Most people have never even heard of its founders. When it is mentioned conservatives and liberals, activists and CEOs alike return only blank stares. It even enjoys relative obscurity among rank-and-file Catholics. Since its inception in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, however, the Catholic Worker Movement has been opening houses of hospitality across the United States—and in many other parts of the world.
These houses exist to carry out the Works of Mercy enjoined by Jesus onto his disciples: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead. In addition Worker houses offer “prophetic witness in opposition to war-making and injustice,” good-old-fashioned nonviolent direct action. In the summer of 2005 I lived and worked in one of these amazing places—Haley House, in Boston, Massachusetts.
I understand that many people—maybe even most people—might view what I am doing as strange. They might see it as flaky, hippie, or eccentric. At the very least they might view it as appropriate for a twenty-something to do over the summer or before entering college, but not as something serious, something related to the real world of career, work, and productivity—whatever those might be. It is the question that I would like to address: are Catholic Workers serious?
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We all have a tendency to label anything outside of our everyday experience—especially anything that challenges it—with conveniently dismissive terms: communist, hippie, weird, radical, extreme, idealistic, naïve, or, perhaps most insidious, a patronizing nice. It is as if we mean to say, “Well, that’s nice, but when are we going to get real? When are we going to be serious?” The chosen object of our dismissal need not have any true relation to the adjectives we’ve heaped upon it. It is often sufficient that it bears some vague resemblance, challenges or preconceptions, or is simply different.
A friends who visited Haley House recently—and briefly—called it a “hippie den.” I was taken aback by her characterization, but I would wager that many people have similar impressions. From the perspective of our society places like Haley House are unserious, flaky, marginal, and largely irrelevant. They are eccentric in the sense of being “off center,” the original Latin meaning of the word. The people who live in such places eat food from food banks, visit prisoners, hang out with homeless people, live together in intentional communities, engage in spiritual practices, they neither produce nor consume, and they compromise their own comfort for that of others. But it is for precisely these reasons that they are so incredibly relevant, vital, and important. As Jiddu Krishnamurti writes, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.” In the situation of such an utterly sick society as our own irrelevance becomes utterly relevant.
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Our modern urban environments hold so many people who live with irrelevance involuntarily. They are poor people, immigrants, minorities, homeless people, menial laborers, elderly people, and on and on. Indeed, cities have a way of magnifying this isolation. The rich live in tall buildings, multi-story apartments or suburbs; the homeless live in inner cities, under bridges or on the street. Poor people, immigrants, and minorities are segregated in their own neighborhoods, out of view of those who might be disturbed by their presence. The very physical structures of the city itself give concrete form to our abstract stratifications.
In such a society it is a revolutionary—and necessary—act when people like Catholic Workers voluntarily live among the involuntarily marginal, willingly taking irrelevance upon themselves. “The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker,” from the May 2008 The Catholic Worker, underscore the ultimate import of voluntary irrelevance: “By…casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we…abandon ourselves to the love of God.”
Thomas Merton once asked, “Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No,” he concluded, “We are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to ever human being.” The same is true of Catholic Workers in general and of Haley House in particular. In the eyes of this society we are irrelevant. It is in our irrelevance to this filthy, rotten system that we find the grace, hope and life which are proper to every human being.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared as “Tearing Down the Walls of Jericho,” Whats Up Magazine, August 2005.