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.