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National Catholic Reporter
Catholic Worker anniversary: Legacy of pacifism anchors movement
By EILEEN MARKEY, Worcester , Mass.
July 25, 2008
They came from New York , St. Louis , Milwaukee , Cleveland , Germany and Boston , adherents of a radical fealty to the beatitudes who have taken their Catholicism all the way to the margins of society, believing that is where they best live their faith. As the Catholic Worker movement celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, it remains as resistant to classification, unflinchingly counter cultural and steadfastly Christ-centered as when it emerged from the cauldron of the secular left in New York 's Union Square in 1933.
From July 9 to 12 a parish center in this postindustrial college town in central Massachusetts was the site of a ragtag family reunion of the inheritors of Dorothy Day's mission. More than 500 current and former Catholic Workers gathered to share stories, pray, discuss the nitty-gritty of life in houses of hospitality, hash out philosophy, and dance. They produced a statement urging the church to reject war and speak loudly for justice.
"At this critical point in history, as we face unending war, including U.S. plans to attack Iran, ecological destruction and economic collapse, we call on our church and nation to join us in repenting our affronts to God," the statement read in part. "We once again implore the leadership of the Catholic church in the United States, now and without evasion, to break its silence and to wield the authority provided by the nonviolent Gospel of Jesus Christ, by calling the entire nation to repent for the war crimes we have committed in the so-called War on Terror." The document calls the church and "people of goodwill" to: engage in prayer, fasting and civil resistance to end the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq; advise soldiers to refuse to participate in the wars; urge Congress to provide appropriate care for veterans; end the use of torture; and work for "an equitable redistribution of resources and simplification of our materialistic lifestyle."
For many the gathering was a chance to connect with old friends and to recharge.
Between shared duties preparing meals and managing child care, participants listened to a lecture on the history of the Catholic Worker, delivered by four authors who have written on Day and the Worker. They attended workshops on Catholicism and the Catholic Worker, raising children in the movement, Catholic Worker farms, anarchism, seamless garment theology, racism, and how to make Worker houses more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
Organized by the two Catholic Worker houses in Worcester , the conference revealed the breadth and health of the movement. In the 75 years since Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin began feeding the destitute men of New York 's Bowery and speaking out against militarism, the Catholic Worker has grown tremendously. It now includes at least 160 communities, among them dozens of small organic farms growing food for community pantries and hungry neighbors; an art gallery; and scores of houses of hospitality offering long- and short-term shelter to undocumented immigrants, women fleeing domestic violence, people exiting prison and those without a place to sleep or belong. It has produced four generations of Catholics living in opposition to a dominant culture of consumerism and violence.
Throughout the weekend, old friends greeted each other with hugs and fondly recounted stories of arrest and imprisonment for antiwar actions the way another group might recall a college football game.
Teenagers and children ran about the hall happily, babies were passed from parent to friend in an extended family and the school-age children interrupted their parents' discussions of how to foster community with short-term guests to show them crayon drawings.
Various houses set up tables around the perimeter of the gym, laden with photos of their work, Catholic Worker newspapers and newsletters, books on philosophy and nonviolence, T-shirts and stickers. Everything was for sale: Pay what you can. Massive banners of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and the Virgin of Guadalupe painted by Catholic Worker friend Tom Lewis hung like icons over the proceedings.
Sheila Stumph, who lives with her husband at John Leary House in Boston, and a friend who is raising her children at the Nazareth House Catholic Worker in Raleigh, N.C., sat in folding chairs breastfeeding their toddlers and remembering the years they lived together in Virginia .
"All the Worker houses we lived in were families with kids. It seemed like such a better way to live, to raise a family," Stumph said, as her daughter dozed off to sleep. "I'm very happy that the children are raised in this culture of resistance, but at the same time that it's a resistance born of love."
That sense of joyful resistance to militarism and greed is one of the qualities that attracted Paul Nauert to the Catholic Worker. A member of Students for a Democratic Society and a recent Harvard graduate, Nauert is living at the St. Louis Catholic Worker house. "The community and solidarity is what attracted me, the balanced combination of things," he said Friday afternoon in a small circle of Catholic Workers under the age of 30. "It's about trying to find a decent way to live." A 21-year-old woman living at the Cleveland house said she chose life at the Worker because of how well it integrates political conviction and religious practice. "What's important to me is the spiritual practice, people being very serious about where they are with God," she said, noting too that younger people are looking for a way to live in community, to live carefully.
The Worcester gathering was notable for an event of the Catholic left:
It was not dominated by gray heads. There were plenty of peace veterans who had been with the Catholic Worker for 20, 30, 40 years.
But there were nearly as many people in their 20s and 30s, and a whole crop of children.
Moira Rider O'Neill, 14, whose family runs a North Carolina house and whose parents, Patrick O'Neill and Mary Rider, have served prison time for antiwar activism, said the best part of the gathering was spending time with other Catholic Worker kids. She was sanguine about being raised outside the American mainstream, with parents who took the Gospel commandment to house the homeless literally. "If you grow up with it, it's normal. I never grew up not having extra people living with us," she said. "It's not like we are living a crazy life. I wouldn't describe us as a typical American family, I guess, but most of the changes we make are so insignificant compared to people living in poverty. I don't feel deprived."
Kate DeMott Grady, 19, part of the extended Catholic Worker family in Ithaca, N.Y., grew up in her parents' voluntary poverty, understood peace vigils and demonstrations at the Pentagon as typical family events, and learned an active, personal Catholicism. She said she credits her parents with finding creative ways to continue the peace and justice work that is important to them while making a loving and safe home for her and her sisters. "My parents did a very good job of educating us and challenging us to do our own research on issues. That they believe in something so strongly that they would go to prison showed me the depths of their beliefs. I don't see how that can't be a good way to raise kids," she said.
Her friend Bernadette Rider O'Neill, 20, Moira's sister, was similarly happy with her upbringing. "It hugely affected my Catholicism. It showed me what faith in action should be," she said. "The main thing I came to realize is that being a Catholic should be constantly uncomfortable. If you are really living your faith, it's almost like, how can you not feel a huge sense of responsibility as a Catholic?"
Eileen Markey is a freelance writer living in Bronx, N.Y.
National Catholic Reporter July 25, 2008
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs