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

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.

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.

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

Visual Expressions of a Community

My internship through the Project on Lived Theology at the Catholic Worker Farm has provided a unique opportunity to combine academic and personal interests through study, writing, and daily experience.  I have an interest in social justice due to personal religious convictions, and I study religion in an academic setting, but this summer’s opportunity is the first time these two spheres of my life have overlapped with one another.  I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to approach my interest in social justice with an academic lens by using theological writings to reflect upon my personal experience within the Catholic Worker movement.  Furthermore, in my initial proposal for the summer, amongst reading about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and interning at the house of hospitality outside of London I also included a desire to produce artwork based on my experience.  Studio Art is my other area of academic study in addition to religion, and during the previous academic year much of the artwork I produced was as a result of reading theological works.

At the Catholic Worker Farm we provide accommodation for and live with homeless women, and I find living together with volunteers and the women in our community to be one of the most interesting and influential though often ambivalent, aspects of the summer, as well as a topic I would like to address in my artwork.  However, how does one create art about experiences with the homeless?  It seems to me to be a tricky territory, as I do not wish to stigmatize the women as homeless more so than they already feel.  My initial desire was to begin with an informal interview with women who were willing, and also ask if I could draw a portrait of them.  However, another long-term volunteer informed me that many volunteers, interns, and friends have wanted to create artwork about the homeless guests at the Catholic Worker Farm over the years, and he thinks the women might be tired of it, as often they feel as though they are being used simply as material for artwork.  Working in this way would be contrary to Catholic Worker theology.  Emmanuel Mounier, a 20th century French philosopher who greatly influenced Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, writes that if another person is treated merely as “an instrument at my disposal,” one is “behaving towards him as though he were an object, which means in effect, despairing of him.”1

Furthermore, while I understand that the distinction of “homeless” is one that can’t be ignored, I would rather focus on the women as people; as women who are homeless amongst other things.  Recently I have viewed the work of some artists who have photographed homeless people in order emphasize their poverty and the terrible condition they face on the streets.  From November 2012 to June 2013 the Saatchi Gallery exhibited “Case History,” by Boris Mikhailov, a set of 413 photographs taken from 1997 to 1998 of the homeless in Ukraine following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.   Recently in the media photographer Lee Jeffries has received recognition for his portraits of the homeless in major cities in the US.  Both of these artists seek to bring awareness to the people that are often passed by without a glance; these images provide an opportunity for the public to look into their eyes.

I think there are different ways to bring attention to poverty and marginalized communities within the realm of art, and it seems to me that Mikhailov and Jeffries’ portraits call the public to action or to sympathy as a result of their documentation of the dire conditions of the marginalized.  I would propose that Peter Maurin however, might provide a different approach.  Dorothy Day described Maurin as articulating his vision in such a way to others that “he did not begin by tearing down, by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world,” but rather, “he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment.”2  While the intense picture of misery is a necessary one to tell, for this project I hope rather to provide a snapshot of the community at the farm of which our homeless women are a part of, and to affirm the women’s dignity by allowing them to define themselves within the artwork.

In a sense, entering into the lives of marginalized persons in such an intimate way as Mikhailov and Jeffries can be done only if the subjects give permission for the artist to do so.   I do not think that initially I would receive the same permission, and I hope to take a different approach.  Rather than focus on individual women and their distinction as homeless, I will instead highlight the Catholic Worker Farm as a community.  In our community I see our homeless guests as housemates with whom I am trying to love, and at its most basic level I see our houses of hospitality as groups of people just trying to live together.  There’s a balance I’m discovering between the need to recognize the distinction between the women as “homeless” and myself as “volunteer,” and also to view each of the women individually as a housemate and as a person.

Sometimes it has proven useful for me to act based on what one might assume to be the tendencies of homeless people, other times it has backfired.  Embarrassingly one time I vocalized my assumption that one woman only wanted something from me when she had sweetly greeted me in the morning, and she was hurt that I had automatically assumed she was being insincere.  In regards to acknowledging the person as an individual, a volunteer at the farm expressed the gratitude she feels when members of the local community take a personal interest in her, rather than only associating her as a part of the group of volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm.  I see this volunteer’s gratuitude for personal recognition as connected to my desire not to create work about “the homeless” but rather about the women as individuals whom I know as a part of this community.

Emmanuel Mounier’s notion of personalism is the inspiration behind the work I hope to make.  Mounier proved to be inspiring to Peter Maurin too, as he regarded himself as a “personalist.”  Mounier wrote about a Christian “philosophy of engagement,” which he called personalism, the basis of which is the conviction that Christians have the responsibility to “take an active role in history even while their ultimate goal is beyond the temporal and beyond human history.”3  Mounier’s writings about the nature of the person, and how persons should treat each other provide inspiration for how to create art about a marginalized group and how to recognize each person as more than their association with the particular marginalized population.  Above I quoted Mounier on how treating a person as an object is to discredit them, and he continues, “but if I treat him as a subject, as a presence – which is to recognize that I am unable to define or classify him, that he is inexhaustible, filled with hopes upon which alone he can act – this is to give him credit.”4


In order to address the tensions, the categorizing, and the ideologies of the house, and to empower the women in the creation of this artwork, my work will be a collaboration with women who are willing to participate.  Rather than conducting an interview with the women and drawing their portraits, in which I would choose how to portray them, I will instead attempt to practice Mounier’s idea that I am unable to define or classify the women with whom I live and alternatively invite them to add to the artwork in their own way.  The art pieces will be multilayered, with a first layer of drawings of the spaces in our houses.  I plan to place the drawings in common areas for the remainder of my stay at the farm, and invite the women to add whatever they would like to the base layer; for example, comments and text regarding the space they occupy here, memories about the spaces, habits, desires, preferences, feelings about the Catholic Worker House, or drawings.

Mounier writes that, “real love is creative of distinction; it is gratitude and a will towards another because he is other than oneself,”5 and that to understand another involves not “seeking to know another according to some general knowledge… but accepting his singularity with my own, in an action that welcomes him, and in an effort that re-centers myself.”6  Instead of taking full control of the artwork and in order to give the women the opportunity to define and express themselves, I will extend an invitation to them to take part in the creation of collaborative pieces.

1 Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (Paulist Press: New Jersey, 2005), 99.
2 Mark and Louise Zwick, 97.
3 Mark and Louise Zwick, 98.
4 Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.: England, 1952), 23.
5 Mounier, 23.
6 Mounier, 21.

Relational is Radical

I was introduced to the Catholic Worker movement a couple of years ago when I visited Casa Alma in Charlottesville, a Catholic Worker community started by Laura and Steve Brown in 2009.  This initial encounter prompted inquiry into the history of the Catholic Worker and the surprising discovery of the community directory listing hundreds of houses worldwide.  According to their website, the Catholic Worker is a movement whose aim is to live “in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ” which they see as a requirement “to begin living in a different way.”1  Due to this different kind of living, the Catholic Worker movement is often regarded as “radical,” a term I would like to unpack. Is the Catholic Worker a radical way in which to practice Catholicism? Is a Catholic Worker lifestyle simply radical in relation to that of mainstream society?  Initially I thought acts of civil disobedience or ploughshares (in which military or nuclear equipment and weapons are damaged) were the more radical aspects of the Catholic Worker movement, because they can often result in arrests, trials in court, and prison sentences.  Though acts of civil disobedience are certainly bold ways to proclaim beliefs in the public sphere, I am discovering that the radical core of the Catholic Worker movement consists more so of small, relational practices carried out with the conviction that they can transform society.

Author Dan McKanan in Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition places the Catholic Worker within the tradition of American radicalism, which he defines as “a tradition of social movements and organizations that seek to extend the values of liberty, equality, solidarity, and peace” (5).  McKanan relates radicalism to religion as a brother or sister, as a perspective more concerned with relationships amongst people rather than spiritual or material realities; one that still hopes for societal change beyond the institutional level but looks to the future rather than to the transcendent.  He notes however, that often a religious faith is strongly linked to the belief that one can renew the earth; a radical belief indeed.  This proved to be the case for Dorothy Day, whose “revelatory experiences of interpersonal encounter confirmed the truths of biblical revelation” (8).

“To be radical is to go to the roots,” writes Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, in one of his Easy Essays (18).  At the core of the Catholic Worker is the commitment to practice the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy, which has a clear rooting in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew.  The passage in Matthew 25 reads,

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?  And the king will say to them in reply.  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Based on this passage, the Catholic Church has defined the Corporeal Works of Mercy as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, offering hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.  Additionally, there are Spiritual Works of Mercy, which include admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, and praying for the living and the dead.  According to the Catholic Worker website, the works of mercy, both corporeal and spiritual, are “an abiding norm for the Catholic Worker Movement.  Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin lived lives of ‘active love’ built on these precepts.”  The Catholic Worker as a movement aims to put into practice this call from Christ to do works of mercy for the poor, a call “rooted” in the Gospel, and Dorothy Day considered these works to be “the best revolutionary technique and a means for changing the social order.”2

Peter Maurin’s Easy Essay on personal sacrifice also roots the Works of Mercy as a practice of the early Christian church:

In the first centuries of Christianity
the poor were fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
and the Pagans
said about the Christians:
“See how they love each other.”
Today the poor are fed, clothed, and sheltered
by the politicians
at the expense
of the taxpayers.
And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
but at the expense of taxpayers
Pagans say about the Christians
“See how they pass the buck.”

Practicing the works of mercy can also be described as taking personal responsibility for one’s neighbor rather than leaving another’s welfare up to the state or an institution.  This is another example of going to the root of the problem, a radical act, by focusing on a relationship with a neighbor in need.  Peter Maurin described himself as a “personalist.”  He was inspired by Emmanuel Mounier, an 20th century French philosopher, whose Christian perspective of personalism at its core states that each person has an equal dignity and is loved by God.  From this basis, Mounier viewed modern capitalism as a negative economic development due mainly to its “priority of profit,” since in capitalism “the person is subordinated to consumption, consumption in turn is subordinated to production, and production to speculative profit.”3

Scott Albrecht, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Farm, has often stated that, “If you’re a British citizen, it is as though you have a pound sign over your head,” indicating that the British government sees their citizens as having greater value than that of non-British citizens.  After many years of working with the homeless, Scott and Maria Albrecht came to realize where the aid of the government fell short for impoverished foreigners in the UK. They subsequently began the Catholic Worker Farm specifically to provide accommodation for homeless women who are not eligible for any support from the government until they are granted the proper legal status.  As a result, the Catholic Worker Worker Farm provides accommodation only for women who are “street homeless,” some of the most destitute of British society.  Because they have chosen to take in these women, they are not a registered charity, and are not given the housing benefit they would receive from the UK government if the homeless women were British citizens.

The kind of personal sacrifice that Catholic Workers undergo by taking a personal responsibility for their neighbor and practicing the works of mercy was viewed by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as having “the potential to create an entirely new community.”4 Perhaps this belief in an ultimate renewal of society as a result of human relationships is the radical core of the movement, in which one believes a new society can be created in the shell of the old.  Furthermore, McKanan writes, “the peculiarly unifying genius of the Catholic Worker lies in the fact that everyone can practice the works of mercy,” an idea linked to the Catholic Worker vision of the possibility of a new society (11).

A couple encounters with fellow community members who have associated themselves with the Catholic Worker movement have shown me glimpses of this vision of a new society, in which one simply recognizes the need and chooses to care of their neighbor.  At the farm, a local licensed psychotherapist offers therapy to two women each week.  He happened to walk past our table one day in Chorleyshire where we ask for monetary donations on the street and offered to give psychological help to the women.  At the Great Western Market, where we go to ask for old or out-of-date food from sellers, one vendor is unbelievably generous and always asks us what we need and tries to provide it for us.  In a sense, we are giving all the vendors and the citizens of Chorleyshire an opportunity to take part in this new society, by giving them the choice to practice a work of mercy.

Another time, one volunteer was confronted in a store by a shopper who recognized him as the renter of our second house of hospitality.  She had stopped Stephen to explain that, as a resident herself on that street, she found our hedges too overgrown.  We had actually already planned on going to the house that afternoon to do the much-needed work in the garden, and humorously, our neighbor who had confronted us that morning walked down our street a few hours later as Stephen was cutting the hedges, which she had “reminded” him to trim earlier that day.  Stephen remarked, “So you’ve come by to help!”  She quickly denied, stating that she had only been passing by, but he persisted, and invited her to enter the garden where I, another volunteer and two of the women staying in our houses were working.  Stephen introduced us to Caroline as a neighbor who had come by to help.  IMG_1362We proceeded to show her the flowerbed we were weeding, and asked her about various plants that we couldn’t identify; she knew most of them.  Leaving in a positive mood from this unexpected opportunity to give her suggestions, Caroline told us she would think of an appropriate plant for the bed, and would stop back by the house.

Stephen both encouraged and gave an opportunity for Caroline to take personal responsibility for her neighbors, when otherwise she might not have considered doing so.  Our seventy-year-old neighbor was the perfect person to give garden advice, and in this way I see Stephen’s invitation as mimicry of Dorothy Day’s “intense desire to see the heroic potential of every person whom she met” (34).  Both taking responsibility for the poor and inviting others to do the same are small practices radically rooted in relationships and the means by which the Catholic Worker movement has endured.  McKanan notes that in the passage from Matthew 25 it is not explicitly stated that the sheep on the right share a common theology or ideology, but rather “their identity as a community stems entirely from their common care for an anonymous Christ” (7).

1, Aims and Means

2 Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker (May 1940); quoted in Mark Zwick and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, page 52.

3 Mark Zwick and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, page 107.

4 Dan McKanan, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the works of Mercy in a New Generation, page 9.

Sources of Joy

Much of our time at the Catholic Worker Farm is spent accomplishing work in the garden and around the house, helping the women with their legal cases, discussing the state of affairs at our two houses in volunteer meetings and planning upcoming events. Personally, I often find myself hoping for more opportunities to simply be with the women.  I think this time I hope for is often available; it is just a matter of recognizing when a situation has presented itself to sit with or talk with the women, and making the choice to take the opportunity.   It is in time spent being with the women that I have experienced joy in the smallest, simplest of interactions, and I find these experiences to be fleeting moments in which the intentions for our work become realities.

“Community life can become a real school for growth and love,” writes Jean Vanier in his work, “Our Journey Home.”  Vanier is the founder of the L’Arch communities for disabled persons, and he has written extensively about community and relationships based on his years of experience living with volunteers and disabled guests.  His writing on communion has helped me to articulate the joyful moments I’ve experienced with the homeless women with whom I live in community.  Though often times there is conflict, stress, and irritation in our houses, it seems the joyful moments that occur intermittently are slowly creating a sense of unity amongst the women. Vanier describes the L’Arch communities as families of brothers and sisters; we describe our houses in the same way.  The women have not chosen each other as housemates and it is easier to get along with certain people more so than others.

Acknowledging disparities between members of a community as gifts rather than as irreconcilable differences is a way to see how community members complement each other rather than create divisions amongst each other.  Vanier uses the example of Martha and Mary in the gospel of Luke.  In the scene, Martha wants to concentrate on the tasks she needs to accomplish, while Mary desires simply to sit “at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he [is] saying” (Luke 10:39).  Vanier sees the two sisters as having a choice, to either become jealous or critical of one another as a result of their different tendencies, or to make the “transition” to see each other as “members of the same body, different from ourselves, but important and necessary to the life of the body,” in which “differences then are no longer a threat, but a treasure” (189).

The reference to members of the same body alludes to 1 Corinthians 12 in which Paul describes how each member of the Christian community has been baptized into one body. The community is diverse, and therefore it is necessary that all of the “parts” function together.  Each person should take concern for the other members because although each serves a different purpose, all are necessary.  In a similar way, each woman has entered into the body that is the Catholic Worker house, and as a community we must address how the diversity within the house will function.  I find Vanier’s description of making a “transition” as an appropriate way to describe the decision to see another as an individual with gifts and as a member of the same body, though it can take many encounters and interactions before a full transition can take place.  He also speaks of passing through many stages before one is able to accept another as “neither angels nor demons, but human beings, beautiful and wounded, a mixture of light and darkness” (188).

It is a joy to both watch and take part in a friendship between two young women living in our house of hospitality.  These two women seem to have nearly opposite personalities in addition to being of different nationalities and having sought accommodation at the Catholic Worker as a result of different circumstances.  One of the women is quiet and consistently hardworking, while the other is the most outgoing in the house and sometimes needs encouragement to complete her weekly chores.  The first woman is still taking English lessons, and the other is attending a local college and is fluent in English.   One is from Southeast Asia and the other, from Africa.  Unexpectedly these women both enjoy spending time together and are friends.  It is inspiring to see how they respect each other and accept each other’s differences; neither of them poses a threat to the other, but rather sees the other as a treasure.



Another kind of transition that takes place is the realization of a shared, common humanity or underlying relatedness, which can occur as a result of or during a particular interaction or conversation. This is another joyful experience because when this transition is recognized, it seems a theology of intrinsic dignity at the root of the Catholic Worker becomes a reality.  During some dinners in which the women are open to dialogue and seem to have peaceful spirits, I sense a transformation in which a group of Africans, Americans, Swedes, homeless persons, Catholics, and Sikhs, are united simply as humans, around a dinner table, all with common desires and feelings.  Usually this sense of underlying relatedness manifests when the women are discussing a topic to which they can all relate and contribute.  Usually when we talk about food, children, and childhood, the women seem to desire to openly share their experiences and to affirm each other.  Everyone has something to share about how to prepare their favorite foods, their culinary preferences, their childhood memories, how they were parented, and experiences parenting their own child.

Though the women often communicate feelings of annoyance that they have to participate in house dinners, I have found that coming together for a meal each night is an opportunity for a celebration, as it is often where I have found I can make these transitions and choices to respect differences and to recognize commonalities, both of which are a source of joy.  Vanier writes, “celebration creates unity in the community, and also flows from it” (199).  When the women are respecting each other’s differences, or discussing shared experiences with each other, a kind of celebration takes place, as it seems the unity of the community is affirmed.  Moods and feelings relax, the women laugh and joke with each other, and common experiences are recognized.

Vanier writes that the celebration of a community finds its fullest expression in shared meals, recalling that the words “companion” and “to accompany” have their roots in cum pane which means to share bread or food in Latin.  He also cites Aristotle, who stated that “for two people to be friends, they must eat a sack of salt together; they must share many meals (199).”  Choosing to make the “transition,” to see another as a member of the same body, and to respect another’s differences, is something that certainly must be done over and over again; as making a full transition resulting in recognition of the treasure that is another person can take time.  Not surprisingly, many of the moments of joy that I have experienced with the women have happened during a shared meal when it was least expected, after so many ordinary meals of slow conversation, subdued spirits, or energy focused solely on the children.  The table itself is a place of solidarity in which all those who sit around it are leveled by the common food and common table.

Many women have told me that they find the stress they carry and the waiting they must endure to be unbearable. The community dinners are an opportunity for the women to engage with each other, and our vision for the meals is that it would be a way in which a community of support could grow over time.  Often times the community dinners are quite difficult or chaotic, but sometimes there are these fleeting moments in which our vision manifests itself.   Vanier describes celebration as a “song of hope;” I hope the women find these moments to be their hopeful song in the same way that it has become mine.

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

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.

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.

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.