House work: Catholic Worker houses of today

By Karen Kirkwood| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Social Justice
The Catholic Worker movement is living proof that charity begins at home.

Catholic Worker member Liz La Plante and I started our conversation alone in the spacious front room of the Dorothy Day House in Portland, Oregon beneath a picture of Mother Teresa. Within minutes, community member Chani Geigle-Teller joined us. A cat padded in and climbed into La Plante’s lap as she began to tell her personal history. Just as La Plante said, “I wanted to do full-time service work,” two women poked their heads into the room. She invited them in, introducing them as houseguests. A parish volunteer who had been cooking in the kitchen sauntered in. A knock at the back door brought in two visitors, long-time supporters of the Dorothy Day House.

La Plante finished her story by saying, “The blessings are the personal relationships in the house.” More friends appeared at the front door. As I listened to the chatter in the room, I was reminded of co-founder Dorothy Day’s words about how the Catholic Worker movement developed. She writes in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, “We were just sitting there talking . . .”

Within a few minutes, the tranquil room in Portland had filled with people, cats, and the scent of something simmering on the stove.

Day continues, “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” Her words rang true as our group—guests, community members, and visitors—moved to the dining room to share salad and chili.

Today the 200 or so Catholic Worker communities scattered around the United States and other countries are grounded in the belief that every human has God-given dignity, just as co-founders Day and Peter Maurin espoused. According to Jim Allaire, webmaster for catholicworker.org, these houses are “beacons of hope in this time of powerlessness.” The movement is significant to the church today, says Allaire, because Catholic Worker communities help “keep an eye on injustice, the poor, and immigration issues.”

Catholic Worker houses also educate young activists on nonviolence. Tom Hastings of Whitefeather Peace Community in Portland, Oregon speaks of the need to maintain Day’s legacy, because often the vision of an innovative leader dies out. “Until nonviolence becomes a social norm,” Hastings says, “the Catholic Worker vision is pertinent in today’s conversation.” He believes many young activists today base their work on anger rather than nonviolence. Older activists need to hand on a robust, workable model of nonviolence.

Community center

At the heart of the Catholic Worker is a concept known as personalism. Father Bill Bichsel of Guadalupe House in Tacoma, Washington describes personalism as responding to God’s active work within you by taking responsibility for what needs to happen, including standing by those in the margins and against those things that cause violence in the world. It is sharing the difficult as well as joyful parts of community.

For several years Guadalupe House helped maintain Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic Worker farm where my husband, children, and I lived for three years in the early 1990s. One of our guests, Frank, showed up once a month or so in a beat-up pickup and stayed only a few days. Sometimes Frank had part-time jobs; sometimes he was on a bender. The farm offered respite for him, and he spent hours on the front porch of our old farmhouse, smoking and drinking coffee.

My husband set aside the farm work and house repairs that needed to be done and sat with him. They talked politics, religion, Frank’s life story. They teased our children and watched the rain fall on the fields. Relationship is paramount in Catholic Worker communities.

Personalism goes hand in hand with community, another essential element of the movement. Usually in a Catholic Worker house, members and guests live together. “We become a part of people, and they become a part of us,” Bichsel says. At Guadalupe House guests are invited through a screening process involving three interviews. Both community members and guests share in household chores.

At the Portland house physical, emotional, and social safety is a priority for the two members and six guests who live there. The house residents meet once a month to discuss issues that arise from living together. Yet the difficulties of community and personalism are the seedbed for rewards.

La Plante and Geigle-Teller have seen their guests transition into housing or find the services they need, and often these guests remain friends with the community, stopping by to visit after moving out.

Kristen, a slender, middle-aged guest in the Dorothy Day House, had left a situation of domestic violence many months before and had been living in various shelters. Once she slept in her storage unit for two nights. A social worker connected her with the Dorothy Day House, where she waited for housing. While there she was finally able to build trust in people thanks to the Catholic Worker, which she described as “a family situation.”

Another core principle of the Catholic Worker movement is nonviolence, both in personal relationships and on a societal level. Catholic Workers seek to end systemic violence. “Peace and justice can only be won through peaceable means,” says Tom Hastings. Whitefeather Peace Community’s main work is organizing nonviolent resistance to war, injustice, and militarism.

Mass action

Catholic Workers share reading, dialogue, and liturgy both in the houses and with the wider neighborhood or parish communities. Whitefeather Peace Community hosts Roundtables, a Catholic Worker tradition of a meal followed by discussion.

One wintry evening in Tacoma, Catholic Workers, house guests, people from the local community, and people from the street sat scattered on old sofas and folding chairs in the basement of Guadalupe House.

During the prayers of the faithful, I sat with my eyes closed, listening. I glanced up, however, when I heard a voice from the doorway. A man in a scruffy trench coat leaned against the doorframe; a baseball cap pulled low hid his face. He spoke in a hesitant voice. “My friend is sick; he’s in the hospital.” Long silence. “That’s all I wanted to say.” Bichsel filled in the “we pray to the Lord.” When I looked up again, the man was gone.

Laurel Dykstra, a community member at Guadalupe House for eight years, sees a connection between contemplation and action on a societal level. “One of the most brilliant aspects of the Catholic Worker vision is the use of public liturgy. Often acts of public resistance are intentionally sacramental in design and nature,” she says.

Recently the members of Guadalupe House have been involved in a local housing issue. A hotel in the neighborhood is home to many low-income people, but developers want to turn it into a luxury hotel. Before each crucial vote by the city council, Catholic Workers and other neighbors gather for an ecumenical service in front of the hotel, drawing attention to this issue and offering support to the residents.

Role playing

Community members and short-term volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some communities are specifically Catholic, such as Casa Juan Diego in Houston, while others are more eclectic. All community members need to be committed to Catholic Worker values.

Most houses have volunteers who help out with special projects for a limited time, such as a building project. Guadalupe House often hosts high school or college groups for a few weeks. They contribute their time and learn about the realities of marginalized people. Community members often receive room, board, and a stipend, depending on the specific house. Many members have jobs to support themselves.

Most communities have a process members must go through to join the community, and many require time commitments. Couples with children can commit long term. In Houston Mark and Louise Zwick raised their children and grandchildren at Casa Juan Diego, although the families lived in separate housing.

La Plante and Geigle-Teller decided to join the Catholic Worker movement for different reasons. La Plante felt drawn to Day’s model of hospitality. A trained chef especially interested in providing hospitality through her passion for cooking, she concentrates on the household while Geigle-Teller focuses on activism, helping to organize vigils, protests, and actions in Portland.

Look on the bright side

Catholic Workers live on the edges of society, and in doing so they confront many complications.

Each house or farm must find its own funding, which often creates stability issues. At press time, for example, the Dorothy Day House in Portland was planning to close in October 2011. As with most nonprofit service organizations, communities fight a constant battle for funds and supplies to carry out their mission. Some communities choose to follow Day’s lead and eschew 501(c)3 nonprofit status because they believe their work is an act of conscience, and they wish to carry out their activities without government regulation. Others have decided to file for nonprofit status in order to increase their services.

Another complication is the difficulty of the work. Because community members are constantly confronted with the overwhelming needs of the poor, they must be vigilant against despair. Mark Zwick keeps from getting cynical by “reflecting on the lives of immigrants and how they beat all odds to get here.”

Most communities balance prayer and work as Day instructed. Day spoke of a revolution of the heart, saying, “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.” La Plante, a practicing Catholic, says, “I couldn’t do this without my faith. It is crucial.”

The health problems of the guests especially challenge her because she can often find no solutions to ongoing circumstances. “You just have to keep going,” La Plante says.

Many houses contend with a high turnover rate of community members. Kyla Fiffon, a 22-year-old who is biking around the country visiting Catholic Worker communities, believes the problem is a result of the stressful work more than the temperament of the communities.

Another member points out that for people who want to join service communities, opportunities abound, some with good stipends and health insurance, which most Catholic Worker communities don’t offer.

As in most human attempts at righting wrongs, the vision calls, but the implementation is inadequate. Dykstra believes questions of right livelihood and sustainability are under-addressed in Catholic Worker communities.

In her experience, “the [Catholic Worker] movement has dealt with poverty by proximity—being near individuals and communities that are impoverished—but has failed to engage deeply with questions of economics at a personal and communal level.” When community members confront the breadth and depth of inequality in the world, questions boil to the surface but often go unanswered.

Energy, time, and funds are limited. Every house, according to Bichsel of Tacoma, has a tension between dedication to the works of mercy and the works of justice.

True value

Despite the difficulties, the movement thrives. The overall number of houses is growing, according to Allaire. And even when people leave the movement, a part of it stays with them. Allaire recalls Dorothy Day’s fondness for the many Catholic Worker “graduates,” people “who have had a permanent shift in values and bring their Catholic Worker experience into their work.”

Fiffon sees more young people interested in the movement, especially those who have discovered what some call “the new monastacism.” They are “rooting themselves in Catholic Worker history” to learn from the model, she says.

Members of the Jeanie Wylie House, a resistance community in Detroit, reported on their blog that at a recent Midwest Catholic Worker gathering “it was impossible not to notice the abundance of youthful energy.” More than half the 200 participants were in their 20s. “And by the showing of young parents and babies, it appears to be for the long haul.”

The movement stays true to many of the tenets set down by Day and Maurin, but as time passes, priorities shift. Many houses now emphasize farming or gardening as integral to their mission. New social issues arise over the years. Resistance planning, according to the members of the Jeanie Wylie House, is focused not only on new weapons, such as the United States’ use of drones in overseas conflicts, but also on the policies of agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto.

Immigration issues have come to the forefront as well. Casa Juan Diego in Houston specifically serves undocumented immigrants. The house provides many types of outreach, including English classes, medical services, and hospitality. The Zwicks recently published a book, Mercy Without Borders: The Catholic Worker and Immigration (Paulist Press), filled with the stories of immigrants who have passed through their doors in the last 30 years.

The Catholic Worker movement has traveled a bumpy road, but the vision of Day and Maurin continues today in houses and farms around the world. The words of Bichsel may sum up the aims of its many members and graduates: “I just want to be a sign of hope and continue to be faithful.”

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 11, pages 22-25).

Image: Photo by Toni Craige