Embracing The Catholic Worker Culture

Catholic Agitator
June 2014

The following essay will appear as the introduction to Jeff Dietrich's new book to be published this fall by Marymount Institute Press.


I am lucky. I am lucky that for the last four decades I have not had to go to work at a job I do not particularly like just to pay the rent or the mortgage. I am lucky that I found a place where I am able to do the work I love and that I can live off the largess of others who send me money to finance my efforts.

I am lucky that for the last four decades I have not had to do any thing I did not choose to do. I am lucky that for the last four decades I have been able to do work that was personally meaningful, challenging, and socially significant. And as part of this experience, I have had the privilege of expressing my rage and rancor in public protest and in publications at both social and economic injustice, as well as at political and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. Some people might think that I an artist or a free spirit, but I am neither; I am a Catholic Worker.

Some anthropologists would define what I do not as work, but as play, because, despite the constraints of a Catholic Worker life in community, I get to do exactly what I have chosen to do. And while to most it may seem to be a life of drudgery, poverty, and on occasion, danger, it still has that aspect of play.

We live in a community that sociologists might define as "deviant," not unlike the deviant communities of street gangs or the Mafia. We are indeed deviant; we deliberately deviate from the social norms. We are deviant in the same way as our "gang leader" and mentor Jesus Christ was deviant. We are deviant in the same way that our foundress Dorothy Day was deviant. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We are social deviants and we live in a deviant community. And, we are proud of it!

We run a free soup kitchen, serving over 3,000 meals per week. We regularly harass police and public officials in an attempt to bring the needs of the poor to public awareness. We stage public protests against U.S. imperial wars and periodically engage in civil disobedience to emphasize our concerns. Even though we are Catholic Workers, many orthodox Catholics, including our former archbishop Cardinal Mahony, are emphatic about disincluding us from the fold. Yet it was the same with our foundress Dorothy Day; who despite being well on the road to canonization as a saint today, found herself disparaged in the 1930s by numerous Catholics and prelates who called her a "commie" and "Red Square Dorothy."

As a young draft resister and antiwar activist in the 1970s, I found myself inspired by the long-term activism of the Catholic Worker and particularly by Dorothy Day. Dorothy was the quintessential American activist. When I first joined the Catholic Worker at age 24, I believed I was joining a significant part of historic American radicalism.

In 1914, at age 16, Dorothy dropped out of the University of. Illinois and went to New York City to be, much to her journalist father's distress, a journalist, She moved to Greenwich Village, a hotbed of radical communists, socialists, artists, writers and playwrights.

She wrote for the radial newspapers The Call and The Masses. Her favorite drinking establishment was a sleazy bar on the Bowery called The Hell Hole, frequented by Irish gangsters and mobsters, where she drank with the infamous socialist writer Jack Reed, the radical feminist Emma Goldman, Mike Gold, the president of the communist party, as well as with the great American playwright and drunkard Eugene O'Neil, with whom she was rumored to have had an affair. She was an attractive young woman, and no stranger to sexual encounters. When the communist revolution exploded on the world in 1917, she spent the night marching and drinking in joyous celebration with her radical friends.

She was arrested with the Suffragettes and participated with them in their prison hunger strike that ultimately led to the female half of the U.S. population receiving the right to vote. She had lovers, became pregnant, had an abortion, and much to her delight, conceived through her common-law anarchist husband, giving birth to her daughter Tamar. What radical, hippie, anarchist type could not help but fall in love with Dorothy? That was it for me!

But Dorothy was CATHOLIC and that was a potential deal breaker. As a radical Hippie anarchist draft resister, I was profoundly attracted to Dorothy and her CW movement. But as a radical hippie anarchist draft resister and fallen-away Catholic, and frankly anti-Catholic, I was disturbed. I was raised in a conservative suburban Orange County Republican CATHOLIC household, and I was skeptical.

I went to Catholic grammar school and lived in fear of the harsh discipline; I was an altar boy-who was constantly rebuked for my inability to recite the Confiteor in anything but mumbled Latin, never knew when to ring the bells or which side of the altar I was supposed to be on; I raised money to save the souls of "pagan babies" in far away missionary lands. Every year I went with my parents and the whole of St. Mary's parish, to the Los Angeles Coliseum for "Mary's Day," an enormous gathering of 100,000 Catholics from throughout the southland. Out on the football field there were 300 priests and prelates decked out in liturgical finery, carrying crosses and incensors, and praying to Mary for the conversion of Russia. Despite her radical credentials, I was somewhat skeptical of a 70-year-oId radical who also was CATHOLIC.

Yet fall in love with Dorothy and the Catholic Worker movement I did. As a young draft resister and newly-minted radical, I was enthralled to find a movement dedicated to the compassionate care of the poor, not just in a charitable mode, but in a justice mode as well. I was astounded to find that not only did Catholic Workers care for the homeless, but that they fought for the rights of workers to a just wage, and had a long and consistent history of opposing U.S. war-making.

Dorothy herself had worked to oppose U.S. entry into World War I, understanding that war to be a "Capitalist War" in which the workers of the warring nations, with their mutual concerns for justice and worker solidarity, were made to fight against each other in contradiction to their common interests. Because Dorothy also took a strong opposition to World War II, the Catholic Worker movement diminished by as much as half. And she and the movement were castigated as un-American and unpatriotic.

The Catholic Worker was one of the first publications to condemn the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and along with the Catholic Worker community, Dorothy refused to comply with compulsory nuclear air raid drills Rather than seek underground shelter, they chose to sit above ground in New York's Central Park and get arrested. Along with other peace groups, their five-year campaign helped to end such compulsory drills in the U.S.

Ironically, Dorothy's consistent commitment to pacifism, which had diminished the Catholic Worker movement in the 40s and 50s, led to a flourishing of the movement in the 60s and 70s. Many young anti-Vietnam war activists like myself were drawn to the movement, inspired by young CW members who were the first to burn their draft cards in protest of the war, as well as by Father Philip Berrigan and his brother Father Daniel Berrigan, who were the first to confiscate draft files and burn them as a form of public liturgy and protest.

When I joined the Catholic Worker as a 24-year-old draft resister, it was very likely that I would be going to jail in the imminent future. Perhaps that is why I thought that "feeding the poor and ending the war" for $5 a week, and all the beans you can eat, seemed like a pretty good thing to do while I was waiting for the FBI to come and arrest me.

I knew that my parents were not too thrilled about it. "You wash pots, ladle soup, sweep the floor, make the beds of homeless people, and break up fights in the soup line? And that's why we sent you to college?"

I admit that such work is menial and seems even degrading for someone with a college degree. It is the kind of thing that, if you did it for a year, might look good on your grad school or job application. However, if you do it for ten years, it makes you look like a loser.

If someone paid $50,000 to $100,000 for your college degree, you are supposed to go into the world and get a job, become a professional, like a lawyer or a politician, and make a difference. You cannot make a difference washing pots and ladling soup.

Yet what we do at the Catholic Worker is not a job; it is more like an adventure. When Jesus Christ preached in the synagogues, the people said, "He speaks as one having authority. Not like the Pharisees and the scribes" (Mk 1:22). Such words are typically understood as meaning that Jesus was the Son of God, and of course he speaks with authority. However, Jesus' real authority came from hanging out with poor people and eating and drinking with them, as well as serving, healing, and welcoming them. When we hang out with the folks on the street, we get to hear their stories. When we hang out on the streets, we get to see how racial and economic disparities affect the administration of justice. When we go to jail, we get to share in the suffering of the poor and observe firsthand how the system works. We get to see that the vast majority of the jail population is made up of poor people of color. When we hang out with the poor, we get to speak with the authority of firsthand experience, the authority of Jesus.

When we first came to Skid Row over four decades ago, the 50-square-block area had, as it does today, four large evangelical missions as well as numerous other small Protestant missions. They all served a meal, but they required that the men listen to a sermon before eating. So when the Catholic Worker opened its doors, folks did not know what to make of us just because we just served a free meal and did not preach. Because many of us were young and affected the singular male fashion statement of the era, long hair, our "street name" became the "Hippie Kitchen." We were a bunch of long-haired hippie, anti-authoritarian dropouts who had found a home at the Catholic Worker. We were a scruffy, long-haired, unshaven crew, and the most unlikely to succeed at much of anything, much less "make a difference." Yet what happened was quite the opposite.

Because we were there and we had a presence and spoke with authority, poverty lawyers sought us out as clients in their effort to stop the destruction of Skid Row and save 5,000 units of low-cost housing. Because we were there, Nancy Minte sought us out, and as a young lawyer, joined the Catholic Worker to open a legal clinic that still serves the poor and homeless to this day. If we had not been there, Tanya Tull would not have come to Skid Row and opened Para Los Niños to serve the children of poor immigrants. If we had not been there, Alice Callaghan would not have come to work with the Skid Row immigrant families and establish the Skid Row Housing Trust to provide low-cost housing for the poor and homeless. If we had not been there, washing pots and ladling soup, John Dylan would never have founded the Chrysalis Center, which still works to help the homeless and unemployed find work. If we had not been there, Frank Rice would not have come out of his tall office building and trekked down to Skid Row to found LAMP, one of the most progressive services for the mentally ill in the country. If we had not been there, none of our 12 "sister houses" serving the poor and homeless throughout the country and in Mexico, Haiti, and Africa as well, would exist. And countless people would have perished. Most every week, a formerly homeless man or woman comes up to tell me, "You saved my life when I was on the streets."

It is a bit like that old 1940s movie "It's a Wonderful Life," in which Jimmy Stewart is saved by an angel when he tries to commit suicide because he thinks he is a failure; he wanted to be a "big shot" in the big city. But he has not done the great "big shot" things that he had hoped to do with his life. Then the angel shows him a vision of what his town would be like if he had not been there to counter the capitalist rapaciousness of Mr. Potter. If we had not been there, Skid Row would look like a Yuppie "Potterville" instead of what it is, a haven for the downtrodden.

When you have the audacity to do the seemingly useless; when you decide to step outside the norms and expectations of your social setting; when you step outside Mr. Potter's capitalist project; when career, salary, job security, and retirement plans are not as important .as doing the right thing and saving the integrity of your inner being; when you wash pots, ladle soup, eat beans, and speak the truth "as one having authority," you will be reviled.,

It is not a job; it is not a career. There is no health care plan, no 501K, no retirement benefits. It is not a job. It is a vocation. It is a prodigal, profligate, wasteful adventure. It is an adventure in which you get to give away everything, expecting nothing in return. If the cops and the bureaucrats and the city functionaries revile you and put you in jail, if your own family thinks you are out of your mind, then count yourself lucky. You are in good company, "for this is what they did to the Prophets" and to all of the writers and artists who ever spoke the truth. This is what they did to Socrates, Galileo, and Van Gogh, and to Jesus Christ himself. You get to kick ass, speak the truth, call a spade a spade. You get to curse and say "fuck" whenever you like and let the chips fall where they may. It is a kind of sacred freedom.

I am not lucky. Actually, I am blessed.

Jeff Dietrich is a Los Angeles Catholic Worker community member and editor of the Catholic Agitator.