We’ve had busy months this October and November – and they’re not over yet. Besides our usual vigils, meetings, and hospitality, we’ve been celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mary’s House, the Catholic Worker house that is the base for our various activities. Although we bought the house (with donations) in 1992, it took a whole year of work to make it ready for guests. Thus 2013 is our 20th year of hospitality.
This year we also celebrate 80 years of the Catholic Worker itself. We are one very small cell in a large and diverse body, so it was a happy coincidence to be able to celebrate both our own beginnings and the founding of the CW movement.
Our local celebration was a Mass at our parish church, Holy Family, with simple liturgy, good music, and many friends. We continued to celebrate at Mary’s House, where we blessed our newly painted statue of Mary, and shared lots and lots of wonderful food and drink. All in all we thought it was a fine celebration.
Now we are preparing for the ultimate event of our anniversary – our Advent retreat. This year we’ll be thinking about our heritage in the CW movement, what we we’ve learned in 80 (or 20) years, and how to continue walking this Christian path. We’ll be led in our reflections by Martha Hennessey and Robert Ellsberg, two of the best possible guides – and by a wide assortment of friends who’ll join us for the retreat. (You can come too, if you email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a space.)
Between our two celebrations sit the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I’ve been thinking a lot about our history, going through the albums with pictures of guests and friends of the house. Many of them have moved on to the next stage of life – Laura, who died of AIDS in her room here; Edward, who died after being hit by a car while out collecting cans; our three “celestial board members”, Al Girodo, Rick Ambrose, and Dick Sweeney. Our list could keep going.
Another anniversary this fall, the 50th of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, highlights the cost of change. A cold warrior turned peacemaker, Kennedy died because he turned toward peace; Malcolm X, Martin King, and Bobby Kennedy all died as they sought to unite peace with justice and change the course of our nation. We would have a different world today, had those men lived, and had we, as a people, followed their lead in transformation.
Looking back is only helpful if we then look forward. The great leaders of the 60’s are gone, with all their potential – and all their faults. We remain.
In a sense our stubbornness, our remaining, IS what we do. We try to bear witness to the truth that we see: all God’s children have a right to the Tree of Life.
As Catholic Workers we believe that we’re called to live that out daily, one person at a time, so we’ve had the privilege of knowing people like Laura, and Edward, and any number of other folks who’ve stayed with us. We learn from each person.
Laura came to us an angry, angry woman, diagnosed with AIDS and coming off the street; she was from the Birmingham area but had long since broken all ties with her family. She had been a teacher in Los Angeles, but addiction forced her down another path entirely. At her lowest she would do anything to get her fix. Known on the street as “LA”, she had a strong spirit, a huge rage, and a saving sense of humor. Her journey to peace was sheltered by this house, as she confronted her own need to forgive and then to ask forgiveness. While she lived here she fulfilled a life-long dream to join the Catholic Church. She taught us about repentance and transformation, and how it’s never too late to heal and to be healed. She died just months before her 50th birthday, peacefully, in her room.
Edward was a refugee from Poland during WWII; he emigrated to the United States and became a Franciscan brother. After a life spent in the Franciscans, he decided at 76 that he wanted to live on his own, and found his way to Mary’s House. Edward stayed with us for the rest of his life, becoming “grandfather” to house children, earning spending money by collecting cans, becoming something of a neighborhood institution. He died instantly when he lost a race with an automobile on a freeway exit ramp. I especially remember Edward talking about walking through the ruins of Hamburg and how the mud stuck to his boots, and how he realized that the mud was made up partly of the bodies of people who had died there. “They were human too,” he would say, “they were human too.”
I’m blessed to live among a cloud of witnesses to the truth: “They are human too.” All of us human, all in God’s image, and all with a right to the tree of life. Laura and Edward spoke that truth from peripheral places. Our board members, and those who keep us going, speak the same truth from more privileged spaces. We need each other. The more obvious need is ours: we need food and clothing, money to pay bills, bus passes, all the many things to keep families going in crisis. Our supporters give us all that we need, and in them we see God’s hand and providence. But they need us, too – Peter Maurin used to say “The poor are the ambassadors of God.” And, “The poor give the rich the opportunity to do good.” Families in crisis doing their best to love each other and stay together – in them we can see God’s faithful love. God the Mother is determined that all her children have their share of the tree of life. The cloud of witnesses – from our guests to our board members to all the saints who have shown the way – encourage us to keep going.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.