Strolling in Walltown…

“Strolling in Harlem does not mean merely walking along Lenox or upper 7th Avenue or 135th St; it means that those streets are places for socializing. One puts on one’s best clothes and fares forth to pass the time pleasantly with…the strangers he is sure of meeting.” Ella Baker, Freedom Bound, p. 28

For the past week, Jonathan (my mentor and a member of the Rutba House) and I have been reading, Freedom Bound, the biography of Ella Baker. Miss Baker was one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement, and perhaps someone you’ve never heard of. She was not a well-known personality of the movement, like MLK or Malcolm X, but rather a behind-the-scenes organizer who played a crucial role in bringing together and sustaining groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Something that both Jonathan and I noticed about Ella, alluded to in the opening quote, was her ability to engage and relate to people. Early on in her life, Ella took to roaming the streets in order to spark conversations with anyone and everyone she ran into, an exercise that carried on throughout her entire life. She would often walk up to a complete stranger, shouting “Hello Brother!” as she got to know people’s stories and learn from them, from their lives and experiences. It seemed it was this quality that people found most striking in Ella’s life: that she was always willing to listen. There was not person in whom she was not interested. As I read her biography, I wanted more and more to be able to engage people in this way. I was inspired.

As this morning’s work wrapped up, Jonathan looked at me with a slight grin on his face and said, “You know what? This afternoon I want you to read about Ella for a few hours, and in light of her favorite past-time, spend awhile walking around the neighborhood and meeting folks.” I no doubt had a look of uncertainty on my face as it sunk in what exactly he wanted me to do. “Go down Onslow Street a few blocks,” he continued. “There are some guys that usually hang around the corner down there. If you let them know you’re with the Rutba House, they shouldn’t try to sell you drugs.” And then he went on his way, leaving me to figure out the specifics of the task at hand.

I went home to read Ella’s biography, trying to give myself time to develop some sort of strategy or method for strolling Walltown. I brainstormed the best way to approach strangers, the best tactic for starting the conversations, the topics that would keep someone roped in; I planned in advance every aspect of these conversations so I wouldn’t be caught off guard by some act of spontaneity. As I sat there I began to realize, perhaps incorrectly, that there seemed to be very few ways for me to open up a genuine conversation with people that extended past the usual formalities. What is there to say beyond, “Hey, how you doing?” or “Nice day, huh?” I could not, despite trying, come up with a good means of going about this “strolling” and engaging people in meaningful conversation.

As the afternoon slowly faded to evening, however, I knew that I just needed to go out and do it. I left my house and started for that corner that Jonathan mentioned. The first block passed, and no one was out. The second block passed, and still no one was around. By the end of the third block, I started to wonder if anyone was out in Walltown. But then, as I rounded the last corner, I heard a loud, “HEY!” and saw a man cut a path straight for me. As he got closer, I realized that I knew this man; I had met him a few weeks back with Jonathan not two blocks from where I was standing. As he strutted up, I noticed he was carrying three things: a cane, a bag of hot dog buns, and a huge grin. He shook my hand vigorously as I reintroduced myself, realizing he didn’t remember me.

His name is Doc, I relearn, and he lives a few streets outside of Walltown but considers this place his stomping ground. Doc and I talk about random, surface-level things for a few minutes before he abruptly stops and looks me in the eyes. “Elvis,” as he has taken to calling me, “can you go to the gas station and buy me a beer?” When I reply no, he changes his request. “What about a pack of cigarettes?” When I say no again, he doesn’t have a response, so I make an offer: “How about we go get a pack of chips.” Doc gets that smile on his face again, says ok, and just like that, we’ve moved past the domain of salutations, at least slightly.

For the next forty-five minutes, Doc walks me all over Walltown, introducing me to anyone and everyone we pass; he seems to know them all. I meet Mole, Frank, Mr. Scott, and many more, each greeted with the loud, piercing “HEEYY,” and each farewell an equally loud “GOD BLESS.” As I walk with Doc from house to house, duplex to duplex, meeting every person in sight, I slowly begin to realize that setting out, I was attempting to be Ella Baker. But as we stroll, it sinks in that a man who has likely never heard of Miss Baker’s methods is truly schooling me in her ways. It is both a humbling and inspiring experience as I realize that this summer’s education will not just come from books but from the men and women with whom I interact daily.

On the front porch of the Rutba House hangs a wooden sign with Jesus’ words from Matthew 25.35: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” For the folks at the Rutba House, their role is that of the “welcomer”: the one who sees the stranger and invites them in. I became aware through my walk with Doc, however, that here in Walltown I am the stranger and have been graciously welcomed in by so many of people. Doc had no reason, after we snacked on those chips, to introduce me to everyone he saw. And even further, those people had no reason to engage me as I stood awkwardly on their porches and in their doorways, trying to keep the conversation alive.Walltown Porch

The heart of Matthew 25 is that we find Jesus in the people we least expect: the hungry, the prisoners, and strangers. When I first read these verses I saw them as a way of encouraging Christians to take direct action in the lives of the disenfranchised, as I outlined in my first post. We are called to care for them as we would care for Jesus. But this past week has shown me even more about what it really means for the “least of these” to be the Jesus of our society. Jesus walked around teaching, healing, and loving. He offered salvation to those that would follow, to those that answered his call. To really see people as Jesus, then, is not only care for their needs, but it also to place oneself, myself, at their feet, ready to serve and learn from them.

The disciples gave up everything they had to follow a guy they barely knew and experience things wildly outside the scope of their previous lives. I realized that as Doc walked up to me, yelling “HEY,” I was like the apostle Peter being told to drop everything and follow. I had to drop my worldview, my biases, my hierarchical relationship with those society casts out, and follow as Doc taught me more about what it means to be a Christian than any book or commentary. The relationship shifted from one of giving to one of receiving and only through that change was the meaning of Matthew 25 able to come to life. No longer is my role simply to provide, to feed and clothe, but it is also to learn; to understand that our humanity, our salvation, both Doc’s and mine, is inextricably bound.

I can’t think of a way of learning this outside of strolling with Doc. Jesus was a peripatetic teacher, walking from place to place instructing his followers; it seems fitting then, to learn much about what it means to treat others as Jesus by strolling through Walltown with Doc. I also can’t help but hope for the introductory conversations with many of the folks of Walltown to turn into deeper friendships. And it seems to me that that’s also how Miss Ella Baker would have wanted it.

Sowing the Seeds of Hospitality

Community is a topic that I have reflected upon greatly over the past four weeks at the Catholic Worker Farm.  A week after I arrived in the UK, I attended the Catholic Worker Euro Gathering in which I was introduced to different Catholic Worker communities in Europe and learned how each one operated.  Shortly thereafter, a weekly practice of common meals was implemented at the newer of our two houses in order to promote a greater sense of community.  Each day I’m learning how to work with the core community of volunteers and I’m realizing my own strengths and weaknesses.  I reflect most often upon community life with the women for whom we provide accommodation, and how it has been an equally difficult and beautiful experience thus far.   Remembering our shared intrinsic dignity helps me to learn how best to live with them, though there are differences and problems I’ve had to confront.

Catholic Worker tableOne initial question to pose is why volunteers and homeless guests live together at the Catholic Worker Farm.  Scott Albrecht, one of the live-in volunteers and co-founder of the house of hospitality, proposes a theology of the Catholic Worker in which he connects the practices of community and hospitality to the ontology of God; ontology meaning God’s essence or being.  Catholic belief is that God’s essence is three in one, and God’s Trinitarian nature is communal.  Therefore, the essence of God provides the basis for human community.   Furthermore, Jesus, as a part of the Trinity–the communal being of God–also entered the world in a community and desired to create a community of disciples.  Jesus practiced hospitality within the community of disciples and also with others who followed him by sharing meals and teaching them how to love one another and how to live together.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arch communities for disabled persons, also makes the connection between community and God as a family, as three persons in communion with one another.  In the Wit Lectures given by Vanier at Harvard Divinity School in 1988 (later complied in the book From Brokenness to Community), he speaks about how the L’Arch communities seek to affirm disabled individuals by giving them space to discover their own uniqueness and reminding them of their value which has often been denied to them throughout their lives.  The disabled individuals have chosen to join the L’Arch communities because they seek communion and friendship with others.

Jean Vanier quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lectures: “He who loves community destroys community, he who loves the brethren builds community.”  I am discovering that though it is important to understand the theological basis of our community as ontologically rooted in God, in reality fostering this community means caring for individuals, and this is a difficult task.  Unlike the L’Arch communities, the women and children that we accommodate at the Catholic Worker Farm have not chosen to join our community.   The only intentional community is that of the volunteers who desire to devote time to the Catholic Worker.  As a result, some of the women who live in our houses appreciate the ways in which we foster community, such as our frequent dinners together, and they accept our support and show gratitude for the time we spend listening to their stories and helping them to plan their next steps.  Other women have strong feelings of entitlement and expect certain things of us, and may have a hard time understanding the rules they must live by and the responsibilities they have as guests in our houses of hospitality.  In previous years, some women have been asked to leave because they cannot live harmoniously in the community.

It has been difficult for me to understand my place in the larger community of volunteers and homeless guests, as I take on many roles in my relationship to the women.  I am a housemate; I hope to become a friend; sometimes must I must enforce the rules and discipline the women; I give advice; I help fill out forms and read documents as a native English speaker; and I try to support them as they parent their children.   Unlike the L’Arch communities, I also spend time doing tasks in order to run and manage the house, when I am not directly focusing on the women and their needs.

While I would like to be able to relate to and foster relationships with the women, the feeling is not always mutual. I am a twenty-year old American student who has joined homeless women and their children for a summer, each of whom is a different nationality, who might not necessarily want to build the same kind of community in our houses that I seek to build, and who might be more content if our two houses of hospitality functioned more like hotels.  I wonder: Do they trust me?  Will they acknowledge my dignity?  Will they deceive or manipulate me?  I’m sure they ask themselves the same questions about me. Already from this description one could envision the ensuing problems without even considering each of our personalities and backgrounds.  Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, writes in one of his Easy Essays on houses of hospitality and hotels included in Loaves and Fishes:

“Catholic Houses of Hospitality
are known in Europe under the name of hospices…
Hospices are free guest houses;
hotels are paying guest houses.
And paying guest houses or hotels
are as plentiful as free guest houses or hospices
are scarce.
So hospitality, like everything else,
has been commercialized.
So hospitality, like everything else,
must now be idealized” (9).

The differing views of our houses amongst volunteers and some guests was made clear to me when one woman asked why I was here if I wasn’t going to be a babysitter for the children.  Other volunteers and I have been told by the women that we are creating conflict by giving them responsibilities as guests.  After a meeting with one woman about her unacceptable behavior, she responded not by taking responsibility for her actions, but by blaming the volunteers for her stress and stating that she knew we would be happy to see her move out.

My role cannot be defined at the Catholic Worker; I only know that I must love the women and to be patient with them.  I have learned quickly that love will not always be reciprocated or appreciated.  Sometimes, of course, it is; women have left the farm happy to have had communal dinners, as they served as a reminder of their childhood, and other women have expressed gratitude for the love they received during their stay.

A short excerpt from “The Scandal of the Works of Mercy,” in the book Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, illuminates the trial and the harshness of love often experienced in Catholic Worker houses:

“Here is a letter we received today: ‘I took a gentleman seemingly in need of spiritual and temporal guidance into my home on a Sunday afternoon.  Let him have a nap on my bed, went through the want ads with him, made coffee and sandwiches for him, and when he left, I found my wallet had gone also.’”  Dorothy writes that while the saints would have practiced “heroic charity” by not questioning the actions of the guest, giving away both their coat and their cloak, these things “happen for our discouragement, for our testing.   We are sowing the seed of love, and we are not living in the harvest time.”  She recounts that a Carmelite nun once told her regarding suffering rejections that, “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart” (99).  Truly one should be thankful if the fruits of their labor are revealed.  As an intern who is only staying in the community for the summer, this is necessary to remember; I can only hope that I learn to plant seeds and that they take root.

Necessity of Respite

The urban, modern life never pauses to catch its breath. We are pushed along by traffic, by deadlines, by the demands of our relationships. Amongst the stressors of today’s world, it is essential to reserve time for relaxation. When picturing this delicious escape from reality, we may think of lying on a tropical beach with a new book, or falling asleep in an armchair by the fire. But what if letting your awareness drop for only an hour meant the imminent danger of hypothermia or assault? What if you had nowhere to rest?

The Haven is a low-barrier shelter, meaning anyone can walk in the door and access services. In traditional homeless shelters, there are metal detectors at the door and guests must often pass sobriety tests to be seen by service providers. The Haven is an exceptional place where literally anyone in need can walk off the street and find a place of rest.
For many living outside or in precarious homes, waking rested and calm is simply not possible. Existence is marked with anxiety: Where will I sleep tonight? Will I be safe from violence and the elements? How am I going to eat? Where are my children? This hyper-aware state reminds me of taking care of a newborn; there are some many basic needs to attend to that complex issues requiring great energy and resilience, like job-hunting, become secondary.

By opening its doors to anyone and everyone, The Haven offers a safe place for rejuvenation. Inside its walls, it is safe for an unaccompanied woman to fall asleep. With centralized heating and air, the body can relax into a natural temperature and rhythm. Basic safety and comfort provided, guests are able to be still and quiet, awash in relief.

This approach is not without controversy. Low barrier shelters are criticized for their lack of enforced security, or for their indiscriminate application of care. Who decides who is “worthy” of care or help? This is a tricky question–or perhaps it is profoundly simple. The Haven’s philosophy is to meet people where they are, and not dictate what the “next step” should be in regaining stability. It seems that there are more barriers than open doorways to people seeking assistance, whether it be for affordable housing or substance abuse. Those individuals most at risk are often the ones refused by other shelters because of their current inability to adhere to conditional policies (for example, total sobriety or showing up to provider appointments). The Haven’s policy is not to try to skip to the end of the recovery program, but strives to meet every individual where they are in their journey towards stability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this bold equality in his beloved book, Life Together:

Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the meditation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. (36)

I am beginning to understand that individuals in crisis do not deserve more conditions to receive help or treatment; they need a place to come out of the cold (or heat) and rest from the constant fear and anxiety of the street world. When the innkeeper opened his barn to Mary and Joseph, he did not ask to see their housing voucher or proof of identity. The hesitation traditional shelters feel in retiring their security measures or conditional requirements is a fear of being cheated; that somehow they might accidentally give assistance to someone undeserving. We fear that we enable laziness or people looking to “play the system” by applying for unneeded social services. I do not claim to have an answer to this worry, but I agree that the first step in offering help is offering a refuge from fear and a place to rest.

The idea of the Sabbath is as old as Genesis 2:2. Among the chaos and disorientation of our lives, we need time for reflection and contemplation. In purposeful solitude, we give thanks for life and, perhaps more honestly, ask why our life is the way that it is. Time for silence and self-reflection is a time to connect inwardly and rekindle a sense of personal identity. Inside The Haven’s building and out of the never-ending public gaze, guests are free to be absolutely alone. Community is a certainly good thing, but cannot be actualized without the acknowledgement of individual space, for “only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship” (Bonhoeffer 77). On the main floor, there are spaces to gather and spaces for solitude. The renovated sanctuary (a vestige of The Haven’s history as a community church) is usually empty in the mornings. In this quiet space, guests will sometimes sit in contemplation, or sometimes sleep. The clarifying power of the calm sanctuary reminds me that I do not have to push through life alone, but can rely on essential re-centering periods to cultivate new resolve.
Haven Sanctuary
In a place as demanding and occasionally chaotic as The Haven, its caretakers are also in need of time to rest. The Haven’s staff intentionally reserves time for contemplation and quiet discussion every Thursday afternoon, where we come together for a three-hour lunch and meeting. In the words of my mentor, the staff needs this time to process the week’s highs and lows so as not to become “jaded and drained” from the emotional fluctuation and intensity inextricable from days at The Haven. Ensuring the mental and spiritual health of its employees is a pronounced value at The Haven. As Phileena Heuertz writes in her memoir, Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, we are all “in need of a calm and grounded center that could withstand the buffeting of a world full of injustice and unrelenting demands” (17). The Haven’s staff advocates strongly for self-care, and believes we must be healthy and sound ourselves to walk with those in crisis.

Earlier this week, I had a bit of an emotional moment after I thought I gave someone in need the wrong advice over the phone. With an affirming conversation, Chris, one of the Haven’s staff members, reassured me that all we try to do is the best we can, and to try not to speculate on the hypothetical results. By setting aside time to work through the emotional and spiritual demands of our roles in this ever-busy community, we strive to cultivate a safe space for every person and voice affected by The Haven’s work.

I confess that I tend to labor under the assumption that the way to find rest for my soul is to finish my grand to-do list, and present it like a book for publishing. In my time here, I am starting to see that it is the quality and health of the journey that matters in seeking restoration within a community. With a good day’s rest, we could all be better seekers.

Forward Together

Last Monday, I stood on the third floor gallery of the North Carolina State Legislative Building and watched as 57 of my brothers and sisters were arrested by North Carolina General Assembly Police on the floor below for an act of civil disobedience. As I watched from above, the folks down below sang hymns, prayed, and some even cracked a joke or a smile with the police beside them as the officers zip-tied their hands and led them out of the building, including one guy that I live with. No violence, no hate, no anger; just joy and a deep conviction that something had to change.

Before I dive into my reflection on this event, some background information might help to frame this conversation. In the last statewide election the Republican Party won majorities in the North Carolina House of Representatives and the Senate, and as well as the Governor’s office. Since then the legislature has been proposing numerous bills that many religious folks see as fundamentally opposed to the calling and commands of Jesus Christ.  Over the past four weeks, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP has been gathering many people spanning race, age, political leanings, and even religion to protest laws that directly harm the well being of the marginalized in our society. The movement, called “Moral Mondays” is gaining attention and strength and is at its core a statement of strong faith in a time of uncertainty–socially and politically. And as far as I can tell, Christ is at the center.

For a few years now I have been reading and talking extensively about justice, mercy, compassion, love—many words found at the heart of this movement. Yet often those ideals never quite broke into my daily routine, into the actions that fill my life. I felt, and quite honestly still feel, tension between two (for lack of a better word) types of Christianity. I grew up without much cause to interact with the poor of this world, blissfully unaware of Jesus’ calling to protect them. But even when that command became clear, its importance understood, I still found an incredible barrier, self-made, between my community and Jesus’ community; the two didn’t match. Personally it seemed that regardless of how much I wanted to take a part in the vision of the gospel, I couldn’t escape my upper class, economically homogenous bubble and do anything meaningful in the lives of my marginalized brothers and sisters. Stuck, I ended up not doing much at all. This paralysis seemed here to stay.

Stepping into Durham and the Rutba House, the intentional community where I have been living (for more on the Rutba House, the School for Conversion, or new monasticism, see, I suddenly witnessed a community that matched so much more closely my understanding of the lifestyle articulated by Jesus. Here are people that actually live their lives for others, people that take the endless theories and make them a reality right here in Durham. I have witnessed firsthand a Christianity that rests on Jesus—his actions, words, and commands—and it has been wonderful. The self-made barriers between the rich and the poor, the ones in my life, seem to have no place here; everyone is a child of God, born in His image. And it is the recognition of Imago Dei, present in us all, that pushes us toward taking direct action in the lives of the poor, sick, and oppressed.

“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.” Matthew 25.35-36

What sticks out to me in this passage is that we see the righteous (the people to whom Jesus was speaking) take direct action to address to needs of others. This action wasn’t “start a prayer group” or “have an altar call;” it was feeding, inviting in, clothing, tending to the sick, and visiting prisoners. They were actions that address immediate needs, resulting in immediate, tangible results. They were actions especially relevant to people like myself, those of us that have much to give, reminding us of another saying of Jesus: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10.8). They were actions supporting the least of our society, much like the action taken by those 57 people arrested last Monday

I can hear, and have heard, the questioning response to arrest as a means of social change: “We agree with your sentiments, but there are less extreme ways to make your case,” or “Couldn’t you just talk with the legislators instead of breaking the law?” I have heard these questions and often asked them myself because I too look at this complex situation and wonder what about the role of Christians. When we have prima facie obligations to both the law and the poor, what happens when they conflict? Which one is more important? While I don’t presume to have a monopoly on the answers to these questions, I do think a Christian argument can be made for arrest as a legitimate action in response to injustice. It seems to me that arrest is just another way for us to take direct action in defense of “the least of these.”

I often forget that many books in the New Testament were written from jail, penned by Paul as a prisoner. Just this morning I read of the arrest of Paul in Acts 21 that eventually led to his ability to talk to Felix, Festus, and Agrippa. The stories of North Carolina and Paul are not a perfect fit, for few analogies are, but in both we see arrest as a means to rattle the cages of the decision makers in power. How else could Paul have gotten an audience with those officials? How else can the people reach the ear of their representatives and let them know that the voiceless are being pushed even further to the margins.

We are reminded as well of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time period I’ll be reading about for much of the summer, and a movement that began with the arrest of Rosa Parks. When laws violate a fundamental right, and in these cases a Christian truth, civil disobedience is an admirable response, and one that can truly affect change.

As the men and women were being lead away by the police to the Wake County jail, I stood outside with Reverend William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, and hundreds of others chanting, “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.” This solidarity, communicated by all, was a unity explicitly rooted in a type of love first commanded, and then demonstrated, by Jesus. His crowd was the lepers, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors; today they are the impoverished, the disenfranchised, and even the incarcerated. Our duty, my duty, as Christians is to extend love to them, and when the time comes to stand up for them, even if that standing (non-violently, I must add) leads to our arrest. Like King, Gandhi, and many others before us, some unjust laws should not hinder us from living life like Christ.

It is truly incredible to be in a community like the Rutba House. In the coming weeks I am sure that these themes will be revisited as my own tendency toward inaction is gently revealed. There is much to learn, and much to digest, but this journey has been deeply rewarding thus far and I’m sure the excitement will continue!

A Theology for Daily Work

Each one of the 223 Catholic Worker communities has a unique ministry that is shaped by the marginalized community it serves, its volunteers, and the city in which it is located.  However, there are certain aspects of the Catholic Worker Movement that have become standard for most houses.  Most Catholic Workers are primarily houses of hospitality or shelters for the poor and homeless.  Usually a core group of volunteers both manage and live in the house in which the ministry also operates, and other volunteers help occasionally or on a regular basis.  Most Catholic Worker houses also publish a newspaper to address social issues and to give updates on their efforts and new initiatives.  Furthermore, Catholic Worker volunteers often engage in non-violent protesting, promote pacifism, and do plowshare actions, in which military or nuclear equipment and weapons are damaged according to Isaiah 2:4 which states, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

This summer I have joined the Catholic Worker Farm outside of London.  This Catholic Worker consists of two houses of hospitality managed by five live-in volunteers.  We provide for the basic needs of 18 homeless, foreign women and their children so that they can focus on taking the legal steps necessary to be granted asylum status in the UK.  We also help to guide them in this process of receiving permission to settle in the UK.  As homeless women, children, and volunteers, we live together as a community.  All of the volunteers help with everything that is required to manage the houses and to carry out the ministry, and therefore we are often doing different tasks week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day.

Though I’ve become a part of this unique ministry and diverse community, what I’ve been doing thus far appears to be a normal array of tasks.  In our fairly large garden, we’re weeding the fallow beds, harvesting spinach and rhubarb, and we sowed new crops last week.  I’ve had many conversations with the women at the kitchen table, learning and inquiring about their life back home.  When the weather was nice last weekend, I jumped on the trampoline with the 6-year old, and the other night I read poems with the 9-year old.  Multiple times I organized and re-organized the pantry, vacuumed the house, and went for walks around the block with one of the women and her toddler.  I’ve done the extent of handiwork that I can manage, and we’ve visited a couple markets and industrial parks to ask for donations.  The list goes on.  In a biography about Dorothy Day by Robert Coles, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day shares a similar reflection, stating, “for me, the heart of our work is just that, the daily pastoral responsibilities: making the soup and serving it, trying to help someone get to the hospital who otherwise might not get there… There are days when all morning has been taken up with cutting up vegetables and all afternoon has been taken up with trying to arrange for someone to see a doctor and then sitting with that person in the outpatient department [at the hospital], and then it is evening…” (102).

These ordinary, familiar tasks that make up a large part of our schedule have prompted me to reflect upon what it is that makes life here different.  As Dorothy Day states, “The real issue is what we are trying to do here.  Do we understand our intentions well enough to be able to explain them to others?” (114).  I think I am beginning to learn how to answer Dorothy’s question.  I find the work here commonplace and yet unique because it stems from a core belief in intrinsic dignity, a theological teaching I think is at the heart of the Catholic Worker.  This phrase is used by Roman Catholic Church, of which Dorothy Day was a devoted member.  Intrinsic dignity is the belief in the rights of a person before considering their place within society or their rights based upon their social status.  Each person is regarded as neighbor to another because of a shared dignity given by the Creator; every other person should be regarded as another self.  The intrinsic dignity of each person includes not only regarding them as neighbor, but also recognizing that “one’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father,” as stated in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (197).    The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that serving a neighbor “becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged in whatever area this may be.” (1931).

Catholic Worker houses of hospitality provide an opportunity to put this belief in intrinsic dignity into practice, and therefore we are carrying out these “daily pastoral responsibilities” with a particular intentionality.  All of our seemingly normal activities are carried out to serve our community, for the good of the homeless women and their children, and for the universal common good.  Catholic Workers are practicing “a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage,” as summarized in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (193).  This is drawn from and expressed in Matthew 10:40-42, 20:25, Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:25-27.

“We are here (at the Catholic Worker) to bear witness to our Lord.  We are here to follow His lead,” Dorothy Day states.  Day was devoted to the tradition and teaching of the Catholic Church, but also consistently studied the Bible and learned directly from the text. To explain her everyday life at the Catholic Worker, she would often refer to the second chapter in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

“If then our common life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart, any loving consolation, any sharing of the Spirit, any warmth of affection or compassion, fill up my cup of happiness by thinking and feeling alike, with the same love for one another, the same turn of mind, and a common care for unity.  There must be no room for rivalry and personal vanity among you, but you must humbly reckon others better than yourselves.  Look to each other’s interest and not merely to your own.

“Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ Jesus.  For the divine nature was His from the first; yet He did not think to snatch at equality with God, but made Himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave.

“So you too my friends, must be obedient, as always; even more, now that I am away, than when I was with you.  You must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen people.”  

Day describes Jesus as both having suffered a Passion and having lived a passionate life.  She sees “all His experiences as part of His Passion: the stories He told, the miracles He performed, the sermons He delivered, the suffering He endured, the death He experienced” (117).  One consistency in our schedule at the Catholic Worker Farm is daily prayer.  It serves to orients us to our belief in the intrinsic dignity of every human being, so that we don’t lose sight of the intention of our work.  Dorothy Day states that “if an outsider who comes to visit doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means then he’ll miss the whole point of things” (97).  I’ve found that ordinary activities, whether playing with children, gardening, counseling, cleaning, or filling out paperwork, can be transformed when one is inspired by and seeks to imitate the passion of Jesus and when one is consciously oriented to the reality of a shared intrinsic dignity.


SILT 2013: After Ten Years convenes at the University of Virginia


In celebration of a decade of work by hundreds of scholars and activists, SILT 2013 assembled some of the Project’s alumni as well as a few additional scholars whose work relates to the Project’s aims.

Willie Jennings, Traci West, and Ted Smith offered keynotes, as well as contributed chapters to the book project, Lived Theology: Style, Method, and Pedagogy. Please click here to view keynote addresses by Willie Jennings and Ted Smith and see photos from the event.


From Left to Right:
Traci West, Ted Smith, Hannah Hofheinz, Charles Marsh, Willie Jennings


SILT 2013 Participants