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May Day 2002: From Tom Cornell

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  • Robert Waldrop
    MAY DAY 2002 The Catholic Worker, New York City Tom Cornell Last year Father George gave me the assignment of preaching the homily at the last minute. I had
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2002
      MAY DAY 2002

      The Catholic Worker, New York City
      Tom Cornell


      Last year Father George gave me the assignment of preaching
      the
      homily at the last minute. I had no time to prepare, so I preached on
      the
      antiphon to today’s Psalm, “Lord, give success to the work of our
      hands.”

      This year he gave me week to prepare, and that makes it a lot harder.
      I told Joanne Kennedy, maybe I’ll just name all the people who have
      made the Catholic Worker, created this community. Not just Peter
      Maurin and Dorothy Day whose memory is with us all the time, but
      everybody. That would make a nice hour long sermon, just the names,
      but I would leave some out, that’s the problem, and I'd have to ask
      each one of you to say your own name out loud, and any names not
      already spoken.

      One year many years ago, Eileen Fantino stood near the door
      here at St. Joseph’s House during one of these May Day celebrations.
      She looked around and said, “Everything changes, all the time. But
      not this place. It’s the same, always the same.” Then she added,
      “So much heaven, and so much hell.”

      I brought a group of high school students from the Boston area
      here a couple of weeks ago. They had come to the Farm to work and for
      indoctrination during their spring break. We took one day for a brief
      introduction to the work here in the City and a walking tour of Lower
      Manhattan. Matt Vogel showed them around this house. Someone asked
      him why he is here. “I found it and I fell in love with the place,”
      he said.

      That’s what I said, the very same words, fourty-nine years ago
      last
      month when I first came to 223 Chrystie Street. So very much has
      changed. So many people have passed through. So many have died. The
      neighborhood has changed. It doesn’t look the same. But Eileen
      Fantino is right, and Matt Vogel tells the real reason why we are
      Catholic Workers, because we love it. We’re in love. How else could
      we take it?

      Dorothy reminded us often that we are a family, “a large,
      untidy
      family,” with all the problems families have, the dotty aunt, the
      drunken
      uncle. Thomas Merton reminded us that even in our protest and
      resistance against the prevailing society, we mirror it. And yet, and
      yet....

      That first night in April, 1953, my first Friday Night Meeting
      for
      the Clarification of Thought, Dorothy recalled Peter Maurin saying,
      “There are great things that need to be done.” I wanted to do great
      things. I’m a romantic at heart, just like you! So I came. And what
      did we do? We scraped carrots and peeled potatoes, washed dishes and
      bundled papers. Oh, there was the talk! Great talk. We had running
      seminars the like of which they didn’t have at Fairfield University or
      at Yale either.

      And yet, we did great things, they just seemed to happen as we
      sat
      there talking. Ammon said I’m not going to take shelter for the
      air-raid
      drills. I’m going to sit in City Hall Park until the cops take me
      away.
      Dorothy said I’ll sit with you, then Eileen and Pat and Mary Ann
      joined in.
      Ammon went over to the War Resisters League and said, why not come
      along. That was in June, 1955. That event proved to be a major
      stimulus in the disarmament movement.

      We were sitting on the third floor of the 175 Chrystie Street
      building when Bob Steed came in with a newspaper article in his hand
      and a photo of a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, sitting in the lotus
      position engulfed in flame in a public square in Saigon. “What are
      you going to do about this?” he demanded of Monica’s sister, Carlotta
      Ribar, Chris Kearns and me. What are WE going to do about it? That’s
      Bob Steed for you! We thought about it for a while and then Chris and
      I came up with an idea for what turned out to be the first
      demonstration against the war in Viet Nam, just the two of us, July
      16, 1963. In ten days we had two hundred and fifty. In five years, a
      million. Remember the song, “.... if two and two and fifty make a
      million, we’ll see that day come ’round, we’ll see that day come ’
      round.”

      I happened in at 175 Chrystie Street one morning just to say
      hello to
      Dorothy. She said sit down, have a cup of coffee. Cesar Chavez will
      be here in a minute. I want you to talk to him. Soon enough he came
      in, alone, no driver, no secretary or traveling companion. He looked
      like Cesar Chavez so I knew who he was right away. He headed for us.
      Then he spotted the Guadalupe on the wall, the one over there. He
      stopped, crossed himself and said a brief prayer. Then he joined us.
      There was no small-talk, no breaking the ice. Dorothy simply said
      what can we do for you. In twenty minutes it was agreed. Dorothy
      would rent an apartment for his workers, a half dozen or so, they
      would eat with us. I would take them to the offices of unions we
      worked with, 1199, the health workers’ union, the distributive
      workers’, the butchers’ and the taxi cab drivers’ unions to free up
      workers who would visit all the supermarket chains with us, their
      corporate headquarters, the stores themselves, and even the
      mom-and-pop bodegas. We had all the work done to set up the lettuce
      and the grape boycott in New York. and it worked, the first successful
      boycott in America since the tea boycott of 1776. It was great.

      And the civil rights movement. We were there. We never took
      a
      leading role. That was for black people and their organizations. But
      we
      were there. We helped tear down the legal structures of racial
      segregation in this country. Imagine what might have been if we had
      not. We did it through nonviolent direct action, and through
      networking with labor. It was the organized labor movement that paid
      the bills. When Cesar Chavez’s men came to Kenmare Street, it was in
      a car donated by Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers. When the
      buses rolled into Washington for the March on Washington and Martin
      Luther King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech, it was the AFL-CIO that
      got those busses rolling and that printed the placards. We were
      there. And it was a great thing.

      We reintroduced nonviolence into mainstream Catholic and
      Protestant thinking. We moved the Church itself, the hippopotamus
      Church, if only an inch. But when the hippo moves, all else in the
      mud hole gets at least a nudge. T.S. Eliot put it more elegantly.
      That’s a great thing.

      Monica and I went to visit Mother Jerome at Regina Laudis
      Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut, a few weeks ago. Mother Jerome is 94
      years old now, still beautiful and still sharp, and graced with the
      wisdom of age. We discussed the state of the world and the state of
      the Church. “You're doing the right thing,” she said, “just keep
      doing it. In times like these there are only two things that make
      sense to do, pray, as we do here at the Abbey, and the works of mercy,
      as you do at the Catholic Worker. So keep it up.”

      The works of mercy. It’s easy to forget the spiritual works
      of
      mercy, among them to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful and
      reprove the sinner. That’s the one I like best, to reprove the
      sinner. That’s what we do when we demonstrate. Carmen Trotta got
      thousands of people out to instruct, counsel and reprove in Washington
      on the 20th of last month. That was a great thing.

      I fell in love. Half a century later I’m still in love, still
      scraping carrots, and still at the coffee table, talking, incessantly.
      It’s
      been good, even great. Let’s keep it up. O

      The Catholic Worker
      Peter Maurin Farm
      Marlboro, NY 12542-5134
      (845) 236.2542
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