A Movement That Is Pacifist, Political, Radical and Orthodox : Catholic Workers Serve the Hungry, Nearly Naked or Cold, and Homeless
Some of the faces outside are filled with anger and rage, others with despair. They are swollen and reddened by alcohol, pocked with the dirt of poverty, vacant from the mental devastation of drugs.
They wait for a soup line to open. Inside, the men and women preparing the soup are wearing secondhand clothes, as are many outside. The workers also live in this seedy section of Manhattan, near the Bowery, in a Catholic Worker house. They too will have the soup for lunch.
Some who serve have advanced degrees. One is a retired United Parcel Service worker, another a widow nearly 70, a third a disenchanted Marxist.
They say they have found the face of Christ in every face they serve. And they have chosen voluntary poverty as their calling, as their way of responding most directly to the Gospel’s mandate that “whatever you do to the least of My brethren, you do for Me.”
They feed the hungry, clothe the nearly naked or cold and shelter as many homeless as they can.
They are the Catholic Workers, an international spiritual movement that is pacifist, political, both radical and orthodox, and over the years has been called communist, socialist and other things.
“It’s hard to understand what the Worker is. Almost anything you say about it is true on some level,” said Peggy Scherer, who has lived amid the poor for 19 years, as a Catholic Worker for 12 of those years.
No Church Connection
The movement isn’t officially connected with the Roman Catholic Church and takes no money from it, just as it takes no money from government. The Catholic Worker won’t even apply for tax-exempt status since it wants to be beholden to none and believes donations should represent a sacrifice, not a tax write-off.
The organization was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day, a woman who in the view of many has influenced American Catholicism by her prophetic social consciousness. She died in 1980.
Ernesto de la Viega, 29, is running the soup kitchen this day. Born in Cuba and reared in Puerto Rico in comfortable surroundings, De la Viega calls himself a Latin American Yuppie who was a Trappist brother for four years. He returned to Puerto Rico to teach school, but felt a spiritual void.
“I did not feel I was living out my Christian commitment. I started a personal search for alternative structures. I was looking for a greater sense of commitment and challenge in living out my Christian principles, something that would challenge them radically,” he said.
He believes he has found it.
‘No Hiding Here’
“There is no hiding here. You are dressed in secondhand clothes, as they are. You are one with their brokenness. We are here because of a call from Christ to stand with those who are in need and who are oppressed. We are here to be like him, to make ourselves one with Christ.”
The hungry who come for help get soup, bread and margarine and tea. It used to be coffee until its price went too high. Those who want a second helping raise their bowl and a Worker fills it.
De la Viega lives in St. Joseph House, a five-story tenement on the Lower East Side where 20 “guests” also live, along with seven other Workers. Another 35 live in nearby Mary House.
There is little turnover among those who were homeless until they found this sanctuary. When people needing lodging come to the door, they are helped by the Workers and sometimes end up temporarily on a mattress in a library.
An Extended Family
The Workers say they are not unlike an extended but impoverished family. Some members live elsewhere and come for the evening meal, at which about 100 are served every night.
“I guess in a sense I am homeless now, too. I could go back and live with my parents, but I don’t want to do that. I’m here in New York and I don’t have a job,” De la Viega said.
His life, however, is far from grim. He sometimes goes to a nearby disco, and enjoys the Friday night meetings when freewheeling discussions are held to clarify thought and opinion. Sometimes there is a speaker, and recently there were old home movies of early days in the Catholic Worker movement.
Few stay for a lifetime.
“The Catholic Worker movement is a graduate school to get new values for life,” said 69-year-old Jeannette Noel, who came to a house in Hubbardston, Mass., in the early ‘70s at the age of 56. A former suburban housewife in nearby Athol, Mass., she donated her possessions to the house and moved in. Her husband had died.
‘Everything in Reverse’
“I do everything in reverse,” she said. “And everybody always asks me if I was a former nun. I’m not.
“I knew nothing of street people and didn’t know one drug from another,” she said. Her vocabulary was also enriched, mostly by Anglo-Saxon derivatives.
She recalled walking down the street on a very cold winter day when an ominous-looking derelict approached and reached toward her.
“Momma, your coat’s not zippered,” he said. “It’s too cold today to go out like that.” With that, he zipped her up as though she were a little girl.
‘We Are Safe Here’
“Fifteen years ago that would have scared me to death,” she said. “Now I know he just wanted to help. The street people know who we are. We are safe here.”
One woman, a former Worker who is a novelist, said many who leave believe they can best serve God in another way.
“Nobody leaves the Worker movement to go out and get an MBA,” she said. “They believe God is calling them to do a different thing at that time. They become nurses, teachers, social workers, maybe go into the religious life.
“Although my mind and body are elsewhere,” she said, “my mythical consciousness will always be with the Worker. When I heard the rain on my windows this morning, I thought of the soup line. And not in a way to romanticize poverty. It will be awful today. The guys smell when they’re wet. They will track in more dirt on the floors, everyone will be more on edge. The soup line on a day like this is a hard place to be.”
A Hard Place to Be
It is a hard place to be. There have been fights, one with knives in which one man’s face was cut so badly an ambulance had to be summoned. There are a few people who are welcomed back with great reluctance because they are trouble for everyone. And the Workers sometimes receive verbal abuse for their trouble.
The door of St. Joseph House is always attended, and there is a sandwich for anyone who comes by. Sometimes it is just bread and margarine, other times cheese. Once it was caviar and lox, a donation from a fancy party where the hostess overbought.
Harvey Huffman, 62, the son of a labor organizer and something of a professional Bohemian, said he came to the Worker when he became disenchanted with Marxists.
“The only thing we worshiped was the intellect. Religion was anathema,” he said. “A lot of us were dedicated Marxists and a lot of us felt betrayed by our own country and by those who professed to be Marxists. I came to the Worker as a last hope, and a forlorn one at that. But I’ve been surprised.
‘Mean What They Say’
“I found that with the exception of a few dilettantes, the Workers pretty much mean what they say. That takes commitment and they’ve got it.
“I’ve been here since 1980, but I’m just now getting to the point of saying ‘us’ instead of ‘those Catholic Workers,’ ” said Huffman, whose long gray pageboy was tucked beneath his beret as he washed the soup-line dishes.
Huffman believes a Worker house is “really primitive Christianity. The priests who say Mass here are usually Jesuits, occasionally a Maryknoll, and he’s usually wearing blue jeans and has just finished washing the dishes.”
Masses are said twice a week and a liturgy every night. There have been avowed atheists in the movement, but the overwhelming majority are practicing Roman Catholics.
Works in Two Kitchens
Bill Antalics, 36, works in a second soup kitchen as well and also helps with homesteading projects in run-down East Village neighborhoods.
“I feel that this is really missionary work,” he said. “The population is so desperate. They are light-years away from getting even a rudimentary structure to their lives.”
Life in the Workers community teaches much, he said, even as the community “changes all the time. You just make it work. It makes me go beyond myself.”
Antalics, who has a master’s degree in counseling, said he came for a week and has stayed four years. He had considered the priesthood, the Peace Corps and VISTA before deciding that the Catholic Worker movement was for him.
‘A Great Antidote’
“This life is a great antidote for complacency,” he said. “I know that by being here I won’t sit back in middle age and ask where my heart and soul have been for the past 20 years.”
Peggy Scherer won’t sit back either. She has worked in Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua, as well as the poor sections of her native Cincinnati, fighting for her vision of social justice.
“Living with the poor has given me a much richer and deeper spiritual life,” she said. “The theory and speaking out are almost useless if it’s an abstraction.”
She is one of the editors of the Catholic Worker, a newspaper published eight times a year for more than 100,000 subscribers. She has been here 12 years and doesn’t expect to move soon.
‘Calling From God’
“I see this as a direct calling from God,” she said, a “vocation,” as the nuns who taught her at St. Ursula in Cincinnati would have called it. “I continue to ask God what his will is for me and I keep re-choosing to be here.”
Scherer recently spent time in a Baltimore suburb with her sister, whose husband was dying. Her sister has all of the trappings of middle-class success, two kids, two cars, a nice house, and a dog.
“It just reaffirmed for me that I have no desire for anything that that life offers,” she said. “I cannot be defined by the type of car I drive, nor the brand of toothpaste I use. I have no hostility toward the middle class, but I feel a frustration and a sadness there.”
Scherer said she has visited about 25 of the roughly 70 Catholic Worker houses throughout the country. Philosophically, they are in accord, but their functions vary. Some houses provide shelter to the homeless, others to battered wives and children, another provides lodging for the poor who come to visit loved ones in a nearby prison.
Frank Donovan, who handles the books but will also wash the dishes when that needs doing, is a retired United Parcel Service worker who sleeps elsewhere but “lives” here.
“This crazy little corner of catholicity that was suspect always appealed to me,” he said. Some friends, he said, think what he is doing is noble. He corrects them.
“It’s not noble. It’s just right for me.”
‘There is no hiding here. You are dressed in secondhand clothes, as they are. You are one with their brokenness.’