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