Catholic Worker altruism isn’t deductible
Ted Von der Ahe walks past clusters of shopping carts to reach the well-scrubbed building where he works with food, the commodity that made the Vons grocery heir rich.
But these shopping carts are heaped with the ragged belongings of the homeless, and the food is free. Von der Ahe dishes it up as a part-time volunteer for the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen on skid row.
“There is a beautiful focus here on helping the poor,” said Von der Ahe, 57, who was cleaning the kitchen’s ancient stove after a lunch for hundreds of street people.
The former priest’s labors carry on a family tradition of charity, although with an organization that does not qualify for donations from the Von der Ahe Foundation.
That’s because the Catholic Worker is the rare charity that refuses, on philosophical grounds, to register with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt nonprofit. The stance dates back seven decades to founder Dorothy Day’s admonition to keep the federal government at arm’s length.
By toiling outside the system, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker denies itself access to institutional funding -- foundation stipends, government grants, United Way dollars -- that can be the life’s blood for many charities. Contributions to the Catholic Worker are not tax-deductible, even though it feeds and shelters the neediest of the needy and provides them with medical and dental care.
To get by, the tiny communal group -- it has just nine full-time members -- depends on the likes of Von der Ahe and a makeshift network of no-strings-attached altruism. Week to week, the Catholic Worker appears to start from scratch, with gifts of greens from a downtown vegetable wholesaler, loaves of day-old bread from neighborhood stores, and cash from a small but loyal base of benefactors.
Actor Martin Sheen, one of its most generous supporters, recently sent $10,000. “They’re my heroes,” he said.
Catherine Morris, who has run the 6th Street kitchen with her husband since the early 1970s, said typical donations are $25 or $50, and most come from a mailing list of about 7,500 people who receive the bimonthly Catholic Worker newspaper.
“We have this idea in the back of our head that money corrupts,” said Morris, 72, a former nun who has a wide and tireless smile. She said the group collects about $200,000 a year. “It seems the first thing that money goes to is salaries, and we have no salaries.”
Later, after the lunch bustle, Morris was sweeping the kitchen’s garden patio, where a middle-aged man paced between the palms and tipu trees, engaged in a loud conversation with himself. On the street beyond, spectral figures nudged their piled-high shopping carts along the curb or dozed on the urine-stained sidewalk.
“The money we don’t get because of the tax thing is irrelevant,” Morris said.
Her husband, Jeff Dietrich, agreed. “We don’t want the federal government’s permission to do this,” said Dietrich, a 61-year-old with a robust mustache.
“Jesus really didn’t have anything to do with the state, and he wanted people to take care of each other.”
The roughly 135 Catholic Worker communities in the United States are independent of one another and have no central organization or official relationship with the church hierarchy. Almost anyone can launch a Catholic Worker group, and not all of the communities last, members say.
For practical reasons, some communities have signed up with the government as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, meaning that they file tax returns, have boards of directors and must comply with all the other rules the government imposes on public charities.
The Night on the Streets Catholic Worker in Berkeley filled out its IRS paperwork to satisfy an Alameda County food bank.
“It’s the only way they’ll let us get access to their food,” said Catholic Worker coordinator J.C. Orton.
In Santa Ana, the Catholic Worker has tried to compromise on the IRS quandary: It has created an affiliated charity that files a tax return to mollify a food bank.
“The business of food at my level is apolitical,” said Dwight Smith, who heads the Santa Ana group with his wife, Leia.
The Los Angeles Catholic Worker tenders no IRS forms of any kind. It does pay property taxes, because founder Day felt local governments delivered crucial services, Dietrich said.
Charity watchdogs say it’s always best for philanthropic organizations to go though the IRS process. They say the tax exemption inevitably brings in more donations, and the regimen of documentation helps ensure that the funds are not misspent.
“Organizations need to have some oversight and checks and balances,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. “People can turn bad.”
But longtime donors such as Pat Heffron, a physician who was washing food carts at the Los Angeles kitchen the other day, say they have no qualms about giving to the Catholic Worker.
“I don’t donate just to deduct it off my taxes,” said Heffron, 61. “It’s what the gospels are calling on us to do.”
Day and Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother, founded the Catholic Worker in 1933 as an agitating New York newspaper of the same name. It soon evolved into a movement to aid the destitute, with Catholic Worker “hospitality houses” springing up across the nation and overseas.
A writer, social activist and pacifist, Day embraced the radical politics of the Depression era -- her brand has been described as “Christian anarchism” -- along with more orthodox teachings of Roman Catholic morality, including an opposition to abortion.
Day, who died in 1980 and has been proposed for sainthood, maintained that charity should be a personal endeavor and that living among the poor is a virtue.
The Catholic Worker here is a frequent critic of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. It railed against the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, labeling it a $200-million extravagance -- money that the Catholic Worker says should have gone to the poor.
Dietrich and Morris have been arrested dozens of times during demonstrations for causes that included nuclear disarmament, farmworker rights and portable toilets for skid row. They say the protests are more motivation to have nothing to do with the government.
In addition to the “Hippie Kitchen,” as its cookery is known, the Catholic Worker operates a medical and dental clinic and puts up a dozen homeless people and the nine community members at its Boyle Heights headquarters, an old 15-bedroom Victorian home.
Tony Trafecanty, who quit his job as an airline pilot to open a skid row bakery that employed the homeless, donated the residence and three other buildings about 25 years ago. He and his wife, Joan, still live in the house next door, where they raised six children.
The couple received no tax benefit from the gift of the property, which they bought for $100,000.
Sheen said the lack of a write-off makes contributions to the Catholic Worker “the purest form of charity.” He first became aware of the group when he visited its New York soup kitchen as a struggling young actor. “I was there to eat,” he said.
The Los Angeles Catholic Worker serves 3,000 meals a week, most during three lunches that begin at 9:30 in the morning, members say. Volunteers get busy shortly after dawn in the cinderblock kitchen, preparing huge quantities of rice and beans, often with meat, along with salad and buttered bread. Much of the food is donated. Otherwise, the members buy $500 to $600 worth of groceries a week, Morris said. If there is extra money, she said, they purchase something special to enliven the fare, such as grated cheese or sour cream.
“I love these people,” said Gregory Gibson, 47, a tall man in dreadlocks who regularly eats at the kitchen. He said he has been living on skid row for 13 years, landing there after a run of “personal problems.”
“They do it out of the kindness of their heart,” Gibson said of the Catholic Worker. “Isn’t that amazing?”
He was waiting for a friend at the dental clinic, which sees patients on Fridays. Rolling Hills Estates dentist Rich Meehan has been volunteering there for 16 years.
“I don’t have any financial worries, so why not do something?” said Meehan, 72, whose workspace in the clinic is set off by a rickety 5-foot partition. The dental chair is a relic.
“This is pretty basic,” Meehan said with a laugh. “We don’t do crowns.”
Like the homeless, the Catholic Worker members depend on the county for healthcare that the clinics cannot handle, Morris said. They also eat the food served at the kitchen and wear donated clothes.
Their largest source of revenue is the $20,000 to $22,000 from an annual anti-hunger walk by students at three Catholic high schools, Morris said. Before Sheen’s $10,000, the last windfall was a $50,000 bequest from Los Angeles philanthropist Joan Palevsky, who died a year ago.
The members had barely heard of Palevsky. “We got a letter, it said ‘sign here,’ and a check came,” Morris recalled.
She said the only money-related run-ins with authorities involved bank account interest and unpaid telephone tax. The group does not believe in usury, so it gave away the interest earnings without paying taxes on them. It ignored the phone levy because the proceeds helped fund the military, Morris said.
The results were a letter and a visit from the IRS, but the Catholic Worker held firm and the government dropped the matters, she added.
Just in case there is another knock on the door, the Catholic Worker has kept a record of every donation since the 1970s, in three-ring binders. Its checkbook is stored in a box.
“We call that box ‘the office,’ ” Morris said.