Fueling the Fire of Real Change
Turn your back on Wall Street. Walk a few blocks up from the gleaming and soulless towers of disintegrating capitalism to the shabby, brick Catholic Worker house at 55 E. Third St. Sit, as I did recently, in one of the chairs in the basement dining room with its cracked linoleum and steel utility tables.
“Works of mercy and contact with the destitute sustain the spark in the ashes,” William Griffin, who has been with the Catholic Worker for 34 years and writes for the newspaper, told me. “It is with the poor and the indigent that you sense the imbalance and injustice. It is this imbalance that inspires action. Generations come in waves. One generation is inspired by these sparks, as Martin Luther King was during the civil rights movement. These fires often fall away and smolder until another generation.”
The coals of radical social change smolder here among the poor, the homeless and the destitute. As the numbers of disenfranchised dramatically increase, our hope, our only hope, is to connect intimately with the daily injustices visited upon them. Out of this contact we can resurrect, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement. Hand out bowls of soup. Coax the homeless into a shower. Make sure those who are mentally ill, cruelly cast out on city sidewalks, take their medications. Put your muscle behind organizing service workers. Go back into America’s resegregated schools. Protest. Live simply. It is in the tangible, mundane and difficult work of forming groups and communities to care for others and defy authority that we will kindle the outrage and the moral vision to fight back. It is not Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who will save us. It is Dorothy Day.
Day, who died in 1980, founded the Catholic Worker in the midst of the Great Depression with Peter Maurin. The two Catholic anarchists published the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933. They handed out 2,500 copies in Union Square for a penny a copy. The price remains unchanged. Two Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in the Lower East Side soon followed. Day and Maurin preached a radical ethic that included an unwavering pacifism as well as a hatred of unfettered capitalism. They condemned private and state capitalism for its unjust distribution of wealth. They branded the profit motive as immoral. They were fervent supporters of the labor movement, the civil rights movement and all anti-war movements. They called on followers to take up lives of voluntary poverty. The Catholic Worker refused to identify itself as a not-for-profit organization and has never accepted grants. It does not pay taxes. It operates its soup kitchen in New York without a city permit. The food it provides to the homeless is donated by people in the neighborhood. There are some 150 Catholic Worker houses around the country and abroad, although there is no central authority. Some houses are run by Buddhists, others by Presbyterians. Religious and denominational lines mean little.
Day cautioned that none of these radical stances, which she said came out of the Gospels, ensured temporal success. She wrote that sacrifice and suffering were an expected part of the religious life. Success as the world judges it should never be the final criterion for the religious and moral life. Spirituality, she said, was rooted in the constant struggle to fight for justice and be compassionate, especially to those in need. And that commitment was hard enough without worrying about its ultimate effect. One was saved in the end by faith, faith that acts of compassion and justice had intrinsic worth.
Many of the old stalwarts of the movement do not place their hopes in Barack Obama or the Democratic Party. They see their task as sustaining the embers of social and religious radicalism. They hope that this radical ethic can once again ignite a generation shunted aside by a bankrupt capitalism.
“If you lived through the civil rights movement as I did, you would want very much to vote for Obama,” said Tom Cornell, who first came to the Worker in 1953, “but I don’t think I will be able to, given Obama’s foreign policy and his failure to promote a health care system for all Americans. I can’t vote for someone who leaves an attack on Iran on the table.”
Those within the Worker, however, worry that the looming economic dislocation will empower right-wing, nationalist movements and the apocalyptic fringe of the Christian right. This time around, they say, the country does not have the networks of labor unions, independent press, community groups and church and social organizations that supported them when Day and Maurin began the movement. They note that there are fewer and fewer young volunteers at the Worker. The two houses on the Lower East Side depend as much on men and women in their 50s and 60s as they do on recent college graduates.
“Our society is more brutal than it was,” said Martha Hennessy, Day’s granddaughter. “The heartlessness was introduced by Reagan. Clinton put it into place. The ruthlessness is backed up by technology. Americans have retreated into collective narcissism. They are disconnected from themselves and others. If we face economic collapse, there are many factors that could see the wrong response. There are more elements of fascism in place than there were in the 1930s. We not only lack community, we lack information.”
I do not know if our hope lies with the Catholic Worker. Institutions, even good ones, ossify. They can become trapped in the deification of their own past and the rigid canonization of the views of those who began the movements. But as our society begins to feel the disastrous ripple effects from the looting of our financial system, the unraveling of our empire and the accelerated rape of the working and middle class by our corporate state, hope will come only through direct contact with the destitute. The ethic born out of this contact will be grounded in the real and the possible. This ethic will, because it forces us to witness suffering and pain, be uncompromising in its commitment to the sanctity of life.
“There are several families with us, destitute families, destitute to an unbelievable extent, and there, too, is nothing to do but to love,” Day wrote of those she had taken into the Catholic Worker house. “What I mean is that there is no chance of rehabilitation, no chance, so far as we see, of changing them; certainly no chance of adjusting them to this abominable world about them — and who wants them adjusted, anyway?
“What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute — the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words — we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.”