76 years of the Catholic Worker movement
- This is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
On this day in 1933, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and friends distributed the first Catholic Worker newspaper at the big NYC May Day rallies sponsored by various political groups. Both the Communists and the Catholics were quite scandalized by this event. The communists were practically beside themselves at the thought of Catholics (!!!!) moving in on their turf. The Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, hardly knew what to think about this new movement of the Spirit in their era.
Seventy-six years later, here we are -- in spite of everything.
In the beginning, Peter Maurin explained that our purpose was to build a society where it was easier to be good. In this, the Catholic Worker movement anticipated the writings of Pope John Paul II many decades later on structures of sin and structures of goodness. The world does not lack for structures of sin -- systems/beliefs/habits/structures -- that make it easy to do evil. What we need are more structures of beauty, wisdom, goodness, love, joy, peace, and hope.
The Catholic Worker movement is like an iceberg. You can look out among us and see a lot of obvious things -- a veritable plethora (actually, several plethoras) of works of mercy, justice, and peace. Here there is a soup kitchen, over yonder we see a house of hospitality, an organic garden, meals for the homeless, a blanket for a baby, and a bag of groceries for a hungry family. People look at that, sigh, and say nice things about how wonderful it is that we are doing all this good work.
And if we continue to observe, we can watch vigils at military bases, marches in streets, supports for strikers, tax protests, and organized opposition to machinations of the government. Not to mention a few well chosen words about cafeteria Catholic bishops who betray the cause of life and give tacit support to unjust wars. People look at those works of justice and peace, and sometimes they become uncomfortable. "Why all this politics? Why don't y'all stick to just helping the poor?"
If we can get past this, we will see farmers selling vegetables to their neighbors, looms at work, orchards cultivated, communities built. Our observers are comforted by this. While they suppose it is all a bit terribly green, they figure it is mostly harmless, and even a bit quaint.
Then once again the scene was changed, new earth there seemed to be. We see the holy city, beside the timeless sea Candles flicker before statues of saints. Fingers worn tough by manual labor gently hold a rosary. Hands are stretched forth in gratitude and receive Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood of their Lord. This bothers some people a LOT. They can handle the charity, the justice and peace, but this seems waaaaay too Catholic for comfort. Others are suspicious of the piety since these people obviously don't belong to the right political party.
But we haven't seen everything yet. It is as Paul said, we can only peer through a smoky glass, and try to discern something that we can barely see. There are people here, actual human beings becoming more human all the time, "human" in the original sense of that word, as it was in the Beginning, Imago Dei. The story at this point could hardly get more complicated or simple. I am -- we are. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. We have our ups and downs, our good times and bad times and always we hope for better times.
If you want to look at the Catholic Worker movement, there is a lot to see, 76 years and counting into our journey.
This year also happens to be the 10th year of ministry of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House. We can look back and count things like grocery deliveries, trees planted, lessons learned. In the past year, one million people from more than 100 different countries came to one of our websites and downloaded an average of 3 pages of information. That level of traffic has been going on for years. They come here and read about how to make bread, criticize a bishop, create a hospitality bag for the homeless, plant an organic garden, pray the Rosary, sing a hymn, read a scripture, and work for justice, peace, and mercy. Our sites are not very well organized (one review described Justpeace.org as a "labyrinth", which I thought was probably pretty accurate), they aren't fancy, very basic, not much eye candy. But within those hundreds of pages there is a chronicle of our work over the past ten years.
Numbers are categories, and we humans love them, but they are only partial descriptors of what is going on. A count can provide a kind of accountability, but can never tell the whole story and often can be a distraction from what is really happening around here. Those that we accompany in these journeys are not Others to be pitied and helped, but our brothers and sisters, Imago Dei themselves, each and every one of them Christ. I remember watching a guy crouched in a hallway, desperately toking on an empty crack pipe, certain that somehow he was going to get one more high off all that hot air. If you need practice, work on looking at him and letting your heart and mind see the Image of God sitting on the floor in such a distressing disguise. Me, I need to work on finding the Image of God in our politicians. It may take a century in Purgatory though for me to learn that lesson.
Where are we going from here? Well, as far as I am concerned, we are journeying right on through the collapse of the United States of America onto the ash heap of history into the Kingdom of God, "on earth as it is in heaven." There will be more good times and bad times. More moments of grievous agony and times of joyous glory. And if the last ten years are a guide, there will be a lot more manual labor. People never realize how much manual labor is involved with a Catholic Worker house. All that food doesn't just magically fly through the air, out the door and onto the doorsteps of hundreds of people every month. Those fruit trees and berry bushes and tomatoes don't get planted without someone first digging a hole. (One of the things I am proud of is that we have taught many people how to dig their first hole. Why is this important? Everyone needs to know how to dig a hole, otherwise they will never be able to plant anything. Ora et Labora.)
Along the way there are marvelous companions on the journey. People who help, who come and do manual labor with us. People who give us the resources we need for this work. People we accompany in their journeys, and who bear patiently our attempts to be of some small assistance to them. People who tell us their stories and hear ours.
Every month I either talk with or listen to messages from over 300 people calling us for assistance. There's a story in every message or conversation. Some people can barely tell us who and where they are. Others are anxious that we won't find them, that we will forget them, that we won't care about them. People cry into the phone and sometimes tell such heartbreaking stories that I am speechless (and with me, you know what an achievement that is!). Often, it's even hard to know where to start to pray about some of these situations, and so it is good that the "Spirit itself prays for us with inexpressable groanings".
Along with these local stories come messages from afar. Emails, newsletters, appeals, there is no end and not enough time to read more than a fraction. All of those are unique stories too, and every bit as complicated as the situations I hear about on my own phone. Worse, perhaps, because it is often apparent that there isn't much that we can do here other than pray and work even harder for mercy, justice, and peace. There are many voices that cry out to history for justice and remembrance, and more every day.
It's an overwhelming vision.
Yet in the midst of that complexity, we can each discern our place of love, work, journey, and habitation. That's what we do in the Catholic Worker movement. Our structure is a freedom -- a freedom not to do wrong, but to live our humanity at its most maximum beauty, and thus in a myriad of ways, by the grace of God, to do our little part, as Dorothy and Peter taught us, to make a world where it is easier to be good.
To Our Readers -- from the first edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper, May 1, 1933.
Dorothy and Peter, pray for us!
St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!
Holy Mary, Mother of God, help the helpless, strengthen the fearful, comfort the sorrowful, bring justice to the poor, peace to all nations and solidarity among all peoples. Give us strength to stand against the demonic powers which prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
O Christ our God, Lord of Glory, who gave us joy and blessing from your Mother's womb, have mercy on us and save us.
Robert Waldrop, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, Oklahoma City
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