A House With a Door Always Open

This breakfast has been served without fail for the past 14 years, every Monday through Friday from eight to nine a.m. The homeless and those who are down on their luck begin assembling at seven, rubbing their hands in the pre-dawn chill, chatting with each other as their mouths expel fog. Though many of them have already eaten the cold breakfast provided at a local shelter, they come here for something heartier. They loiter on Luz’s front porch, anticipating the coming meal of warm pancakes, lightly charred home fries, and fresh coffee, which is served in any of a colorful maelstrom of mugs.

Vincent ambles in at 9:15, just as the last mint-green plastic plates, still sticky with syrup, are cleared away. He is apologetic. “I’m sorry, Miz Lucy,” he says, scratching his short, matted black hair, lowering his head. “I overslept.” “You know when breakfast is,” Luz says firmly, looking straight at him so that he will raise his sheepishly bowed head. All the same, she is rummaging in the overflowing cabinets and handing him a mug, a plate, a fork.

January 2009
January 2009

Vincent has been living with the Colvilles, Mark and Luz, for about a month now, at their Amistad Catholic Worker home in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood, a neighborhood historically associated with crime, poverty, and drugs. Vincent had been wandering along the cracked-cement streets for three weeks before the Colvilles gave him a place to stay. “We thought we weren’t going to take anyone else in,” says Luz. “There just wasn’t room.” But they hung a curtain in the third-floor hallway, making a little makeshift room for him there. Vincent now sleeps in a right triangle sort of space, beneath the hypotenuse formed by the inward-slanting roof. Though he sleeps with three comforters, his feet are always cold — Vincent has diabetes and high blood pressure. He used to be a chef with formal training from Johnson and Wales but couldn’t stand on his feet long enough to work a job. “It’s because he doesn’t take care of himself,” says Luz. “He still eats the same greasy things, he doesn’t like to walk anywhere, he misses his doctor appointments. Now Rennie over here” — she points to a small, hunched old man in a black Veterans’ Administration cap, sorting through the stuff that he’s finally moving out of the Colvilles after living with them on and off for years — “has prostate cancer, had it for 10 years. Refused treatment. All the ones that got treatment, they’ve passed away. But he takes care of himself, you know. Changed his diet and everything. And he’s a walker!” Rennie is a healthy 85-year-old and Luz, a former nurse, is proud.

The Colvilles avow they are not a shelter or a church. What they have is a home. They welcome people unconditionally, without insisting that they change their lives. Beginning in 1994, ever since they started a branch of the Catholic Worker House in New Haven, Mark and Luz have been living here in voluntary poverty, taking care of the community while raising six children: four of their own — Keeley, Soledad, Justin, Isaiah — as well as a niece and nephew.

The Catholic Worker movement itself began in 1933, during the Great Depression, with a series of inspirational newsletters by the famous Catholic activist and anarchist Dorothy Day. Its adherents continue to feel they have the personal responsibility to change societal conditions, believing this responsibility to be the true mission and teaching of Christ. Catholic Workers support nonviolence, mercy, manual labor, and chosen poverty not as mere moral principles, but as lived-out realities. “My wife and I, we were startin’ to have kids, but we saw that all this materialism wasn’t an environment to raise them in,” Mark tells me. “We wanted the poor to be our neighbors. People drive by here and say, ‘how can people live like this?’ but they’re not seeing the community. As people of faith, we shouldn’t depend on the government or even the Church to do good. The faith says there should be houses of hospitality in every neighborhood.”

So they started one. A house where hot meals are served family-style 11 times a week for anywhere from ten to 50 people, who pack the seats at the table and spill over onto unsteady benches, milling on the tiled floors where the Colvilles’ children play with their peaceable Rottweiler, Nina. A house where up to seven people with nowhere to go might stay for months, sometimes years, in one of the spare rooms — or, like Vincent, an unused hallway. A house where, if you’re willing to change, Mark and Luz will help you. A house with a door always open.

***

The first time I arrive at their door, unannounced on a blustery Friday afternoon, I am hesitant. I had been afraid for days to call them, because I didn’t want to be just another reporter — and they’ve had many come to their doors — who floats into their lives briefly, washes a few dishes, maybe, talks to a few people, and gets to take the M bus home at the end of the day. Nevertheless, I open the wire-fence gate that separates their chaotic front yard — strewn with things like baby carriages and plastic toy cars — from the sidewalk. I walk up the stairs to their porch and knock feebly on the glass door. No one answers. “Whatcha doin’, girl?” drawls a man with a missing front tooth and a purple beret from the dilapidated porch next door. “Jes’ go right in.” He points his chin to the doorknob. “Jes’ go.”

I push the door and walk into a dim hallway, and Mark is there to the left, in the small, cluttered living room by the stairs, fiddling with his glasses and contemplating his Macbook. He is somewhat tall, with the gaunt look of a hockey player gone to seed, white, bearded, with hair too smoothly streaked with grey and white to be considered peppered, and a straggling ponytail in back. He stands up when I come in. “Hi there, I’m Mark,” he says, extending a hand. “You want anything to eat?” I don’t, but as someone interested in social justice, I hunger to know why he runs this house, why he chooses to live this way, why he campaigns for peace despite all the political troubles I’ve heard he’s brought upon himself, and how he has kept himself inspired.

“Sit down,” he says. And he begins to talk. I imagine he must have told his kids at some point what he told me, using analogies like these: how sometimes the world is like cable TV, you turn on the channel and you’re glued to the screen; it sucks you in. “It’s like that ring,” he says, “in … oh I can’t remember” — “you mean Lord of the Rings?” — “yes! That ring that belonged to that evil man and when you look at it, you want it. It’s like that.” Mark didn’t want to be vortexed into contentment; he wanted to protest, to campaign locally, nationally, even internationally. “Sometimes you campaign,” he says, blue eyes staring into mine, “not to change the world or people, necessarily, but to keep the world from changing you.” His activism also gets him arrested and imprisoned, sometimes for as little as 30 days, once for almost a year. It takes him away from the local work he’s doing, away from his family.

Most recently, he stood trial for protesting against Blackwater Worldwide, a North Carolina-based company that hires mercenaries from poor countries at high salaries and contracts them to the government. These soldiers are not expected to comply with military law, so in September 2007, when a group of them opened fire on 17 Iraqi civilians stuck in a traffic jam — “out of sheer boredom,” Mark says — no court prosecuted them. Mark and six other activists entered the Blackwater compound a month after the event, riding in a car with fake bullet holes in it, dripping blood — “fake blood, you know, paint” — and left red-painted handprints on the company headquarters sign. They were arrested for trespassing and damage to property, but together, the “die-in” they were holding — a simulation of the Iraqi civilians killed — got attention for the Catholic Worker House and its cause. “People usually write about us when one of us gets arrested,” he said, chuckling.

Mark is not the first flippantly courageous activist I’ve met. Once, two years ago, I was on a hilltop in an almost-border town between New Hampshire and Vermont, at an old New England boarding school for four-day-long retreat — a “shindig,” they called it — for young people training to be activists. I was hesitant then, at the workshop for resistance, where college students not so much older than me told me how to act in cases of civil disobedience. The police have to warn you three times before they go in, they said; try to stall them as long as they can. And if they arrest you, well — they shrugged — it’s actually a good thing if you’re under 18. They suggested die-ins at places like Ford dealers, just going in with gas masks and fainting right on their property, drawing chalk outlines of the dead on the pavement outside, to show how much Big Oil is killing. They had us practice going limp on partners so police would find it harder to drag us away. Just under a hundred people were in that woodpaneled classic boarding school classroom that day, linking arms, going limp, pretending to faint. I’ve still never had to use any of those techniques; I don’t know if I would ever risk arrest. Why go to prison if you are useless in it, if you can create more change outside of it?

There are others closer to Mark who also ask him these questions. He once responded to them in the local Christmas 1999 Catholic Worker House newsletter, which he wrote from jail; this was during the holiday season, the busiest time for Catholic Worker House. He had been arrested for refusing to leave Senator Joe Lieberman’s office, where Mark and four others had been ringing a bell every 12 minutes to mark another Iraqi child’s U.S.-linked death. In the newsletter, Mark said that he was not indispensable. “One’s personal life circumstances,” he wrote, referencing his status as a father and husband, “do not provide some kind of exemption from the Christian obligation to non-cooperate with a death-dealing government.” Furthermore, he said, isn’t prison the place where many poor and hurting and others deserving of mercy are? “Out there we’re the do-gooders, the helpers, the heroes, with our good name and reputation intact. In here, we’re more like Jesus, and just like everybody else: guilty.”

But Luz still doesn’t approve of Mark putting himself in danger. “I’m the hands, the practical side of the family,” she says. “I’m like, well, I’ve got to do this and this and this. And I do it. Mark sort of floats around, writes. He has all these big ideas, but when he goes get arrested, I say, ‘now who’s going to do the driving? Who’s going to pick up all the food? I can’t do that by myself!’”

Both Mark and Luz are currently unemployed; they depend on donations to keep their home running, and nothing is dependable. A local church on which the Colvilles had given up hope recently wrote them a check for $5000. It was unexpected, but, Luz says, “I’m sad to say that’s already been spent. We’re behind on bills.” Even if he wanted to, right now Mark’s criminal record means he can’t work a normal job, unless a new ordinance by City Hall called “Ban the Box” succeeds and he doesn’t have to mention his past felonies and misdemeanors on his job application (though prospective employers could still inquire during an interview). Luz seems excited about this; Mark, perched on a bench in the kitchen, looks blank and nods, “yeah, yeah.” Luz doesn’t regret giving up her job as a nurse in order to devote all her time to being a Catholic Worker, but lately she’s been getting restless, a bit short-tempered. “Our motto is, when you can’t see Christ anymore in every person that walks through that door” — she points outside — “it’s time to get a job.”

But she can’t get just any job. With the ministry, she should be getting a job that helps people in some way, but it’s difficult with her hours. “It’s hard to do that and have enough energy left to do this,” she says, gesturing towards the dishwasher as she adds some Oxyclean. I nod, feeling idle by her side. I follow her as she goes into the kitchen to marinate chicken for dinner. Vincent comes down and tries to sit by her and talk, and Luz bristles. “When I’m cooking, that’s my space,” she says, and Vincent, in an effort to be tactful, leaves.

“Last time, I blew up at him,” she tells me later. “I was servin’ dinner, and he just kept tryin’ to talk to me and talk to me. I said, ‘Vincent, give me my space!’ It’s OK if he talks about his life and his problems — but he never does anything about them! Anyway, he tried to talk to me again just now, but he was in my space again. I tell him, ‘why can’t he just find me when I’m not in my space?’” Luz continues, “We’re a family, you know. You gotta respect your brothers and sisters. I tell him, ‘you don’t barge into your sister’s room and just start complainin’. Or, well, if you do, you know you’re gonna get back-slapped.’”

It’s Vincent’s inaction that bothers Luz the most: the complaining about his health problems when he’s not exercising or on a proper diet. She doesn’t always want to have to tell him what to do. “Anyway. I’m gonna go up to talk to Vincent about it. Just get it straight.” She sighs and looks up at the stairs.

***

Barely two weeks later, Luz is laughing with Vincent again. “He’s really tryin’ to change,” she says, beaming. “The other day, he was so happy. He found this drink in the store, for diabetics, you know. But I tell him, ‘you can’t have that — it’s 200 calories — and your dinner!’ and he was so disappointed. Weren’t you, Vincent?” He nods, and says, “Miz Lucy, I’m tryin’ to be good.”

“Yea, boy, you try,” howls Dimitrius, another large black man roughly the same age as Vincent. Today is Turkey Day, Luz’s self-proclaimed (and stressful) community holiday, the first day when people of the community can start signing up for free turkeys — donated from local churches — that the Colvilles deliver to their doors. The sign-up list attracts people the Colvilles have never heard of before, who have never once been to a Catholic Worker meal but want a free bird. The crowd begins forming even earlier than the daily breakfast line.

That day is also Thursday, which means a free clinic — a no-strings-attached check-up for Vincent, Dimitrius, and others who show up at the Catholic Worker House — and the weekly Give and Take in the Colvilles’ front yard. Donations ranging from old clothing to chocolate cream cakes stream through the Colvilles’ hands into those of the community. Luz has first priority, taking the stuff she needs for the house first: loaves of bread, a bag of croissants, a couple of pies, fresh zucchini squash. I help filter the rest into plastic bags for people to take home, trying to distribute evenly the bruised vegetables with white insides spilling out, the slightly squished bread. The receivers are grateful but picky: they want this bag, no, that bag. Mark accommodates.

After everyone has had his due share, Mark asks someone to say a prayer. A woman, holding her plastic bag of food tightly in the just-strengthening drizzle, begins a quick prayer in Spanish. I can’t understand a word of it except maybe “Dios,” but I can understand the facial expressions around her: the people huddled together, eyes closed, clutching their vegetables and bread. Dimitrius has his twin arms spread to the raining skies as if welcoming the raindrops, as if he were a giant tree standing against the wind. When the prayer ends with the sign of the cross, Dimitirus chants over the rustle of people waking from a moment of hope, “Bless this food. Bless this neighborhood. Just bless everythin’.”

Inside, I attempt to figure out the hot and cold settings on the Colvilles’ faucet to rinse the dishes. “The water comes on slow,” says Luz, and then, laughing, “what else you do expect from a Catholic Worker faucet?” Dimitrius laughs, too, and tells me his story, how he changed. “You know, I met Mark when he first started this thing. He was standin’ out there with his coffee and his apples. I’m like, what’s a white guy doin’ down here? I was with my crew then, you know. We were young, into makin’ quick money. So I go up to him and then — I’ll never forget — little Keeley who’s standin’ by her dad’s side grabs onto my leg and hugs me. But I didn’t know the cops were watchin’ then. And then I go down the street and they accuse me of sellin’ drugs to a white guy! I say, ‘I weren’t sellin’ no drugs.’ I didn’t even have drugs on me. An’ Mark comes over and tries to help me. But they still arrest me. They give me ninety days.”

By the time Dimitrius came out, he had no place to stay. The next day, he went to the Columbus House homeless shelter, where he met Mark, working behind the counter at the time. Mark told Dimitrius to come to the Catholic Worker House; Dimitrius answered “yeah, yeah” but started hustling again, got caught and again went to jail — “for a few minutes,” he says, inmate lingo for anywhere from a couple of weeks to months. This time, after coming out, he took Mark’s offer to stay at their house. “I’ve stayed for nine, 10 years … I’ve stayed in every room in this house except the second floor. And I tell my crew, you know, we aren’t gonna do this anymore. We’re not sellin’ drugs in this neighborhood. And they don’t … ’cause I was a real bad boy back then.” “Yeahhh, boy, you was a tough guy back ‘den,” croons one man nearby, who overhears and remembers. Dimitrius chuckles in thinking about his old street self. He still walks with a limp.

***

Hope is a common topic of conversation in the kitchen, especially in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory. “You think Obama is a good president?” asks Vincent, in that painfully slow and deliberate way of his when saying anything serious. “You have hope?” I nod, tentatively. “Well, I’m gon’ wait and see,” he says. “The government, they say, ‘bah, bah, bah’” — he opens and closes his fingers onto his palm like a snapping crocodile — “but when have they done anything for us? I’m gon’ wait.”

For people like Vincent, it’s not enough just to hear the words. Obama’s “Yes we can” is hope, yes, but Vincent and others who visit the Catholic Worker House — and the Catholic Workers themselves — recognize that this doesn’t always become “Yes we will” or “Yes we did.” Elie Wiesel once famously wrote, “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.” But what happens when words cannot feed, cannot by themselves allow others to believe? It’s the actions at the Catholic Worker House that matter to the people who go there for relief: the serving of meals, the doling of vegetables, the tireless work of Mark and Luz in the upkeep of the house. As much as Luz wants Mark’s presence at home, she never stops him from protesting: that is his further way of doing something, an extension of the active charity he gives at the Catholic Worker House.

Before dinner that night, Justin, the Colvilles’ third oldest, wants to go upstairs to eat. “No,” says Luz. “You eat downstairs, with everyone else.” With all the people who come through their doors. “I don’t trust other people running this place,” says Luz, before dinner that night. “The volunteers, they’re great, but they just serve meals and close down the house. All they do is the service part. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. It’s a community. You eat together. You’re open. When you’re here” — and she is perhaps unaware she is quoting the Olive Garden — “you’re family.”

The family is small tonight, with only 5 or 6 people trickling in, maybe because it’s still raining, maybe because it gets darker earlier now. This is my first dinner with the group, mostly because I’ve been afraid of taking the bus to this area of New Haven at night.

Justin mentions how he doesn’t like learning Spanish, and one lady at the table becomes animated. “Learn Spanish!” she exclaims adamantly. “I wish I learned, kept in school. You keep learnin’. It’ll be ben-e-ficial for your future. Your future is your money. Mm-hmm. Believe dat. I say this ’cause when you wish you had sumthin’, you want others to have what you din’t have.”

She leans in. “What you want to be, Justin?”

“An actor,” he replies.

“A doctor?”

“An actor.”

“Oh, an actor! Well, an actor. That take a lotta work. You think it’s easy? Got all them actors ’round here … you need hard work and you need” — she points to her temple — “up here.”

“I know,” says Justin. Perhaps he is used to this advice, but he doesn’t say much else, and I’m the one feeling inspired instead.

Vincent is going to the store as I am about to leave. “You want me to walk you to the bus stop?” he says. “I’m okay,” I say, “thanks,” but I’m grateful because I know he means it, and because it means he’s walking places, changing his lifestyle with the little actions that end up meaning more. Because the Colville home is a place where actions are more than just physical movements; where people really do feed on hope, gentle chidings, and pancakes; where, despite everything, Mark kisses Luz’s forehead before he leaves the house; where a place of service really is a home, replete with its arguments, its contradictions, its nonverbal realities.

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