start up job, according to many, has faded into a mess of unpaid internships, expensive and unnecessary graduate schools, and other scenarios where we are said to be much worse off than those who have come before. These conversations, whether one actually believes them or not, have the potential to undermine the self-efficacy of people my age. After hearing and seeing this perceived reality of our futures we begin to doubt the impact that we could have on the world as young people and instead see our role in society as latching on to preexisting organizations and institutions in order to affect the change that we wish to see in this world… Or at least that is how I sometimes feel.

Catching me in this thought process, Urban Hope has served to shake things up. Seeing these campers, coming from a community with a perceived reality far bleaker than mine, take on and succeed in challenges that I would struggle with has really been a huge inspiration. Although at times it was difficult to motivate these campers, as most of the counselors can verify, in the end was a product so exceptional that most of the DYA people, and the Urban Hope staff, were baffled. The meal was incredible, the atmosphere was incredible, and the service, all done by the Urban Hope campers, was incredible. I saw in that challenge the astonishing potential for young folks to rise above their circumstance and demonstrate the extent to which they really are beating the odds.

Urban Hope is not, however, the only testament here to the great potential found in many youth and people my age. Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove, founders of the intentional community and hospitality home where I was living, came to Walltown immediately after graduating from college and started the Rutba House and School For Conversion, two huge influences in the community today. This was also months after they had gone on a peacekeeping mission, as 22 year olds, to Iraq during the Shock and Awe bombing campaign of 2003. Rather than assimilate into an existing group or organization, or even pursue the usual post-college course, Jonathan and Leah, at my age, came into Durham and have had a profound impact in the ten years since.

Another example has been my reading for this week, Many Minds, One Heart by Wesley Hogan. This book traces the history of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission (SNCC), an extremely influential Civil Rights group comprised mostly of college students. These young folks, again all around my age, who like Jonathan and Leah decided to pave their own road toward future goals, organized sit-ins, voter registration movements, and many other direct action campaigns in the face of complete and utter hopelessness. The odds, like the odds in Walltown, were stacked against them; too many forces didn’t want to see their success. Yet despite this, these students persevered and ended up changing the face of the Civil Rights Movement. Change really was possible.

Witnessing this hope reassures me of the good works that can be accomplished simply by doing them. Shane Claiborne, an author and new monastic (or, “ordinary radical,” as he would call himself), has a great line in one of his books: “Most good things in life have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.” For me, a guy who likes to say things a lot, it is inspiring to see people just doing things. Great things, for that matter.

Cultivating Trust

I came into work today with a sprained ankle and a limp. At The Haven, several guests suffer from chronic leg or back conditions that produce a limp. Two men sport broken bones. This week, I entered the canon of visible injury, provoking a handful of bemused comments: “Girl, who’d you kick this time?” or “We should get matching canes.” Joking aside, I have never had more doors held, chairs fetched, or heavy boxes carried for me than today by Haven guests. While the gestures are kind and make me feel accepted, I feel this also indicates that I am still somewhat of a novelty newcomer. Almost halfway into my summer work, I still float somewhere between semi-anonymous college volunteer and respected staff member. A regular guest, who I’ll call Mr. M., remarked, “They made you come in even with a messed up foot? I guess you don’t like to miss much.” In my mind, this suggested that I am entering the realm of a dependable presence, which, to me, is a major affirmation. Without making coming to work with a hurt ankle a bubblegum martyrdom, vocalized appreciation at my basic presence delights me. After five weeks at the Haven, a new sense of trust is being built.

Now a more familiar face, some of the regular guests have begun to reach out to me. Some suggestions of growing relationships are subtle: a returned “good morning” or head nod where before there was only silence or blank stares, or guests remembering my name for the first time. These small gestures are extremely heartwarming. The big gestures are slightly startling: a mostly disinterested teenage girl greeting me with a wave and a “hey beautiful!” from the window, or an around-the-shoulders hug from another female guest.

Last week, I completed my first solo intake interview, in which a Haven staff member sits down with a new guest to assess their service needs. The man I did the intake for trusted me with the secret ups and downs of his past, his personal dreams, and even his social security number. It is amazing how much people open up to you about their darkest secrets when they think you have the answers. I don’t. I just have a pen and a piece of paper. The powerful trust woven into the intake process reminded me of a confessional: lay all your cards on the table with a stranger in the hopes that they might be able to fix something, or everything.

When most of the Haven staff was occupied with attending a board meeting, they trusted me to open the building and take responsibility for an afternoon desk shift. As the most

As temporary Person In Charge, I was responsible for maintaining the security of these personal storage bins.

As temporary Person In Charge, I was responsible for maintaining the security of these personal storage bins.

junior member of the staff , it was a bit odd to jump up to a major leadership role, even if just for the afternoon. Luckily, there were no catastrophic emergencies, and it was business as usual at the front desk. During my two-hour shift as The One In Charge, I reflected on what it meant to be seen as the primary point of contact for guest needs. Although it was a fairly quiet shift, guests approaching the desk to ask for help in contacting the Social Security office, fast tracking their re-housing applications, or young mothers asking for daycare assistance we couldn’t offer had me thinking, “Camille, you better know what you’re talking about.” Just holding the key to the front door produced a new level of trust in my ability to be of valuable assistance.

One of the best pieces of advice about cultivating trust that I have received so far has been from a service provider with office space in our building:  don’t filibuster. In working with the homeless and vulnerable populations, he said, you must be as direct as possible. “Young lady,” he said, “either you say ‘yes’ or you say ‘no’. Even if it’s not the answer they want to hear, you will be respected.” In the social service world of complicated answers and red tape, direct answers are a relief from the uncertainties of life on the margins. Part of the responsibility of temporarily being The One In Charge is telling adults that no, I don’t have an answer, or no, your iPod speakers cannot be played inside. Frankly, owning that level of direct authority is difficult for me. As a young college student, I struggle not to feel self-conscious of my youth and relative inexperience. For some guests, I worry that it is like their daughter or granddaughter asking them to follow house rules. Chris Haggerty, a staff member, explained to me that being firm and authoritative in resolving guest conflicts actually strengthens the trust in the staff, because resolutely defending the policies of the Haven translates into resolutely defending the rights and dignity of our guests. When a guest knows he or she can trust a staff member to be honest, direct and consistent, Haven staff note that the guest is more likely to engage with the staff and accept that engagement as a positive force in their life.

At the Haven, we strive to be accountable to one another. We must be resolutely accountable to the men, women, and children we serve. This accountability and trust strengthens the possibility of an open, inclusive community. The luxury of being the reacher in social outreach is that the people you serve depend greatly on your dedication. The Haven does not have any market competitors; we are the only day shelter in Charlottesville. It is still the only place to get a nutritious, free breakfast any day of the week. Our guests deserve to have a place they can trust will be able to provide respite and supportive community. We owe it to our guests that they can trust that our doors will be open every day and that volunteers and staff will show up and offer a caring hand. It is an honor to experience a deepening of relational ties that run thick with respect and compassion at the Haven.

From the Farmhouse to the Town Center

Every Friday we ask for donations in the city center of a nearby affluent town.  We set up two tables on the sidewalk on which we place bread, jam, assorted packaged food, various vegetables and plants from our garden.  Usually three or four people from the farm go for the day, standing near the table and in other spots on the sidewalk to ask passersby for donations.  Rather than pricing the items on our table, we ask that people give what they would like to support our cause, hoping that the mostly well-to-do young families, retirees, and businessmen will have a lot to give.

SellingAfter we park our blue Fiat van, complete with a “Jesus Loves WikiLeaks” bumper sticker, and begin to set up tables and hang signs that read, “Help Support Our Homeless Women,” a sense of unease comes over me as we transition from daily work at the farm to placing ourselves in the center of Chorleyshire* to tell the general public about our work and to ask for their monetary support.  Thankfully the rich citizens of Chorleyshire are generally pleasant people to talk to.  Our tables look quite neat and colorful, with an orange tablecloth, bread spilling out of baskets, jam and crisps neatly arranged, and bright green and deep magenta rhubarb.  I always expect that walkers will flock to our table in droves, however people rarely stop unless asked to do so.

Beginning to stop passersby is at first awkward, however after a while I’ve found that it becomes easier the more consistently I try to talk to talk to each person who passes.  After having gone to Chorleyshire to sell for a couple of weeks now, I feel I have a sense as to what will cause people to at least consider stopping by our tables, which is to draw their attention to our fresh bread rather than to our work with homeless women and children.  The signs we set up don’t usually attract people, and neither does, “Hi, would you like to support our work with homeless women?”  A big smile, and “Hi there!  Need any bread today?” however, works wonders.

The typical reaction people give after I’ve asked them if they’d consider buying some bread is surprising; whether or not a person is interested in the bread, they often give a genuine smile back.  I hope this positive response indicates that they don’t find us to be too much of a nuisance, and would consider stopping by on a Friday in the future.  Only one time were we uncomfortably confronted by a woman who was upset because we had called out to her multiple times on the street.  She had passed by us three different times and we had called out to her each time, not noticing that we had already done so before.  She didn’t think we should be such a bother to walkers.  In the biography about Dorothy Day written by Robert Coles, Day recalls a time when, as she was walking up and down a street with signs for a protest, a woman remarked, “Will you people please stop exhibiting yourselves” (119).

I do hope that people in Chorelyshire don’t find us disrespectful, but the Catholic Worker as envisioned by Dorothy Day is to have a presence in public life; as she often remarked, we are trying to build a new society in the shell of the old.  The Catholic Worker not is a group of religious desert fathers, removed from the world and devoted to a life of prayer.  The desire and calling to engage, as felt by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, stems from both the example of Jesus and from the backgrounds in activism and journalism of Dorothy and others who began the first Catholic Worker.  They saw themselves as “Christians living in the midst of a busy urban world, with people everywhere near us.  No desert here, other than the vast desert of lost souls you can see on some streets” (Coles, 119,120).

The Catholic Worker Farm is somewhat isolated from the surrounding town, unlike the first house established in New York City.  We’re located in a neighborhood 45 minutes outside London, rather than in the center of a major metropolitan area.  Furthermore, our location on a working farm sets us back from the road in a peaceful, though isolated environment.  Going to Chorleyshire and engaging with people in a local area is one way we can emerge from our isolation.

Dorothy, Peter, and others who were a part of the first Catholic Worker in New York City were often on street corners protesting, picketing, and selling their publication weekly.  They sold the newspaper for a penny a copy, standing on street corners and shouting, “Read The Catholic Worker, daily!” next to their Communist counterparts who were similarly trying to attract readers yelling, “Read the Daily Worker!” (118, Coles).  Selling weekly newspapers is a consistent way to have a public presence and creates an opportunity to discuss the articles and topics included in the publication with the general public.

At the Catholic Worker Farm we do consistently go into Chorleyshire, but unfortunately we do not speak with many people about our work beyond surface-level explanations.  When people do ask more about what they are donating to, it is difficult to resist the urge to instinctively keep my explanation vague so as to conform to whatever people think they are supporting, knowing that one could find many things about The Catholic Worker problematic, from it’s roots in Catholic belief to the fact that our assistance is overwhelmingly given to foreign women rather than British citizens.  On the other hand, we do offer people our bi-yearly newsletter when they stop by the table or give donations, which does state concretely our intentions and beliefs.

“Posing,” not clearly explaining our work which some could find controversial, or hoping to hide the difficulties or troubles that we often face, is tiring, not entirely honest, and contrary to our belief that as a result of our faith we are trying to spread a message and advocate for the marginalized.  Dorothy Day states, “I know it won’t do, to give the impression we sail along here, on a sea benevolence (118).”  When people hear the surface level explanation about the accommodation we provide for eighteen homeless women and children and our life together in the big farm house selling bread and making jam, often we both give the impression and receive the response that we are “such angels, those Catholic Workers!” as put by Day (Coles, 114).  The focus is then put on the great, holy work that we are doing, which can result in feelings of pride, self-importance, and self-righteousness, rather than on understanding our intentions well enough to communicate them clearly and honestly.

A nun who came to volunteer at the Catholic Worker in NYC told Dorothy something she would never forget, that “this is dangerous work… that we run the risk of thinking we’re God’s gift to humanity, those of us who struggle in our soup kitchens and hospitality houses to be loyal to Him.  It is a message I hope none of us forgets…” (Coles, 116).  The pride that can come with living a life of service certainly is paradoxical, since choosing to work with the poor is often to decide to move down the social ladder and to reject the temptation to focus on person success.  Both arrogance and pride are temptations with which Dorothy Day was greatly concerned though, and thought they were “[lurking] around every corner” (Coles, 122).

It seems necessary to strive for patience and clarity to explain the beliefs of the Catholic Worker, keeping in mind the humble work in which we have chosen to engage and trying to communicate this honestly rather than in a superficial way.  Also we must recognize that not everyone will want to support our work or feel as though they should consider living in a similar way.  Robert Coles writes that neither Dorothy Day nor Peter Maurin would have liked the term Catholic Worker Movement, as “they saw themselves as struggling, penitent Christians, anxious to connect the religious pieties so many of us collect to the concrete moral challenges of everyday life… they could not get out of their minds, day after day, the example Jesus set, not only encouraging, admonishing, exhorting, explaining, summoning, but time and again, doing” (Loaves and Fishes, xi).

Going into Chorleyshire and engaging with locals about the work that we do is an opportunity to ask ourselves if we understand our intentions and if we can communicate them to the public.  I wrote about our intentionality in my first post A Theology for Daily Work, and how belief in intrinsic dignity is at the core of our work.  Hopefully, this is something that I can learn how to better explain to people, especially those who we encounter, however briefly, in Chorleyshire.  This could mean speaking slowly, focusing less on the lovely bread we have and more on explaining our intentions, and asking people who return week after week about their impressions of our newsletter.  Peter Maurin said, “We can’t expect to run to meet the world with our message and not fall flat on our faces.  We’ve got to take the risk.  We’ve got to get up after we fall and keep moving”  (Coles, 120).  As stated on the Catholic Worker website, “We believe that success, as the world determines it, is not the criterion by which a movement should be judged… The most important thing is that we adhere to these values which transcend time and for which we will be asked a personal accounting, not as to whether they succeeded… but as to whether we remained true to them even though the whole world go otherwise.”

* Name has been changed

Breaking Bread Together

This past week has been one of transition. My work with Jonathan and School for Conversion officially ended and orientation for Urban Hope, the summer camp where I’ll be working for the rest of my time here, officially began. The days were long and the sessions intense, yet much joy was had with the other counselors and staff as we prepared the camp for the coming weeks. I cannot help but enter into a state of constant reflection as my summer slowly shifts gears and the next chapter of my work in Walltown begins.

Urban Hope is a summer camp for 5th-8th graders, mostly from Walltown, that takes place in a former church building down the road from where I live. The camp caters toward the youth of Walltown, striving to build upon the already strong sense of community felt by everyone in this neighborhood. The main goal of the camp can be summed up in it’s mission statement: “Urban Hope is raising up generations of young heroes—who are beating the odds by the grace of God—through creating safe places in our neighborhood to grow together into wholeness.” Urban Hope focuses specifically on business, structuring much of its teaching and activities around entrepreneurship. The campers take classes on financial literacy and participate in various challenges throughout the summer that teach them the basics of entrepreneurship, a skill-set that can make an incredible difference in their lives. To provide an example, one current counselor, a former camper, is now receiving his Masters degree in Business Education. This camp is a strong influence on the neighborhood.

Urban HopeAs I move into this phase, a few specific thoughts are on my mind. I keep returning to the epilogue of The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day’s autobiography. I have been reading Dorothy’s diaries throughout this summer and have come across a theme to which she often returns: the breaking of bread. In the epilogue of The Long Loneliness, Day provides us with a good idea of what she seems to mean: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.”

Dorothy believes that in order to fully know someone, whether God or a neighbor, we must break bread with them. Through this knowledge we are able to love, and through this love we move towards a greater companionship, a glimpse of that Kingdom that we pray comes every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer. By participating in a practice passed down from Jesus we are able to come together and, in the words of the Urban Hope mission statement, “grow together into wholeness.”

The actual practice of this tradition is, at least to me, somewhat ambiguous, and honestly I think that adds to its beauty. As I reflect on what breaking bread with someone could entail, I see two distinct possibilities: the sacramental practice of breaking bread, literally, like at the Last Supper, and also the broader practice of simply eating with others. The latter possibility is one that I have seen often so far during my time in intentional community. The Rutba House has family meals four times a week and all the members say repeatedly that it is one of the most crucial aspects of living life with others. Relationships are built upon and people are loved through these meals, as all the members of the community are able to come together around one table.

Jonathan planted another idea in my mind that I have been contemplating. He pointed out that during lectures and other formal conversations, there is always one person in a position of authority that dictates the flow and pace of the topics discussed, whether that’s a teacher, moderator, or organizer. At meals, however, we see a much different picture, one of equality. All humans have to eat; there is no way to sidestep that central human need. In shared meals it becomes impossible for anyone to elevate himself or herself above another human, as we are participating in a need of our common humanity. Furthermore, as anyone who has experienced a large family dinner can confirm, virtually everyone has the same opportunity to speak and engage the others in dialogue. It’s very hard to steal the floor as we all take inevitable pauses to sustain ourselves between our sentences. It is this leveling of relationships that I desire to see at Urban Hope, and it seems that breaking bread with the campers and counselors could help it be realized.

There is also beauty in the sacramental practice, however. In Jesus’ time, the breaking of bread seemed to have an incredible unifying effect. At the Last Supper we see a diverse group of men sitting together and participating in one of the earliest expressions of Christian community. Simon, a zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector, two very different disciples, were able to come together and truly know each other, and Jesus, in the breaking of bread. If one were to modernize that relationship, it could be an IRS agent and someone on the NSA watch list sharing in community; it seems highly unlikely it would happen. Yet something bound them together and breaking bread was the outward expression of that deeper connection.

It is this sort of community that I want to help foster at Urban Hope. Regardless of whether or not I get to physically break bread with these kids, I want to find a way to bring about its effects. I want to find a way to approach people who have completely different histories than me and ultimately know them well so that I can better love and serve them. As an outsider to Walltown, and more specifically these kids’ lives, I feel that getting to know the campers is perhaps the greatest task of this summer, and the positive nature of my role in their lives depends on it. It is this realization that pushes me to want to break bread daily with these kids throughout the summer and find a way to take part in the community into which I have entered.

The next sentence in Dorothy’s epilogue, following the one above, puts into words what we work towards by breaking bread as a community and what I want to see realized in my own time at Urban Hope. “Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.” I want to take that crust and see Urban Hope become that banquet, a place of celebration for the incredible work being done here in this neighborhood. I want to see that joy daily as I eat breakfast, lunch, and often dinner with these kids and the other counselors. And even more, I want to see the literal breaking of bread bring folks to the table that maybe wouldn’t have sat together before Jesus came and gave us the gift of unity in Him. And if breaking bread can do all of this, then let the bread breaking begin.

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Lifting the Veil

Nearly 50 million Americans deal with food insecurity (defined by the consistent lack of access to food that is conducive to a healthy life) every day. Before last Friday, I had never seen the inside of a food bank (or outside, for that matter—Washington suburbs do an excellent job of masking signs of economic crisis). It is not comfortable to admit this. For me (if not for most), it is easier to pretend poverty does not exist in the fruitful world I want to create for myself. It seems an inexhaustible problem: commit to aiding one person’s need, and then release the floodgate of reality–the millions more imploring assistance and advocacy. And I just want to read my book in peace…

Eleis (Haven kitchen manager/staff person/generally wonderful person) and I arrived at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank just prior to a shipment of fresh produce, crates of nectarines, grapefruits, and apples unloaded from eighteen-wheelers. Eleis visits the food bank to shop for food staples not often donated, like fresh produce, that would otherwise have to be purchased using the Haven’s kitchen budget. While there are some surprising finds in the food bins—I didn’t expect to find three hefty packages of gluten-free lemon bar mix—most of the non-perishable items are back-of-the-shelf variety: dented, ripped, discounted, almost-expired.

Blue Ridge Area Food Bank

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank provides sustenance for much of central Virginia, feeding children, men and women among the working poor, homeless, or otherwise in-need populations. We are very lucky in Charlottesville to have the distribution center within our city, as most agencies or individuals collecting food must drive a not-insubstantial distance to pick up a donation. The food bank is housed in a warehouse-type building, with practical concrete floors, fluorescent lighting, and food displayed in deep bins that remind me of the $3 DVD piles at Wal-Mart. There are designated bins for rice and pasta, canned beans, canned vegetables, and baking supplies.

Here, thousands of Virginians are given food on the brink of extinction from the middle-class world, offered to the needy one step before heading to a landfill. The Blue Ridge Food Bank is a great organization, and its affiliates persevere every day to provide the best quality food for the people they serve. Nevertheless, this is the food that is easy to donate. This is the food that no original possessor will miss.

The radical hospitality of The Haven (one of my favorite one-liners from my mentor, Stephen Hitchcock) may need a radical theology. The famous lines from Matthew 25:35-40 might not be enough.[i] This is a universal Bible verse, one that every mission trip and Christian volunteer cites as the inspiration for doing charity. It is a phenomenally important selection, imploring followers to stay attentive to the needs of all humankind. This chapter follows the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, as Matthew 24 ends with a warning to be on your best behavior every day, as you never know when judgment may come.

I am no biblical scholar, but I am more inclined to see The Haven’s work through the lens of Douglas John Hall, a 20th century Canadian theologian who presents a “theology of the cross” that “faces human weakness and limitation head-on.”[ii] According to Kelly Johnson, what is significant about Hall’s “theology of the cross” is that it “pronounces an unresolved ‘beggarliness’ on all creation, and identifies Christian faith with the recognition of this truth” (163). In an America where it is easier for the majority to forget about food banks, Hall reminds us that we are all beggars; that is, we are all profoundly reliant on one another for sustenance. We desperately need to be held by those we love. One person cannot support him or herself in isolation. Hall’s writings acknowledge that there is no distinction between the one on the lookout for Christ in the guise of a beggar and the beggar himself. There is no beggar group or lookout group; we are all members of the same body and cannot be isolated from one another.

The total rejection of isolation within The Haven’s low-barrier philosophy may be considered a radical theology. It challenges the notion of the other, of the invisible, undesirable blots of poverty among comfortable neighborhoods.  Part of the volunteer orientation includes a round table discussion on how being at The Haven might put a new participant out of her comfort zone. While it may not be a theological jump for some volunteers (after all, Matthew 25:35-40 is justification enough for most), committing to The Haven is a social and classist rejection of poverty’s veil. It certainly was for me. I am grateful for the startling (and much needed) perspective The Haven has provided within my daily life as a University of Virginia student.Taking the 6:40am bus downtown to The Haven launched me into the tangible layer of Charlottesville, a real world of early morning work shifts and construction uniforms. To accept The Haven is to accept that Charlottesville is not encapsulated by the privilege of the university biome. Kelly Johnson writes, “[The non-poor] can find the courage to give up their security, if they will, that Christianity is a story about a person, not a set of doctrines, and that the Person possesses the churches, rather than they him” (165). In that way, we can work towards exceptional humility and openness to all women and men as fellow beggars in need of one another.

Maybe Americans try to make poverty invisible out of fear. Perhaps we fear the poor because we fear drowning in the entanglements we believe momentary generosity will produce. Perhaps we fear beggars because we fear to be like them; we fear to acknowledge that the economic world which has made us not-them will make us them. But we are all part of the same impossibly knit family. As Alphonse Lugan wrote, “Man in the gospel is part of an organism whose members tend to the same end by different means.”[iii] All men and women are a reflection of a unified self, yet I still do not know where to find a food bank in my hometown. “Fear of poverty” is an over-simplification, of course. Understanding the psychological implications of belonging within a class system is far beyond the scope of my summer. At this point, I can only hope to keep learning with open eyes and ears and a face turned towards the theology of the cross.

[i] “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (New International Version)

[ii] Kelly S. Johnson, The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

[iii] Alphonse Lugan, Social Principles of the Gospel, trans. T Lawrason Riggs (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1928), 151.

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On Writing Lived Theology: Susan Holman Offers Guidance to Participants of the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology 2013

In anticipation of the 2013 meeting of the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology convening this week, Susan Holman offers insight on the task of writing lived theology. Please read her essay “On Writing Lived Theology” by clicking here.

Susan Holman was a member of the first Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology and is author of a book produced out of her time with the Virginia Seminar entitled: God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to PovertyFor more information about Susan Holman please read a brief biography about her here, and an interview with her here. Visit her blog here.

The Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology is a theological initiative that offers theologians and scholars of religion an opportunity to work and write in sustained engagement with critical issues in religion and public life; and it further provides practitioners the time to think and write in sustained and direct engagement with theologians and scholars.


Reflections on Voluntary Poverty

Recently we have implemented the practice of community dinners at one of our houses of hospitality.  These common meals involve each woman cooking for everyone in the house one night a week.  This practice was first implemented at the farmhouse years ago, and it was thought that the women who moved into the second, newer house would naturally have community dinners as well, however quite the opposite occurred.  The women were buying their own food, cooking their own meals and had their own cupboards.  The women at both houses showed great resistance to this change, and this resistance has prompted me to reflect upon whether we made the right choice to require that the houses have community dinners.  One reason I think they are unhappy with the change is because in a sense we are asking them to give up their ability to buy and cook food for themselves, which is a small indulgence for these destitute women.

Catholic Worker kitchenHow have I reacted at the Catholic Worker when my small comforts, indulgences, and “goods” are taken away?  I become upset, just as the women did.  One example is when I found that that the six-year old in my house was using my artist’s watercolor crayons.  I ran to the table where he was working, and with a shaking voice asked slowly, so as to not unleash my anger, how they had come into his possession.  When I first arrived, I was glad I made the decision to bring very few belongings, but also began to wonder about the safety of my laptop, passport, and art materials.  Dorothy Day stated that, “It is simpler just to be poor.  It is simpler to beg.  The thing is not to hold on to anything,” but she acknowledged that inevitably we all fall into the tragedy of holding on to all of our possessions, our space and our time, and become angry, “instead of rejoicing when they are taken from us” (Loaves and Fishes, 89).  Jesus clearly told the rich young man that to achieve perfection he must sell all that he had and give to the poor, and this proved to be too difficult a task for him (Matthew 19:16-30).

According to Day, “The fundamental means of the Catholic Worker are voluntary poverty and manual labor, a spirit of detachment from all things, a sense of the primacy of the spiritual, which makes the rest easy” (Selected Writings, 114).  At the Catholic Worker Farm we are attempting this voluntary poverty, but I can’t help but wonder if it is enough, as indulging in comforts when needed is also a part of our volunteer policy.  For example, live-in interns are encouraged to go into town on weekends to take a break from the houses, and each volunteer can take a half-day off during the week.  Also, the women living in our houses only have to take part in the weekly meals four days of the week, and are able to cook what they would like and whenever they would like for the other three days.  The understanding is that we recognize living in solidarity with one another is difficult work, and to avoid burn out we encourage private space and personal time.  Dorothy Day writes, “daily, hourly, to give our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others – these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier” (Loaves and Fishes, 84).

The voluntary poverty and spirit of detachment that we attempt include materialistic, monetary, spatial, and temporal kinds of poverty.  We eat the food that is donated to us, whether it is old or out of date.  The only foods we occasionally buy are some dairy products.  Often we go to charity shops and car boot sales first (similar to yard sales and flea markets in America) if something needs to be purchased.  We try to fix things around the house ourselves instead of calling a specialist or replacing it.  To help pay our rent and other expenses, we sell packaged food and bread that has been donated to us and homemade jam and vegetables from our garden on the street in a nearby city every Friday.  Our selling is actually asking (begging?) for donations because we don’t price anything we sell and we simply tell people to give what they would like to our cause.  We send out hundreds of bi-yearly newsletters to let people know what we do, and also to receive donations.  Spatially, we are living in solidarity with the women as fellow community members in our houses, and temporally, the Catholic Worker is a full time job that often extends beyond typical working hours.  One gives up time with family and friends, as well as one’s independence.  Also working collaboratively and discussing before making all decisions with the core community of volunteers is another kind of poverty.

But yet, there are boundaries that are put up, and securities in place.  At the farm, the volunteers live upstairs, and the guests downstairs.  I don’t let guests in my room, and sometimes if the women ask us for help in the evenings, we tell them that it will have to wait until tomorrow.  Right now, each woman has a substantial amount of space, and I’m sure it’s possible that we could allow more women to live in our houses if we minimized the area each person was given.  Dorothy Day writes that though we may attempt poverty, a kind of stripping of ourselves, “still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment” (Loaves and Fishes, 84).

I came across an account of the Baltimore Catholic Worker that closed down due to a court ruling it as a public nuisance.  There was poor management and a plague of vermin in this house of hospitality for two hundred people, in which about half slept on the floor.  There were only three toilets and no showers, and additionally the first floor windows were continuously broken into.  But nonetheless, apparently the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy were always practiced.1  Dorothy states that “In Baltimore the folly of our work, even the scandal of it, is revealed in all its intensity.” 2

Paradoxically we attempt voluntary poverty which is “so esteemed by God… something to be sought after, worked for, the pearl of great price” (Selected Writings, 114), knowing that we will continually fail to do it perfectly.  All of this is done because of the belief in the connection between poverty and providence, and reliance on the “primacy of the spiritual” which Dorothy stated makes the rest of the work easy.  I suppose this is one aspect of the Catholic Worker that makes it radical, as it requires one to be less practical and to follow the “flaming heat of the sun of justice,” rather than the “candlelight of commonsense” (Selected Writings, 231) and to acknowledge poverty as the pearl of great price.  Though practicing voluntary poverty is difficult, there is a belief that through it one will both allow for and recognize God’s providence.  Rather than sending the crowds into the surrounding villages to find sustenance, Jesus told the disciples to provide them simply with the little they had, and He made sure that it was enough (Luke 9:12-17).  Furthermore, sharing in poverty is a transformative experience.  Dorothy’s Easter meditation in April of 1964 stated, “The mystery of the poor is this:  That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.  It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love.  The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”

1 Corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick ransoming the prisoner, burying the dead Spiritual works of mercy: counseling the doubtful, admonishing the sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, enlightening the ignorant, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead

2 Peter Maurin, Apostle to the World, page 120.