Saturday, May 26, 2007

Can We Do This?

Anne and I have just finished a two-week stay with the Catholic Worker people in Los Angeles. It felt like a good step to take; it's a great relief to be returning home; and I'm hoping this comes to more than an exhausting, wonderful vacation.

In case you're not familiar with the Catholic Worker movement, it began in the 1930's with a young radical named Dorothy Day, dissatisfied with her contemporary socialist organizations, who converted to Catholicism and started a newspaper dedicated to traditions she'd found worthwhile from the ancient Church: "We admit to being fools, and wish that we were more so. What we want to do is to change the world, to make it easier for everyone to feed, shelter and clothe themselves as God intended."

For some time we've been receiving a newsprint magazine called The Catholic Agitator, written and published by the Catholic Worker house in Los Angeles. They stand up for the poor, protest the war, discuss the mismatch between ideals set forth in the Bible and our contemporary abuse of fellow humans. Like any Catholic Worker house, they offer hospitality to people in need; they also host a needle-exchange program and offer meals for Skid Row homeless people several times per week.

This is not "charity" as normally understood. In accord with Dorothy Day's thinking, they are not incorporated as a non-profit and they do not draw too hard a line between the servers and the servees; they serve their meals from a Health Department A-rated kitchen in a beautiful garden patio; they also pass out coffee, fruit, and dishes of oatmeal at a public street corner where the Forces of Gentrification haven't yet conspired to drive them off. They follow up their coffee line with an hour of standing war protest at a busy LA intersection; they follow their kitchen meals (three times a week) with a thorough clean-up and a long nap--because five or more hours of this is exhausting. And they pray. And they remind themselves to smile, to keep their works of mercy on a human-to-human basis.

This is done with less than a dozen full-time volunteers, supplemented with work and donations from a great many people who know of their work and want to be part of it.

When we stayed at Pendle Hill, we met a young student from a Catholic Worker house in England. I'd wondered why there wasn't something like a "Quaker Worker" movement; she felt we were constrained by invincible Quaker middle-class sensibilities: "Quakers like to come into the poor part of town, do Good Works, drive home at night to a house in a nice neighborhood." Probably most people would prefer that.

The LA Catholic Worker house is in a barrio; it's a lovely three-story wooden house at the top of a small hill, together with several smaller houses nearby; there is no air conditioning and the only heat in the house is from a large kitchen stove and a small gas heater in the living room. Stuck-open windows are caulked with wadded towels; and pigeons are filling the attic space with noise, pigeon shit, and baby pigeons. Something will have to be done soon about the pigeons.

Despite minor hardships and inconvenience, we are drawn to the Catholic Worker way of life because it "makes sense" where the so-called "American Way of Life" doesn't. I say that because Dorothy Day, despite a love of Catholicism which I can't share, was working out a coherent way of life based ultimately on Christ's teachings.

In the conventional world, we are urged to assume a "consumer" identity, which sets everyone competing for more than we need of scarce goods, devalues the public good and all intangible goods, tightens our fists and shrivels our souls. In a more Biblical concept, like Dorothy Day's, food and shelter are not commodities for somebody's profit, but God's provision for everyone, to be shared specifically with those considered "least among us." Contact with nature, art, religious study and practice were other needs Day considered essential to a human and humane way of life. I call her vision "coherent" because it connects us, implies that our life should cohere: in itself, with a community, and with the world about us. It answers Isaiah's call:

to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker house needs more community members: competent, hard-working people committed to a life of prayer and service. They're a delightful group of people and many Quakers might fit in well with them; Anne and I are still in the process of deciding whether that's something we're called to do.

It's a pleasure to stay with good people in a real city like Los Angeles; but we have yet to see if I can live there without my nose slamming shut; and we're attached to many good people in our own San Diego. My hope is that something like what we've found there can be done here, in our own dysfunctional urban heap, with the friends and Friends we know.

[1] Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.
[2] And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive;
[3] but better than both is he who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
[4] Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
[5] The fool folds his hands, and eats his own flesh.
[6] Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
[7] Again, I saw vanity under the sun:
[8] a person who has no one, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
[9] Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
[10] For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.
[11] Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone?

Friday, May 25, 2007


I have found people I really like doing their separate quaker blogs here and there, but I don't catch all their posts or know if they'll see any particular post on my own blog.

That seems all too individualistic in the bad sense!

Let's meet here! If you like the idea, there's a pretty good chance I'll want you here too.

Suggested ground rules: "Playful" is good, but let's keep it mindfully, lovingly playful. "Serious," but not stuffy or hostile, if we can help it.

Subjects?--anything of religious interest to Quakers & other mystical sentient beings.