What is the Project on Lived Theology?

A new school year is upon us! Allow us to (re)introduce ourselves.

The Project on Lived Theology is a research community housed in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Our mission is to understand the social consequences of theological commitments, to foster collaborative research between religion scholars and practitioners, and to discern the wisdom of faith lived in service to others.

What We Do

SILT 2013 LogoWe have several main initiatives. The Spring Institute for Lived Theology is an annual institute for theologians, scholars, and practitioners focused on issues of faith and social practice. Past SILT themes include social hope, the built environment, the language of peace, Civil Rights leader John M. Perkins, migration and the borderlands, and the enterprise of lived theology itself. The most recent SILT, held at U.Va. in May, celebrated ten years of spring institutes and furthered a book project that will share the enterprise of lived theology with a broader audience.

Virginia Seminar BooksThe Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology supports theologians, scholars, and practitioners in writing single-authored books on theology and lived experience. Seminar members receive research funding and meet yearly to engage in creative and fruitful exchange. One of the distinctive features of the Virginia Seminar is that it brings together scholars who have primarily written for an academic audience and those writers and scholars who have made their mark writing for more popular, general audiences. Virginia Seminar books aim to be intellectually sophisticated yet accessible to a broad audience.

Summer Internship in Lived TheologyThe Summer Internship in Lived Theology supports two or three U.Va. students annually in a summer immersion experience designed to foster reflection on service as a theological activity. Students design and propose internships with established service organizations, and selected interns are matched with a theological mentor with whom they craft a reading list for the summer. Interns blog in conversation with their site experiences, readings, and conversations with mentors, and in the fall, interns present their reflections on the experiences as a whole at an event on Grounds.

The Project on Lived Theology also hosts occasional lectures and seminars, which are publicized through our website, Facebook page, and mailing list as they are scheduled.

Our Resources

Mobilizing for the Common GoodAs a research community, the Project produces a wide range of resources. Several of our Spring Institutes have produced books, including Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins and Religion and Politics in America’s Borderlands, both recently published. A book from the 2011 and 2013 SILTs is also underway. More book listings, as well as a collection of articles, audio files, videos, photos, and presentations can be found on our website.

The Project also houses a physical and digital archive entitled, The Civil Rights Movement as Theological Drama. The archive is highly interactive and brings the theological drama of the American Civil Rights Movement to life. Through personal interviews and primary documentary evidence, much of which is previously unpublished, the archive tells the stories of the time period in light of the hypothesis that God was–in some perplexingly and hitherto undelineated way–present there. You can read more about it here, or visit it here.

Strange Glory CoverProject executive director, Charles Marsh, is teaching a course this fall entitled Kingdom of God in America. The course examines the influence of theological ideas on social movements in twentieth and twenty-first century America. Its primary historical focus is the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s but will also explore the student movements of the late 1960’s and a variety of faith-based social movements of recent decades. Professor Marsh’s forthcoming book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is scheduled for release on April 22.

We invite you to connect with the Project through our website, Facebook page, and email list. And we encourage you to take advantage of our resources, especially the Civil Rights archive. Please email us with any questions, and best wishes for a great semester at U.Va.

Virginia Seminar member Alan Jacobs publishes biography of The Book of Common Prayer

Alan JacobsAlan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University and member of the first class of the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology, has just published The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. This new book is part of the Princeton University Press series, Lives of Great Religious Books and will be released on September 30.

The publisher introduces it this way:

While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story.Jacobs shows how TheBook of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.

Read more or purchase the book here.

Creative Collaboration at the Catholic Worker Farm

collaborative piece 2

The creation of collaborative pieces with the Catholic Worker Farm community were joyful experiences of fellowship with volunteers and guests.  Willing participants sat around the kitchen table, a simple act which placed all of the artists on the same level in solidarity with one another much like during our community dinners.  Jean Vanier spoke of sharing a meal as a kind of celebration in his book “Our Journey Home,” and I saw the creation of these collaborative pieces as a celebratory sharing of creativity.  Rather than asking people to join a mission to create works of art, inviting community members to join in contributing to the pieces was more so an opportunity to spend time together and to take part in a relaxed activity.  I encouraged everyone simply to have fun with the Sumi ink medium, and to just paint whatever came to mind.

I found that almost all of the participants were entirely comfortable beginning with blank sheets of paper, and they actually found it more desirable to begin on a blank sheet rather than on one which I had already started.  Once we had filled one piece, it seemed a person always eagerly wanted to begin another.  Originally I had thought that an initial layer of painting would have been necessary for people to feel comfortable to begin working, but the opposite proved to be the case.  Positioning the pieces in a common space and allowing guests to work on them over a period of time was more difficult logistically to set up than I had originally thought, and so I decided that each collaborative piece would be created entirely in one sitting.

collaborative piece 1

The pieces are comprised of four and two sheets of paper.  To create the collaborative works, one or two people would draw on one sheet for a short period of time, usually for about 5 minutes or so, and then each person would pass their paper to another person to add to.  We also often traded the different-sized brushes.  Everyone continued to add to the pieces and to swap amongst each other until the pages were full and we decided that they were finished.

I thought that the creation of these pieces were opportunities to unload immediate thoughts onto paper, and I like that the density and uniform color allows the eye to travel throughout the pages.  Because we traded the pieces so many times to allow people to continually add new doodles and additions to the previously painted parts, upon their completion there wasn’t a strong focus on who had done which part of the piece.  Rather, each artwork was seen as a collective whole.

Instigating the creation of these works of art probed the volunteer community to think of other ways to engage the women in the evenings following dinner.  I hope that similar projects of collaboration will be initiated at the Catholic Worker Farm in the future.

I find these visual expressions of our community to be playful and interesting to observe closely.  Take a look at some close-up images of the two pieces…detail 2

detail 3

detail 1

Listen to “A Seminar on Faith and Writing” by acclaimed author, Carlene Bauer

Bauer Flyer 2.1 (correct)

As part of the 2013 Virginia Seminar in June, author Carlene Bauer offered a lecture on faith and writing that was open to the public. The audio of her fabulous presentation is available now, by clicking here. Please check back later for a written transcript of this lecture.

Bauer’s most recent work, Frances and Bernard, is a narrative through letters exchanged between two writers on the rise who meet in an artists’ colony in 1957. Her characters are inspired by the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. Read the New York Times review of her work 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.

The Gospel, Race, and Reconciliation

America is a country with deep racial scars. For a long time, those scars were willingly self-inflicted and completely exposed; from slavery to Jim Crow, racism was rampant and embraced, not by all, but definitely many. The times changed, however, and this explicit racism became less explicit and more implied. It disappeared from our public discourse, except when we would assert that it had disappeared, and many claim we now find ourselves in a post-racial society. We’ve entered into a period defined by the now-infamous philosophy of “color-blindness,” the idea that racism and racial privilege no longer exist, and so one can simply ignore race as a factor in any decision. This, some believe, will lead to true equality.

For white Americans, this is the easiest view to have, and for a long time was what I myself saw as the truth. If we’re post-racial, then we in the power majority can continue with business-as-usual without having to get our hands dirty. I don’t have to exert any effort on behalf of my non-white brothers and sisters because they can achieve whatever they want on their own; I am free to be neutral. It is certainly enticing and would point to a society where everything would be just right.

But while racism may have become less overt, it remains difficult to completely silence the cries of the many who lament the oppression and discrimination inherent in the American system, the racism stitched into our collective DNA. Poverty, mass incarceration, single-parenthood, and many other national issues disproportionately affect non-white demographics. The public outcry and intense, far-reaching grief after events like the recent Trayvon Martin ruling or the aftermath of the Oscar Grant shooting serve as reminders that, despite the proclamation of post-racial America and color blindness, racism isn’t over.

In Spencer Perkins’ and Chris Rice’s book, More than Equals, a quote from Elie Wiesel opens a chapter entitled “White Blinders.” Wiesel writes, “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented” (70). America’s racial scars are still there, and though we attempted for many years to conceal them, though we sometimes currently try to remain neutral, we end up choosing the side of the oppressor. If remaining neutral and passive is itself an act of oppression, fighting that injustice requires action on our part; on my part. The question then becomes: “What is the proper way for an indirectly affected person to fight racial injustice? What can I do?”

Coming into this summer, I knew that race was going to be a main theme. In a lecture at UVa this spring, Soong-Chan Rah and Anthony Bradley planted seeds that I desperately wanted to water by entering into a predominantly black context and tackling this reality. The logical question, then, was “How do I, acknowledging my whiteness, participate in this context?” I am not directly affected by many of the issues that face the non-white folks in this community. Is there a way for me to engage them, and by extension those issues, without further contributing to the white, European power culture that exists today?

Perkins and Rice’s book focuses on reconciliation and it seems that for Christians that this is the direction in which we must move. Their approach starts with an understanding of the Gospel as reconciliation. In Genesis 3, humans broke away from God and left the Garden. In Genesis 4, one man breaks away from another when Cain kills Abel. From there on, the Bible deals with undoing those two events by pursuing humanity’s reconciliation with God and neighbor, culminating in Jesus and extending through Paul. Jesus reveals that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor; “all the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22.40). Paul follows up by writing that God has given us the “ministry of reconciliation” after He reconciled us to Himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5.18). Our goal, our life, is to reconcile.

This hope of reconciliation resonated with me as I read this book through the lens of my experience in Walltown. Perkins writes, “for it is only when we feel a friend’s pain by making ‘his’ problem ‘our’ problem that we will harness the necessary passion to act” (Perkins 36). Through this summer, I have made close friends. But I think the true friendship about which Perkins writes is not merely a person in whom we confide or with whom we go out to coffee; rather it is a friendship rooted in the desire to live life with one another, to actively engage another within community. To find that passion, to truly take on another’s pains, requires that deep, relational, intentional friendship.

I personally saw this in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin ruling. The counselor group for Urban Hope this year was about half white and half black. During a bible study, which came at a time when we had all become quite close, we were able to speak candidly about the ruling and its implications. I heard the stories and saw the emotions coming from those that are directly affected. I listened to firsthand accounts of similar experiences, experiences that I have never, and will never, fully encounter. But through the lens of someone who lives in that reality, and more importantly a good friend, I was able to understand so much more clearly the gravity of the ruling. The racial truths became undeniable as I could suddenly relate, on some level, to what my non-white brothers and sisters experience daily. Despite my greatest efforts I could not have achieved this alone. Only through a real friendship could I glimpse into that world to hear and feel the powerful lament, and while it is just the first step, understanding this pain, feeling this pain, is a step toward fulfilling the Gospel: reconciling the world to God and man to his neighbor.

Reconciliation is the act of bringing two groups together, to mend broken halves into a cohesive whole, and not only is it a key part of the Gospel, it’s a key part of any positive race relations in the United States. I chose to highlight just one aspect of reconciliation but it does not stop at feeling a friend’s pain; there is plenty more involved on this journey. Along the way, we must listen. We must ask what our non-white brothers and sisters want. We must build up indigenous leadership. We must help cultivate safe places. We must love. We must live life like Christ.

This summer has seen these themes repeated because racial reconciliation has influenced my entire summer experience. From Genesis on, humans have been working toward true reconciliation with God and neighbor, and here in Walltown, we’ve been working toward true reconciliation with our non-white friends. The path to reconciliation is long and hard but its fruits are sweet. I am glad to have played a part in the process.

Everyone together on the last day of Urban Hope

People Come and Go

2013-07-23 20.11.02After spending the last few months outside of London, often I’m asked what I think of England and British culture.  As an intern at the Catholic Worker Farm, however, my only experience of English culture was during a vacation in July.  Not only am I living with 18 homeless, foreign asylum seekers, but the volunteer community at the Catholic Worker Farm is also comprised of foreigners.  Though we are located in Britain, the Catholic Worker Farm is an entirely international community.

The Catholic Worker movement was founded by Dorothy Day in the 1930s, and there are now 200 Catholic Worker houses spread across the United States.  It is therefore relatively easy to join a local community.  There are only 25 houses abroad, and this small amount is the major factor as to why most are made up of volunteers from different countries.  The Catholic Worker Farm gladly welcomes Europeans who wish to volunteer for a short time with the hope that they will return to their home country and begin a Catholic Worker community there, though they also deeply desire a volunteer to commit to staying long-term.

Having left their country behind, live-in interns have paused previous lives to help destitute women who have also left their homes often due to dire situations.  Recently one long-term volunteer suggested that it’s possible the volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm have fled one thing or another in their home country like the women for whom we provide accommodation, though not under the same circumstances.  In Loaves and Fishes, a book about the origins of Catholic Worker community in New York City, Dorothy Day doesn’t state a conclusive answer regarding the intentions of volunteers who have come to the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, but rather address the question with a couple of quotes from members of her core community with whom she discussed “why people come and why people go.”   Volunteers noted, “they come with a shopping bag and go with trunks,” indicating that people have come to gain something for themselves; in the case of the New York community, often with books from their library.  Another states that, “they come with stars in their eyes and leave with curses.”  A third stated that, “people come because they are in need of group therapy.  Every malcontent Catholic sooner or later ends up at The Catholic Worker.  There they see themselves in everyone else, and cure themselves.” (1)

Since the Catholic Worker Farm began seven years ago, there have been about 30 female and five male live-in volunteers that have stayed anywhere from a couple of weeks to one year.  Most of the volunteers who come are young adults, aged 21 to 28, and have often committed to a period of service following their graduation from university.  Similar to the volunteers Dorothy worked with, it’s possible that young volunteers do leave with a larger trunk in their hand when they go; this generation is likely seeking valuable work experience in a different country which they can ad to their resume.

I feel somewhat embarrassed that I have not inquired about the intentions of many of the volunteers for coming to the Catholic Worker Farm, though it seems we are so immersed in life together that it does not seem pertinent to dwell too much on each other’s previous lives or reasons for coming.  The work at hand at the farm that we have all committed to do is so consuming that almost immediately upon arrival volunteers will fully take part in life at the Catholic Worker; all training is on the job, so to speak.  It seems to me that volunteers must recognize that joining a Catholic Worker as a live-in community member is to decide to shed one’s previous life at least for a time.  It is not a nine-to-five weekday job, but rather a job, community, and home all in one, of which one has decided to become an integral part.

Dorothy Day envisioned that a Catholic Worker core community should have a leader.  She writes in Loaves and Fishes, “As Peter said, we should follow the Benedictine manner.  One man is in charge of the house of hospitality and what he says goes.  His authority is accepted because he has won the respect of the others around him.” (2)  Day also writes that if the Catholic Worker functioned like a Quaker community, they would have to reach unanimous decisions which could “have dragged out indefinitely.” (3)  At the Catholic Worker Farm, there is a balance between the leadership of an abbot and community consensus. This structure came about as a result of complaints by short-term volunteers to be more involved in decisions regarding the community; it seems in the small amount of time they spent at the farm they weren’t convinced the abbot was due respect or his judgment could be trusted in that form of hierarchy.  Though we don’t require the Quaker-style unanimity, reaching a majority consensus often drags out for an extended period of time.  While discussing different perspectives and approaches to a situation will often lead to the best possible decision, short-term volunteers often don’t have the ability to see the fruits and consequences of the changes that they helped to make, and also long-term volunteers are constantly having to explain the history of the decision at hand and relevant incidents to help new volunteers form an opinion.

After only having spent a couple of weeks at the farm, I shared my initial impressions of a recently opened house of house of hospitality with the rest of the community, and my thoughts were taken seriously though I had only been there a short period of time.  Almost immediately after arriving I was involved in decisions to instigate changes at the second house of hospitality, particularly rules that would make a significant impact on the structure of the community. While I was glad to be given the opportunity to fully engage in the decision-making process, it is disappointing not to have the opportunity to see whether our decision will prove itself to positively affect the life of the house.

Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen describes a beautiful ceremony that takes place in the L’Arch communities for disabled people, in which men and women who have committed to a life of service in the communities announce their personal “covenant with Jesus and the poor;” the commitment to the downward way of Jesus. (4)  Though Dan McKanan in his book, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy, writes that a large portion of volunteers that comprise the Catholic Worker are “downwardly mobile children of the middle class, for whom poverty is a spiritual idea rather than a hard reality, and who are always aware that they can fall back on their family wealth or educational credentials,” I think that the choice to go this “downward way of Jesus” is significant, even if one does have both financial and familial support.  Though I have not inquired as to the other volunteers’ intentions for coming to the Catholic Worker Farm, the simple fact that they have chosen to dedicate their time and to shed an old life at least temporarily to work with the poor seems to say quite a bit about their character.

Nouwen writes about the struggle that one must face to commit to moving downward, as it “goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I am a part.” (5)  However, choosing to join the community is only the first step; one then must decide the level at which they will engage in community life.  One long term volunteer at the Catholic Worker Farm notes that community often forms and develops in three stages: a honeymoon or pseudo-community stage, a crisis stage in which people find they can honestly share issues that they discovered in the community, and a stage of discomfort in which crises are allowed to unfold and relationships within the community are subsequently re-evaluated and hopefully strengthened.

The short-term interns that make up the majority of the community at the Catholic Worker Farm however, can often never reach the deeper stages of community life because of the limited time that they live in the community.  Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arch communities for disabled people, writes that two essential components for community are a common goal, and the “the meeting of hearts and individual support for each person.”  According to Vanier, even if a community diligently works towards a common goal, “they can move further and further away from being true communities if all their energies are directed to the goal that brought them together and not to mutual caring.” (6)  To enter into the deeper stages of crisis and resolution and to subsequently build a community, time is a crucial factor and as well as a willingness to confront crises.  This summer one intern who had originally planned to stay for a couple months decided to leave the community early because of problems in the community that she identified within a few weeks.  She unfortunately did not remain to work through the discomfort, to enter into deeper stages of community life.  It did, however, provide an opportunity for the remaining members of the community to reaffirm a commitment to care for each other in addition to working together to run the houses of hospitality.

People come and go, but the nature of the work at the Catholic Worker Farm is very much focused on the present, on the daily task of living together, and on small moments of joy as achievements.  Therefore, the little ways in which the volunteers’ uniqueness manifests are greatly appreciated.  The Swedish girl brings out a secret stash of a favorite cheese to share, interrupting weeks of eating porridge for breakfast; the American surprisingly offers to draw henna tattoos for guests at a community event, a hobby from her adolescence.  In Loaves and Fishes, Dorothy Day devotes an entire chapter to profiling volunteers who comprised the original Catholic Worker House in New York City.   She does not write much about the bonds within the community, but simply describes members’ strengths and achievements, as well as their sacrifices for the work and the random particularities of their character.  She concludes with these words: “There have been so many with us over the years who have come and become part of us and, though they have gone, left their mark.  It would be impossible to remember them all… How much coming and going there is around The Catholic Worker!” (7)

1 Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes, page 137.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Henri M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, pg 154.
5 Ibid.
6 Jean Vanier, Our Journey Home: Rediscovering a Common Humanity Beyond Our
, pg 185.
7 Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes, pages 136 and 150.

An Open Door

Thinking ahead to the end of the summer, I chose to save Eberhard Arnold’s short piece, “Why We Live in Community” as a summative reading, suitable for a reflective last week on the job. Arnold’s essay is accompanied by two discussions by Thomas Merton, a 20th century Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite thinkers). Arnold writes that community is animated by God’s triumph of love over death (and the great hope this implies), which in turn is enacted by ordinary people. Ever the practical and deliberate thinker, Merton interprets Arnold’s words for the modern context, calling for a renewed commitment to faith in the power of the collective. This quote from Arnold, which I think best represents my education on the value of community, is worth repeating in full:

Community life is possible only in this all-embracing Spirit and in those things it brings with it: a deepened spirituality and the ability to experience life more keenly and intensely. Surrendering to the Spirit is such a powerful experience that we can never feel equal to it. In truth, the Spirit alone is equal to itself. It quickens our energies by firing the inmost core – the soul of the community—to white heat. When this core burns and blazes to the point of sacrifice, it radiates far and wide. Community life is like martyrdom by fire: it means the daily sacrifice of all our strength and all our rights, all the claims we commonly make on life and assume to be justified. In the symbol of fire the individual logs burn away so that, united, its glowing flames send our warmth and light again and again into the land. (14)

The meat of my summer work is now behind me, and this week is full of reflection and transition. To live well in community necessitates the sharpening of my life perspectives, and becoming more attuned to the state of the world. It means becoming emotionally keyed in to the delicate fluctuations of other community members, and learning to read the ambiguous and fluid moods of a group. This summer has seared in me a new type of insight and a new lens through which to see the world. This may sound a bit corny and contrite, but it is true. These new realizations are seared in the Light of the Spirit.

The big question I face now is, where do I go from here?

The “white heat” of community is the new sharpened focus I bring to my work and understanding of the world. Work becomes urgent and direct. Each action has a purpose and reaction. “White heat” seems appropriate because of how clarifying this new lens is. Presuppositions of privilege and what normative, human life should be have been burned back to expose unalienable needs. Human desires for security, trust, affection, and belonging—these gifts of grace are what I have found most indivisible and most precious. The white heat of this loving and inclusive community has burned away all excess claims I thought people were somehow born with to reveal true joy of life. Homelessness and poverty are still serious issues, and are not problems to be glamorized. The right to dignified shelter and the ability to self-determine the course of one’s life should never be left unresolved. Yet in this complexly knit group of people, reality was pared down to the bareness of love. The individual logs burn away so that the core of the fire becomes clear. The secret of community lies in the power of free choice, the individual choice to walk towards God’s unity; “it becomes life’s most vital and intense energy” (22).

After ten weeks at the Haven, my perspective on the world is profoundly different. I would even say that this summer will turn out to be a defining moment in my life. My time at the Haven has “messed up” the tidy plans I had for myself for a neat and step-by-step academic future. Life feels too urgent and too immediate to live separately from a community in need; I feel “antsy” considering any career path that would isolate me from the parts of life that are harder to face. How can I focus my intellect and energy on anything besides aiding the needy when there is such a desperate call for aid and attention? I found myself feeling desperate, lost, and slightly overwhelmed at the hugeness of something like poverty. Even if I commit my life to imitating the work of Mother Theresa, how will I know that I have made a difference? In other words, in what way will I measure the success of my life? Speaking this worry aloud to a mentor, a good friend, and a parent helped me realize how unnecessary this worry is. I was forgetting one of the main themes I have afforded so much thought: relationality. A career path or a specified graduate degree will not pigeonhole me into any kind of life, nor will it prevent me from engaging in a community as an authentic and compassionate participant.

As one actor, I am not integral to the community. The Spirit alone is equal to itself. My departure will not break the community. Yes, I have learned more than I thought possible this summer. The friendships I have formed at the Haven will sustain me through the next year, and fortunately, I can continue to grow within and by them over the coming Charlottesville seasons. However, I am not the most important thing that has ever happened to the Haven, but am one spoke that helped turn a great wheel for a little while. A serendipitous look into another Thomas Merton collection unearthed this quote from his journal composed on a pilgrimage through Asia: “Such is the door that ends all doors: the unbuilt, the impossible, the undestroyed, through which all the fires go when they have ‘gone out.”’[i] My light has not “gone out” upon departure from the Haven’s daily world, but will be burning with me in every angle by which I now better understand the gifts God hands me every morning upon waking. The door has not closed.

Working a breakfast shift in the Haven's kitchen

[i] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions, 1973. Pages 154-155.

Reconciled to Reality

Giving “points” to the women for whom we provide accommodation is an uncomfortable action that must be carried out by volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm.  It seems that just when I am encouraged by how well the volunteers and the homeless guests, live, work, and interact together as a community, a woman breaks a house rule and thereby has to receive a point; the consequence of not following a rule.  In a strange transition I find I must “discipline” a friend and the difference between our positions in the house is all too clear. The points system is an unfortunate aspect of the community structure but it is necessary in order to reinforce it: a woman receives a point if she fails to adhere to one of her responsibilities, for example, if she cooks when it isn’t her day to make dinner for the house or if she fails to return to the farmhouse to clean according to the schedule.

The points system was implemented at the Catholic Worker Farm fairly recently, only four months ago, and so far it seems to have been working better than when there were no consequences for not adhering to community responsibilities.  The women have an opportunity to engage in an act of solidarity with each other on a daily basis, and also both the electrical costs and the activity in the small kitchens are kept to a minimum.  Even though community life is improving due to the implementation of these consequences, too many women have been acquiring points more often than any of the volunteers are comfortable with.  Once a woman has three points, our policy is that we will ask her to leave.

A discussion in a recent meeting about issuing points led to a discussion about how the points system can be more effective.  How will the women understand the gravity of the situation earlier, so that they can continue to keep their accommodation in our houses and not acquire three points?  We settled on the idea of banning the women from the house for a period of time, for a week or two in conjunction with giving them a point, to hopefully help them to understand the seriousness of breaking house rules.

The paradox of banning our homeless women from our houses of hospitality struck a chord with me, however.  It seemed that the threat of being asked to leave should have been enough; how could we possibly be discussing banning the women, essentially as another way to parent them?  “Banning” is a typical policy of a night or day homeless shelter, but we are supposed to be a house of hospitality, a community of love.

Have we diverged from our vision of community, of taking personal responsibility for destitute neighbors, of practicing the works of mercy, since we now find ourselves with a need to instigate a policy of banning women?  It was an instance in which I realized the disparity that often exists between a vision and reality.  The reality of the community structure can appear harsh because it seems so far from the ideal, but it is also unfortunately necessary and practical in order to run the Catholic Worker Farm.  We never intended to have to discipline women, to ask people to leave or to ban them for a period of time, and this disparity between vision and reality is painful for both homeless guests and volunteers.

The reality the Catholic Worker Farm community often confronts in our community meetings is that though we aspire to Dorothy Day’s vision and attempt to imitate the person of Jesus, we can do only that which is within our means.  We do not have the means to accommodate women who cannot take personal responsibility for the house in which they live or for their actions.  Over the years the community has found they could not accommodate a woman who is schizophrenic, women who could not argue or discuss problems without violently shouting, and women who continually failed to prioritize following the rules that are a requirement for their accommodation.

This disparity between vision and reality, and the resulting tension that occurs when both of these truths are held together, exists not only in measures taken to maintain community structure but also in other aspects of life at the Catholic Worker Farm.   Another tension is the aspiration to provide accommodation for as many homeless women as possible, but also the desire to focus intently on the well being of each woman who stays in our houses.  Operating within Peter Maurin’s personalist vision, we provide for the needs of homeless women without any governmental aid and also allow some women to remain in our houses for years at a time; for example if their legal cases are rejected and they must submit a new application.  Furthermore, we accept women with their children and help them to enroll in school, we check in with case workers and solicitors, take each woman’s history and address medical problems; in a sense, we attempt to get to know them in an intimate way so that we might be able to provide additional help in other areas of their life in addition to the basic necessity of accommodation.

On the other hand, continual telephone calls from agencies such as the Red Cross serve as reminders of the pressing need of accommodation for the homeless in England, the reality of how many women we have space for, and how our efforts to adhere to the personalist approach prohibits us from providing accommodation for more women.  Dan McKanan writes in a recently published book, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation, about the range of Catholic Worker communities, and how most fall within two extremes; those that become professional non-profits in order to accommodate more people and those that stick more faithfully to traditional Catholic Worker ideology of personal responsibility and hospitality.

Not only are women coming and going as they receive the proper legal status, a reality which contributes to a continuously transitory community and seems in tension with the community vision, but also volunteers frequently come and go, most only staying for months at a time.  I consider my personal temporality at the Catholic Worker Farm to be a diversion from the ideal community. As a live-in volunteer I have the responsibility of long-term efforts, some of which include making decisions about house policies and investing in the community through relationships with the women, yet I am only a part of the community for three months.

It is reassuring that Dorothy Day wrote not only about her vision but also her failures to bring it to fruition and the tension she experienced when reconciling it to reality.  In an article written after the death of Peter Maurin, Day notes that, “not a month passes but some visitor comes to us who asks us gently if we have not given up emphasizing some one or another aspect of Peter’s program,” (1) which consisted of numerous issues including pacifism, unemployment, labor, the works of mercy, the land and agriculture, personal responsibility, and community life amongst other things.

In addition to this she writes that her greatest failure, “the one that Peter would probably emphasize if he were here to talk of these things,” was to “plunge into action without sufficient indoctrination… our vision is not keen enough nor large enough for us to see the whole; our very hearts lead us to see what is directly before our physical senses.” (1)  The Unity Kitchen Community in Syracuse is an example of this scenario, noted by Dan McKanan in The Catholic Worker After Dorothy. This particular Catholic Worker was started by a lay community that “offered rather chaotic hospitality to everyone who came to their door.”  Though unlimited hospitality might have been the beautiful ideal that they attempted to put into practice, a human service report indicated that their practice of unlimited hospitality proved to be dehumanizing, and only as a result of the investigation did the community realize the “contradictions between what we said we believed and what we were doing.” (2) Though they tried desperately to bring a vision to fruition, in reality the community was blind to what was possible within their means.

This leads me to think that continually trying to “see the whole” in our community meetings, though we also must continually confront how we are in a sense far from the ideal, is better than blindly, madly working simply in response to “what is directly before our physical senses,” even if it appears to be conspicuously in line with our vision.  When we set up a table and shake a tin in Chorleyshire to ask for donations, often we receive the remark, “What about the homeless men?” in response to our signs that read, “Help Support Our Homeless Women.”  What if we also welcomed the homeless men, in the same manner of unlimited hospitality of Unity Kitchen?  Though we would be aspiring to achieve an ideal, the reality is that we would find ourselves without the means to properly do so; there is a tension that exists between holding the truth of the vision in one hand and the truth of reality in the other.

I found a particular article by Meg Brodhead, “Maryhouse II,” included in the June 1979 Catholic Worker publication, as a proper articulation of the confrontation of the disparity between vision and reality.  She writes that there is “such a thing as the Catholic Worker Blues… the sense of futility [runs] very deep at times… and then too, one of our great modern problems is busyness… and hospitality, in whatever form, can be distorted into more of the same.”  At least it is helpful to know the extremes between which we fluctuate; the blues and busyness.  Though sometimes the continual discussion of and dialogue amongst members of the Catholic Worker Farm community can be a burden, the constant recognition of how we are measuring up to the ideal is to our advantage; it’s better to be acutely aware of our failures than blind to them.

1 Day, Dorothy. “Have We Failed Peter Maurin’s Program?”. The Catholic Worker, January 1954, 3, 6. The Catholic Worker Movement. http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/Reprint2.cfm?TextID=236.

2 Dan McKanan, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation, page 108