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.