I am delighting in these not-too-warm fall days even though I know they are the spurious gift of global warming. I feel grateful to Pope Francis for the gift of Laudato Si and a whirlwind trip including his speech to Congress which lifted up a couple of our Catholic heroes – Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Probably a few folks went to Google to see what the Catholic Worker movement is about, and if Catholic Workers were plugged into the capitalist system we would use such an opportunity to expand our donor base – but we aren’t!
Recently I have had two wonderful experiences which I expect will reside in my memory for some time to come. The first was the opportunity to attend the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Philadelphia, and it truly was a WOW. There were women and men from twenty different countries with individual and panel presentations which ranged from quite academic to heart-rending, telling of personal experiences. There were 500 in attendance, which is considerably less than the 2,000 who attended the first WOC meeting in 1976. On the other hand, there were no Roman Catholic woman priests at that time. Now there are 123 worldwide and 14 bishops who will continue to ordain women on into the future. Granted, the institutional church is still not comfortable with this movement, and a priest participant in the conference returned home to find a letter from his archbishop announcing the cessation of his priestly faculties. Do we wonder how many priests have experienced the same sanctions due to having sexually abused children? One thing for sure is that this Roman Catholic woman priest movement is vital and growing and will not likely be stopped.
My second autumnal awe was the baptism of my God-daughter Maggie. She is the child of Theresa Miller and Joe Goodner (two former CW volunteers). It was truly a wonder to see the eyes and hearts of the believing community at St. Elizabeth’s all focused on little Margaret Ruth. I loved thinking about how the love of God, Joe, and Theresa (and many others) will shape this little life into a strong, caring woman who will make a contribution to bringing about a better world. Fr. Chrys gave a wonderful homily clarifying that we are all part of that category of “being rich” and like that camel who cannot make it through the eye of the needle. The Good News is that the Gospel ends with the statement that with God everything is possible. So for Maggie we must keep our hope up, love mightily, and walk with her and God into the future.
In July, Kristen and I moved out of the Worker, where we had both lived for years, into our own Tiny Home. It was a healthy, but very hard step.
The Worker certainly let me live a privileged life of not having to subject myself to wage slavery and letting me focus on work that I found meaningful – living in community, meeting people’s real needs, and organizing politically with people experiencing homelessness to help make things a little more equitable. Denver Homeless Out Loud, the advocacy group I work with, started as a group of concerned citizens organizing to give homeless people an opportunity to influence policy decisions on a local government level, with little to no success. Three years later, however, we have made some major strides. We are now leading the fight for a Homeless Bill of Rights in Colorado, and organizing nationally, with the “Right to Rest Act” running in Colorado, California, and Oregon, to set a national human rights agenda to end the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.
Naturally, as we first started talking about living outside the house, I was concerned that I might have to give up some of the work I’ve been invested in, in order to pay rent and sustain a different way of living. Could I still be as committed? It seemed like such a crucial time. I didn’t want to lose focus.
Having been around service-oriented communities for a while, I’m all too familiar with seeing people come to “serve others,” only to leave because they have to “get a real job.” Perhaps it’s practicality (student loans, etc) that drives this trend. Or, probably, it’s more often driven by compassion fatigue – the experience of being worn down because a person gives and gives to others, only to see conditions get worse. Whatever the reason, people come and go, and things stay the same as they leave.
This pattern is understandable, but I for one didn’t want to join the ranks … but I knew that Kris and I needed to live alone for a while if we were going to prioritize our relationship. I knew it was the right thing to do, but my ego made it a very hard choice. It felt like we were putting our own personal wishes – for privacy or whatever – in front of the call to hospitality. My guilty conscience tried to convince me that Kristen’s as well as my own personal needs were really just selfish desires.
And what would I do without my community? Isn’t that what I’m called to? And what kind of work would I do? How many compromises would I have to make in order to pay rent? It was a question of vocation as well as practicality.
A few months into this experiment of living on our own, I have no clear answers on how to live genuinely according to conscience within our modern economy. But I have one hope – one which comes from my experience of living with poor and homeless people. It is that over the past few years I have become more and more aware that we all belong to one another. Not only are we not all that different, but we are one body. Interdependent. My own well-being wound up with that of others. It is that which I hope will guide my actions into the future.
It is easy to fall in line with the typical charity model of service work: I serve others. I’m good, they are needy. And inversely, I fail if I can’t meet the needs of others on my own. It is self-fulfillment, and it perpetuates the polarity between rich and poor – the isolation of modern capitalism. It feeds on the patriarchal dualism that says we are isolated self-made people, whose needs are separate from those of others. It is the reason why “compassion fatigue” and the common response are so common. I help others, but they never get better, so I guess I’ll take care of my own needs. It’s what keeps this system from changing.
Throughout history, I cannot find a single example of any social movement which did not create meaningful positive change to people’s objective conditions that did not require people directly affected by injustice to organize themselves and lead in the struggle for freedom and equity. The Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Slavery Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, you name it – all were made possible only because people who were being oppressed stood up and organized for change themselves. Only then did people with privilege (namely white men like myself) come to realize the inherent dignity of the people they were (actively or passively) oppressing and join them in the struggle, realizing the interests of others were interwoven with their own. And only then did our legal, political, and economic systems change to better reflect the inherent dignity and equality of all people.
Living with people who experience homelessness has caused me to realize just how paternalistic my own attitudes toward charity and service work have been. The guests at the Catholic Worker House have challenged my presumptions that I can fix things, or make things better for them. They have gently demanded that I see them as people worthy of dignity and respect, not charity cases, and I’ve been challenged to practice mutual aid rather than service; to work alongside people, rather than to do things for them; to recognize that we all have various needs and interests, and that those are interwoven, rather than competing forces. It is through knowing them that I’ve come to see part of the sacramental mystery – that we’re in this together. And that’s not something I can walk away from – whatever I happen to be doing, and wherever I happen to live.
We all have needs, but we’re in this together. Wherever we might be, we are one body.
THE BELOVED COMMUNITY
I’m more than a year late to be reflecting on Vincent Harding’s memorial service, but it was such an important experience for me that it keeps flooding into my awareness. I keep remembering how, in that room full of mostly strangers, the more people shared, the more i knew that i had come home, come to the place where my heart could rest, where i belonged.
The name of that place is love. Not only Vincent Harding, when he was alive, but everyone who stood up to talk about him after his death was so steeped in love that the whole universe seemed to me to shine with a warmer light, grounded and renewed in that community of love. Its faith was a living, transforming reality, and its hope stirred up my own.
I’m sure the same realities pervaded the early church, still on fire from the Resurrection. Saints through the ages have kept the fire alive in their own lived experience of God. But the world drags us down, we get caught up in all the limitations of our humanness, and we fall far short of our glory as children of God. Perhaps the problem, for me anyway, is that i’ve always been too privileged and too sure of myself. Maybe only an oppressed people leans hard enough on God to be lifted up into the power of God’s life. But not all oppressed people find that freedom of self-surrender and self-sacrifice. Certainly, everything in our country’s culture works against it. Perhaps the beloved community is a miracle of a faithful few in each generation. These few are so saturated in love that they never doubt it’s the only way forward, the driving force of the universe, and the purpose of all human activity. They love in all they do, in big ways and little ways. They care about individuals, affirming and empowering them. They see no one as an enemy. Their lives are inclusive and the circles of their caring ever-expanding. They lift up others, never themselves, and communities of service and transformation grow up around them.
Vincent was an educator, a writer, and a life-long activist for African-American dignity and rights. He was a speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr. He taught at Spelman College in Atlanta; at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Swarthmore College, and the Pendle Hill Study Center in Pennsylvania; and at the Iliff School of Theology here in Denver. With his wife Rosemarie he founded Mennonite House in Atlanta. He was the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, and he established and directed the Institute of the Black World, also in Atlanta. He and Rosemarie were consultants for the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary film project, and they co-founded the Veterans of Hope Project while at Iliff. After Rosemarie’s death, Vincent and his second wife Aljosie helped launch the National Council of Elders to mentor upcoming generations. In his later years he loved to meet with school children. He visited with us at the Catholic Worker house. His whole life radiated warmth, love, and affirmation.
The reminiscences i particularly remember from the memorial service include that of the person who followed Vincent as Director of the Institute of the Black World, whom Vincent had to persuade to step up to the responsibility, who found in it his life’s calling, and for whom Vincent’s support never waned. A young woman spoke who was close to Vincent as one of his “nieces” in his huge “family” of intimates, who grew up strong in her identity with his affirmation and became a leader in her own field of social justice activism. And there was the father who simply came to Vincent for counsel and encouragement in a family crisis and continued to rely on his personal support ever after. No matter how famous Vincent became, he always had time for whomever he was with, always making you feel, in his gentle, empathetic way, special and important to him. I suspect he had thousands of personal friends.
Drawn into this circle, i am more whole than i was before, more myself, more the child of God whom God created me to be from the beginning. Indeed, i believe i meet God in the love of the beloved community, where God is more real than anything else in the universe – and everything is possible.
REMEMBERING HUMAN DIGNITY
I had the honor of being ordained as a Baptist Minister by my home church in Waco, TX this past August. In some ways, the ordination service was a culmination of a long process that began in me about 10 years ago when I preached my first sermon in Leon, Nicaragua. In other ways, it was the beginning of something new, a newfound sense of support and calling to take into my daily work in social action, service, community building, and faith.
The ordination service was like nothing I had ever before experienced in a church setting. It was an extraordinarily physical and sacred moment in my life. In the Baptist tradition, a minister is ordained by the congregation rather than by an order of clergy. For Baptists, Apostolic blessing is imparted bottom up, by the hands of the community. During the service, I was invited to take vows of fidelity to the church and to the gospel ministry, and then I was invited to kneel while the congregation came forward, one by one, to lay hands on my shoulders… on my head… to embrace me fully with arms that wrapped around my body like the arms of God… to adorn me with tears… kisses… colorful stoles… and words of blessing that I will always carry with me. It was a strong and sweet moment indeed.
The ordination that I requested from the church was an ordination to an ecumenical ministry within the church and within the world. Since the ordination, I have had the privilege of serving daily bread to persons at SAME Café, speaking and leading at my Mennonite congregation in south Denver, guiding the liturgy that we share on Thursday nights at the Catholic worker, and presiding over a memorial service that Denver Homeless Out Loud led to draw attention to the lack of public access to bathrooms in our beloved yet troubled city.
For the memorial service, we dressed in black, carried a casket from the back of a hearse across Park Avenue where we adorned it with flowers and shared a liturgy together. During the liturgy, I gave a eulogy to remember the life that human dignity led. In honor of the lives of those who have lost their dignity because of sweeping laws that criminalize those who spend their lives in public space, I would like to share that eulogy below:
Human Dignity led a wonderful life. It was the kind of life that many of us would have hoped to live: a life of deep conviction, commitment, and community. The maturation process for Human Dignity was quite a long one. It took thousands of years of human history before Human Dignity reached its fullness under Gandhi’s leadership in the Indian independence movement in the 1920’s through 1930’s. Sometimes it takes much longer for humankind to reach deep down towards what is intrinsic and eternal rather than to grasp for what is fleeting and on the surface.
Through equal parts of conviction, commitment, and community Gandhi led the resurrection of a nation and a people that had far too long been divided, and been dependent upon a system that thrived at the expense of the misery of the lowly. Through non-violent demonstration Gandhi inspired the lowly to stand up, and their willingness to stand awakened the consciousness of those who had been denying their dignity and equality for far too long.
Human Dignity reached its height in those days under the alternative leadership of Gandhi, and its momentum carried it over to our American shores under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s when King led a non-violent revolution that sought to do more than de-segregate the south, but integrate and reconcile the south to the beloved community that King dreamed of.
Human Dignity reached its glory days in the 20th century. It inspired an awakening to the deep truth of complete and utter equality which humankind has always tried to deny. Human Dignity’s glory days led liberation movements that sought to restore equality and reconcile broken systems for the betterment of all members of society. It was the kind of life that we would dream of, indeed. But today we declare… Human Dignity is dead. Would you say that with me? Human Dignity is Dead.
In a world where the love of money destroys community… Human Dignity is dead. In a world where rich and poor are afraid to look at one another and acknowledge their interdependence… Human Dignity is dead. In a world where grown men and women are forced to go to the bathroom on themselves to avoid being criminalized… Human Dignity is definitely dead.
In the 13th chapter of Corinthians, the Apostle Paul remembers his own maturation process. A slow process, certainly, but not one that spanned thousands of years like the maturation process of Human Dignity. Paul remembers what it was like to think like a child, and then to awaken and put away his childish ways. If we think back on our own lives, we can recognize this movement as well.
The crowning achievement of my childhood was the day that I was potty-trained. I will never forget that day… it was like sudden liberation… no longer would I have to fill my pants with filth that oozed down my legs as I ran around on the playground. I could use a toilet! The day we were potty trained is a day that we ought to remember with great pride. “We put away our childish ways,” and we’re not going back there!
Once you have experienced the sweetness of indoor plumbing, who wants to revert to a pile of filth in their pants? No one! But the decision makers in our city have decided that this is our plight. Potty training, it seems, is the glory of the rich—not to be enjoyed by those whose life is spent in public space.
And so we are left to identify, it seems, with a first century homeless man from Palestine, wandering the streets in a world where the “foxes” certainly have homes… but we “have no place to lay our heads”… much less our bodily waste.
Human dignity is dead. Would you say that with me? Human Dignity is Dead. It is a solemn day indeed.
DIRTY WORDS, DIRTY DEEDS
Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system. – Dorothy Day
Since returning to live in Denver after twenty years, I’ve again been feeling like Rip Van Winkle waking from a long sleep, or even the twin in the relativity paradox landing back on earth after light years of touring the universe. The world has changed so much during my lifetime as to be disturbingly strange to my memory, which itself has been changing as I’ve tried to understand better my own life journey through physical, social, economic, political, and cultural landscapes constantly being changed as well.
The devil in this case is not in the details but the development of a way of organizing human society and life altogether which has grown more total. Go virtually anywhere in the US and you can find technological surplus of machinery and gadgetry, for example, which didn’t exist only a few generations ago. But the restructuring of relations and realities among us as a result of the predominant purposes to which these artifacts have been put, above all by those who own and control them, has been both more profound and subtle, as we seem to move along with dramatic changes in our ways of being, and being human, in the most matter-of-fact ways – just the way things are.
Those traffic snarls one can stumble upon always somewhere in Denver nowadays mean more than the sheer excess of private automobiles, and accompanying road rage, which have arrived with the spike in population. With more cars than people in the US now, they signify the triumph of a corporate state campaign to enforce upon all of us a mad system of transportation which wreaks carnage in innumerable ways, from daily death and severe injury to us and other living beings, to destruction of communal habitats, village life and other spatial and temporal scales conducive to people rather than profit, to their industries’ contribution to climate change and driving us and alarmingly massive numbers of others into species oblivion.
The destructive “productivity” of industrial capitalism is more than the sum of its parts, and includes qualitative changes within and among us. So along with all the ubiquitous presence of screens, cameras, and other instruments and techniques for monitoring, measuring, and manipulating our movement through the economic machinery supposedly propelling the American Dream forward, it’s that we’re enmeshed as never before in a web of watching and being watched, a kind of spectator and surveillance society functioning 24/7, even if we’re not (though what worth and while we find in living apart from “functioning” remains obscured). Along with the proliferation of police and private “security,” we now move in more militarized spaces subject to fear and terror, as these servants of “law and order” take marching orders from a steadily enhanced power of the corporate state to rule by martial law. Along with the increased presence of conspicuous consumption and crushing poverty and glaringly insane inequality generated by what prosaically is referred to as consumerism (or more aptly, following Marx, commodity fetishism), there is the increased absence of genuinely public contexts beyond the gilded grip of the “free market” where people meet freely to deliberate and act upon our own powers over our own lives, the essence of democracy.
Here in Five Points, where the CW is located, there are all the enterprising signs of gentrification (or “gentrifukation” as some of its victims prefer): signs for some of urban zones making a comeback, propelled in large part by those with purchasing power coming back from former flights to suburbs to the inner environs of cities, which have exported their manufacturing working class base to cheaper opportunities for exploitation of labor and other “resources” in more remote and hidden elsewheres, and evolved into professional districts pampering to a FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real Estate) economy in the citadels of neoliberal America; signs or rather warnings for others that the inherent logic of accumulation at the origins of capitalism, from extermination and forcible relocation of European peasantry from land under contrived rights of enclosure to the genocidal and ecocidal colonization of peoples and lands “elsewhere,” is once more extending both its legal arm and lethal force of arms to re-zone the planet for the unholy trinity of property, production, and profit.
But all that appears obscene here for champions and cheerleaders of Progress is the word “gentrifukation,” while scrubbing streets clean of human refuse. That the entire earth in its organic foundations has become dangerously, apocalyptically subordinate to the rule of Capital, converting living beings into dead objects for the sake of abstract monetary exchange value, is, for all its radical profanity, hardly halting the death march of our “civilization.”
People in our society are given official identities by technocratic authorities. The scientific expertise, or Orwellian newspeak, with which they legitimate political, economic, and cultural agenda from assigning these identities conceal actually un-scientific fraud, as with “race” and “sex.” And the frauds, when successfully propagandized, legislated, and marketed, become lies repeated consistently enough to become truths.
When we walk or, more likely, drive along city streets we have been “educated” to see the demographic “the homeless” as we come across different individuals from different circumstances with different life journeys who have been adversely affected by a social system made for property, productivity, and profit, not people. They might belong in turn to the larger category of “the poor.” But “the poor” almost never belong to the 80% or even 99% of us who work as wage-slaves in a pyramid scheme where all of us occupy, and are occupied by, different levels of participation in its maintenance, and where we might just have more in common, because more at stake with, those at the bottom than at the top. (Becoming expendable nowadays seems not so strange after all.)
I often think of what it meant, even beyond their own intentions, when Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started the Catholic Worker during the dark days of one of the most destructive of the recurrent crises of capitalism. I think that very much at the heart of the meanings involved and implied is that we simply are not meant to endure such suffering, that we have within and among us untapped, unimagined potentials for re-making the conditions of our own existence, from elemental acts of care and compassion to revolutionary action to make such humanity the cornerstone of society, carrying on the example of Jesus which might yet reach us after millennia of something called “Christianity” and “religion.”
The recurring crises of our social order continue, threatening on unprecedented scales destruction of people and planet beyond what’s already occurred. They keep telling us that this social order itself is the crisis. And that what we can do is what must be done to restore in myriad ways a society where it’s easier to be good, to enjoy our common humanity, rather than suffer a way of living so profane as to challenge us to “awake from the nightmare of history” (James Joyce).
The following article is reprinted, with gratitude, from The Catholic Radical.
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HOUSE NEWS ☺☺☺☺☺
Marcus and Kristen moved out of the Worker in July, but we’re glad to say they haven’t left. They’re living in their tiny home in the back yard of the house Sarah and Peter bought not very far from us, and they both still do weekly house shifts. Sarah still cooks for us one day a week, as do Cole and Kaylanne, who’ve recently bought a house even less far away, with a room we can use for respite space and occasional hospitality for our family and friends. Sharing with this extended family feels like the heart of our life together when we gather in our living room on Thursday nights for prayer. (It’s rarely Mass these days, as the priests who’ve worshiped with us have health and other issues.)
Gaps between live-in workers were covered over the summer by Sarah, a wonderful intern from Notre Dame with endless positive energy, and Tim, a deeply spiritual person exploring a calling to service after a career and raising a family. Our new live-in worker, joining Anna and Kevin, is John Baker, who’s a great cook and brings a passion for networking among other folks committed to building a better world. Long-time volunteers Sue Gomez and Doug Cramer each continue to do two house shifts a week. Claire has had to step back because of health issues, and Caroline has just come.
Life in Denver is changing very rapidly. The apartment building going up a few feet from our north wall now towers over us, and another one is well under way a few houses to the south. We’re struggling with how best to help our guests in an economy where a full-time, minimum-wage job no longer supports any kind of market-rate housing, and where the amount of subsidized housing is so far below the need that only the most vulnerable of those eligible ever get in. What can we do? We hang in there, trying to be faithful. Thank you for all your support, hanging in there with us all these years.
Catholic Worker House
2420 Welton Street
Denver, Colorado 80205