“This must be,” Greg whispers, “what it’s like for some people to go to Rome.”
But we’re not in Rome. We’re on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at a place that is both a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen, a publishing house and a classroom, a catacomb of a church and a pilgrimage site. It is called, simply, Maryhouse.
Maryhouse’s sister house, St. Joseph House, is a few minutes’ walk away. It is the place where, 80 years ago, two radical Catholics, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, began publishing a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, and selling it for a penny a copy. It is the place where, in the midst of the Great Depression, the two founded a “house of hospitality,” living in “voluntary poverty” in solidarity with the poor, working for nonviolent social change, and recruiting others to join them. So began the movement known as the Catholic Worker. The concept appeals to many spiritual seekers, and Greg Williams is one of them. A second-year student at Yale Divinity School, he plans to become an ordained Anglican priest at the end of his three years in seminary. Along with Mark Colville, one of the founders of New Haven’s own Amistad Catholic Worker House, we make the trip on a Friday night in November, the sky darkening as we drive from New Haven to New York. We finally arrive at St. Joseph House, an unassuming, graffitied brick building on a gentrifying street. We are too late for dinner, but this is a place committed to “radical hospitality,” where, if there is food to be had, it will be shared. We eat as men shuffle in and out from off the streets, coming in for a bite to eat as well. Some live in bedrooms upstairs; some will never want to live anywhere except on the streets. These scenes repeat themselves daily, and have for eight decades, in Manhattan and New Haven and beyond, at more than 200 Catholic Worker houses around the world.
New Haven’s Amistad Catholic Worker is a small, shabby, pale green house on Rosette Street. It is in a neighborhood known as “the Hill,” a section of the city left behind by urban renewal. The door is open for Masses and meals, open to the homeless and the wandering, the activist and the believer and the skeptic. An arthritic dog, Nina, greets visitors and regulars alike. A sign hangs outside that says: “ADDICTS AND DEALERS: PLEASE GET HELP: A NEIGHBORHOOD PRAYER.” The fence is painted with portraits of Catholic Worker icons — Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Bins of clothing, free for the taking, clutter the small front yard; a garden sprouts in the back yard, but there are worries about lead in the soil. Inside, coffee stays hot in huge urns, with cream and sugar at hand. The kitchen is cluttered with books and papers and plates, the walls covered with posters (“Free Gaza”, “The only solution is love”, “10 Myths About Immigration”). When I visit in November, with Thanksgiving approaching, Amistad prepares to give away turkeys to those who might not be able to afford one. Bilingual signs hang on the front door: “Inscribir para pavos,” “Sign up for turkeys.”
For many of the Hill’s residents, poverty, hunger, and violence are daily realities. Before my first visit to Amistad, I’d never been to the Hill before. To get there from the places I inhabit as a student at Yale, I walk for half an hour, past hospitals, parks, schools, and parking lots. I walk down streets I’m a bit afraid of. I walk through worlds that will never be mine. The houses are smaller and the cars a bit rustier; the folks outside are a little rougher, sometimes mumbling to themselves, sometimes picking fights.
In this world, Mark and his wife Luz have been living in “voluntary poverty” since 1994. A rotating cast of full-time volunteers lives alongside anyone who needs a bed, when there’s one to spare. They serve breakfast and lunch, five days a week, to anyone who comes to their door. And more have been coming these days, as people feel the effects of recent cuts to food stamps. Thursdays, they hold “Give and Take,” when those in need can benefit from donations — clothing, food, furniture — anything that others have to spare. One Monday a month, the house hosts a formal Catholic liturgy. On those Monday evenings, the house of hospitality fills with nuns and priests, divinity students and families, those who have a home and those who do not.
It can seem like a strange paradox. White people moving into a black and Latino/a neighborhood. Living simply in an age that worships progress. Raising children on a street where a bullet shattered a window and narrowly missed the Colvilles’ infant son — the night they brought him home from the hospital.
Why choose this?
“LOVE ONE ANOTHER, AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.”
Mark writes, underlining the second part twice. He repeats it. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” He is standing at a whiteboard in front of a religion class at Quinnipiac University, one of several guest speakers invited to share their religious philosophies with the class. The verse, he says — known as the “New Commandment,” Jesus’ instructions to his disciples at the Last Supper — “deserves some unpacking.”
“The way He loved them is He picked fights. Publicly, with the power structures in the world. Not for no reason, but because there was oppression, there was poverty, there was war.”
Mark has picked quite a few fights in his day: He’s trespassed onto the grounds of Blackwater, “died-in” on the steps of a federal courthouse in New York, poured his own blood on battleships, protested torture in front of the White House, and tried to deliver medical supplies into Gaza. He’s served prison sentences as long as 13 months. The FCC recently shut down a pirate radio station operating from a closet at Amistad, delivering news in Spanish to New Haven’s Latino/a population. In short, Mark “wrestles with the law.” (Even if he wanted a job, he probably couldn’t get one, not with the decades of arrests for civil disobedience on his record.) This, for him, is what love looks like.
The Catholic Worker movement, he’s careful to point out, isn’t part of the Catholic Church proper. The movement’s philosophy rests on Catholic principles and theology, but it’s decidedly more radical, more interested in justice than doctrine. “The [institutional] church likes to claim us when we are serving meals,” he notes. “Not so much when we are getting arrested, going to jail, stuff like that.” And while the church can seem fiercely protective of its boundaries and categories — sinner and saint, believer and heretic — being a Catholic is “certainly not a requirement” for being part of the Catholic Worker movement. (Peter Maurin explained that the movement was “an organism, not an organization.”)
The students in the room at Quinnipiac are part of a generation that considers Catholicism repressive, sexist, and out of touch with the real world, and obsessed with abortion, contraception, and homosexuality to the exception of all else. Mark says he was “influenced by people who knew better than that,” but acknowledges that he’s likely the exception.
“Any Catholics in the room who want to self-identify?”
I can’t help but raise my hand.
I grew up in a typical white middle-class suburb in upstate New York, 15 minutes west of the city of Syracuse. I knew a lot of Republicans, a lot of Catholics, and a lot of Republican Catholics. My friends and I spent our Sundays at youth Mass and youth group and our Wednesdays at Bible study. We listened to the same Christian music, wore the same crucifix necklaces, and treaded carefully around books like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. True to the stereotypes, we were taught that premarital sex, abortion, and homosexuality were grave sins; it was important to say “oh, my gosh,” rather than “oh, my God”; you had to remember not to eat anything — or even chew gum — an hour before Mass.
But by my junior year of high school, I was skeptical. I’d started reading feminist blogs and spending time at artsy summer camps. I didn’t plan on applying to Notre Dame, and I rarely “remembered” to go to confession. When I suggested in youth group that making abortion illegal wouldn’t actually reduce abortions, but rather make them more dangerous, it wasn’t well received. I left the church when I was 15, finding meaning in feminism and hope in Barack Obama, making occasional appearances at church at Christmas Masses and Easter liturgies. When I registered to vote at 18, I registered as a Democrat. I couldn’t help but remember my mother’s story about my grandfather’s insistence that she register Republican — it was public record, and news would travel in the small town she grew up in.
Around me, Catholic schools closed because of declining enrollments. The Polish churches with the Polish Masses that my grandparents attended closed as parishioners died and congregations dwindled. My grandparents left their houses and moved into nursing homes, and I didn’t know what happened to my grandmothers’ crucifixes and rosaries. I assumed that they were given away or gathering dust in basement boxes, relics of a world that would never be mine.
I wander. Early this fall, I email Amistad: I’m a student journalist, I say. I’m interested in spending some time at Amistad. I’m happy to help out, serving meals or however I can make myself useful. Ten minutes later, Luz emails me back: “Mark is scheduled to be sentenced at the New Haven court today at 3. When were you thinking of stopping in? Mark may or may not be in jail after today’s verdict, so I can let you know if he’s around.”
I leave class, surrender my cell phone at the courthouse’s entrance, and wander through the halls until I find the right courtroom. Mark, Greg, and two other local activists are being sentenced for blocking the doors of a Hartford courthouse, protesting the deportation of their friend Josemaria Islas, an undocumented immigrant. Mark spoke little, except to say that he, like the others, wouldn’t pay the fine the judge was imposing. At the very end of the sentencing, he added: “It’s going to take some courage to get out of under that mountain of violence and injustice.”
After eating on that night in November, we walk a few blocks to Maryhouse. When we arrive, I can’t make out much about the building. But I know it’s nothing like the soaring cathedral where I attended church every weekend. We crowd into a low-ceilinged basement room, where the walls bear the now-familiar faces of Day, Gandhi, and King. A bulletin board holds dozens of tributes to deceased members of the congregation. Children roam freely; a woman wears a shirt that reads “free Guantanamo — end torture.”
The priest begins — we’re celebrating, he says, the anniversary of Day’s death.
“This is her birthday. She dies on the 29th!” a congregant cries out.
Day hasn’t yet been officially canonized — declared an official saint — but she might as well be in this room.
The Mass is, if anything, unconventional. There’s no Old Testament reading. The special guest is not a cardinal, but, rather, Cornel West, an outspoken academic, theologian, and socialist. The passing of the peace lasts until it seems that every hand has shaken a dozen others, the collective sound of “peace be with you” filling the room. The music is led by a ragtag, enthusiastic group of guitarists, who startle me when they slip into Latin for a few hymns. But some things are familiar — “Taste and See,” “How Great Thou Art.” They’re the classics — strong, solid, celebrating the immediate and the abstract, the nourishing and the astonishing, the mystical and the ordinary. I’ve forgotten how unexpectedly intimate it can be to participate in a religious service, even with strangers — everyone lost in their own sort of communion.
I hesitate, as I always do, before taking the Eucharist. The list of reasons you can’t participate in the sacrament — which Catholics believe is a reenactment of the Last Supper, the bread and wine transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ — is extensive, and I am guilty of many. At Maryhouse and Amistad, I take it anyway, and the starchy taste of the wafer lingers on my tongue.
We settle back into our seats; a woman balances her young daughter on her hip and reads from Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. The congregation prays, their prayer intentions rising from the rows of folding chairs: for the people of Tibet, for their mechanic, for a high-risk pregnancy. An old man who can barely speak halts over every word as he offers his petition.
Then we wander upstairs into the auditorium for what Catholic Worker founder Peter Maurin called a “clarification of thought.” Maryhouse was once a music school, but the auditorium’s walls are now covered with bright posters and a life-size model of a drone. The crowd — surprisingly cosmopolitan and hipster, as if church is the cool place to spend your Friday night — seems to have skipped a generation — either people like me and Greg, or people like Mark, roughly my parents’ age. I wonder why. I think of the string of wars this nation has seen: Vietnam, then Iraq and Afghanistan. Two generations — my parents’ and my own — forced to confront war.
Carmen Trotta — a friend of Mark’s, a no-nonsense man with rolled-up shirtsleeves — gives an introduction. I don’t know it, but he’s one of the country’s boldest peace activists. But his words are startlingly personal. “Of course,” he says, “we think of Dorothy now. One hundred and sixteen years old today. I was 19 when I first came to the Worker.” He asks the audience, “When did you first hear of Dorothy Day? When were you excited by this? Nineteen, 19, 19, just like that.”
“Do I ever buy wine with a cork?” Greg laughs, opening a screw-top bottle of wine. I’m 20, and he’s a few years older than me, but in matters of wine, he is clearly my contemporary. Greg and I and a handful of divinity students have gathered in his friend and fellow activist Chelsea Faria’s apartment for a meeting of Seminarians for a Democratic Society (SDS), the radical student group Greg has organized at the Divinity School. We’re the people Carmen Trotta has named, the people most electrified by Day’s words, often the most willing to join the Worker.
There is wine and cheese in abundance, even if the group of a half-dozen divinity students has to scramble to find a Bible. Greg is burly, with a beard worthy of an Old Testament prophet. He trades in big ideas, never lacking for an opinion, and he’s given to picking intellectual fights over Facebook. (On the car ride to New York, he admits: “I’ve got big dreams. Mostly because I’m 23.”)
We share our “highs and lows” of the week, summer-camp style: Greg has escaped the sentencing with just a fine, so his high is “not being hauled off to jail,” and his low is a paper he’s struggling with on the Biblical Joshua and Malcolm X. My low, I say, is school. I’m busy, whatever. Greg answers: “Amen.”
The agenda has been amended slightly for my visit, to excise matters too confidential or sensitive. But Greg’s fine with my presence, my scribbling: “this is what allows us to bear witness.”
They begin with a sort of Bible study for radicals. Greg calls it the “formation work” behind their “activist stuff.” It involves Brecht, and it sails over my head. This is a different kind of thought than the no-nonsense theology of the Catholic Worker, and I wonder what they’re doing — what good will this do? Dorothy Day said, “You can’t preach the Gospel to men with empty stomachs,” and you certainly can’t teach them Brecht, either. I had hoped that the good people of SDS would be able to bring that particular combination of head and heart into a world that felt more familiar to me. But it’s all unpronounceable philosophy and dense Old Testament prophecies.
But the discussion circles back, somehow, to familiar themes. The students struggle with their relationship to Yale, to New Haven, to the churches they consider themselves part of. They move on to the business part of the meeting — protesting wage theft and labor violations at Gourmet Heaven; supporting Yale’s divestment from fossil fuels; opposing the transfer of female prisoners from Danbury to a prison in the rural South. The conversation feels familiar, even if it ends, as it often does, with a prayer, and the awkward, strange sensation of holding hands with strangers.
Back at Maryhouse, we settle into the auditorium. West reemerges, beard and Afro and thick glasses, to present the clarification of thought. It’s part revival, part college lecture. West crouches and bends and sways, shakes the podium, nearly spits on the audience. While the priests of my youth had presented somewhat uninspired sermons, his speech is radical — but almost hagiographical. He names Day among a list of great heroes like King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Fannie Lou Hamer. “Sister Dorothy,” he says, had “intimate relations with the catastrophic. … When you think of her, you think of love overflowing, but it is grounded in the catastrophic.”
West says that he tells his theology students: “You’re here to learn how to die.” His critiques are sharp — having a black president is “beautiful, but not worth breakdancing over.” It just shows that white people are “less racist than their ancestors.” He mentions stop-and-frisk, the prison-industrial complex, the greed of Wall Street, the “New Jim Crow” — the drug war that incarcerates thousands of black men. On capitalism: “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. That doesn’t work in a market-driven society.” On technology: “Let the phones be smart. You be wise.”
But the kind of wisdom he advocates for also demands a kind of surrender. “The question is: Can we be holy fools?”
He points out Mark and his friends. “They got a trial in Syracuse. THEY GOT A TRIAL IN SYRACUSE, we behind them.”
Like all good stories, this one will bring me home. I grew up less than half an hour from Hancock Air Force Base, the home of the 174th Attack Wing of the New York State National Guard. It’s a regional headquarters for drone piloting, and, because of this, Hancock is now a magnet for anti-drone protests. Activists protest there in opposition to the unmanned planes that, they allege, have been killing unarmed and innocent civilians in the Middle East. For years, Mark and others have been practicing civil disobedience at this base, set in an otherwise placid, affluent suburb.
On October 25, 2012, Mark and 16 other activists from around the country (known as the “Hancock 17”) were arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct as they blocked the entrance to the base. In the small town court, which they suggest is only functioning to serve the base’s interests, he and the other activists were also served with “Orders of Protection,” which stipulate that they cannot approach Colonel Earl A. Evans, who is commander of the support team for the 174th Attack Wing, The OOP is a legal procedure usually used to protect victims of domestic violence from their attacker, and the court’s use of it is an unusual maneuver. In this case, it effectively prevents them from going anywhere near the base — unless they want to get arrested. And, of course, that’s often their goal.
After West speaks, a handful of the 17 and their allies gather in a circle to discuss their next steps. The activists are my parents’ age, somehow both seasoned and idealistic. They are unafraid, braver than I think I could be. Most have been arrested multiple times, protesting Guantanamo, drones, immigration causes, and on and on. They’re due to appear in court on December 12, and as the date approaches, they’re strategizing. They represent themselves, suspicious of lawyers and convinced that they can best speak their consciousnesses through self-representation. But, for amateurs, they’re surprisingly legally savvy.
Some activists can rearrange their lives to spend time in jail — to leave their families and their jobs behind for a few days, a week, or longer. Mark can leave Amistad; he participates in his civil disobedience with the blessing of the community, and the faith that — even in his absence — the work will get done.
The prospect of a trial doesn’t seem to deter them. Instead, they’re planning more actions in the meantime. Someone suggests a symbolic violation of the OOP. They might, for instance, bring flowers to the colonel. With the trial then five weeks away, the activists promise to be in touch. Wary of government surveillance, they don’t want to talk by phone or email, making communication difficult. But that’s how it works in the catacombs.
This “radio silence” is why I find myself at the table at Amistad on a Friday afternoon with Mark, Greg, and Creighton Chandler, another divinity student. They’re finishing lunch, Creighton is scrambling to finish his thesis, and the conversation is casual. Were it not for a chain of emails, I wouldn’t guess that they were headed to Syracuse the following Monday to violate the order of protection, and that all three plan to be arrested.
“We can maybe talk about the jail thing now,” Mark suggests. He begins to explain the procedure, from handcuffs to holding cell. He has advice on glasses (you can keep them if they’re prescription), missing breakfast (be sure to listen for the electronic lock on your cell), and reading material (he plans to bring the Pope’s newest letter and some crossword puzzles). In jail, “you have to be prepared to be alone,” he explains.
As always, despite the ferocity of his convictions, he’s calm. When I ask him how many times he’s been arrested, he doesn’t know. His first arrest was in 1981, but, now, he says, one decade blends into the next. Greg and Creighton plan to post bail after 48 hours and return to New Haven to take their finals — the work of the mind, as well as the work of the world — but Mark’s not bailing.
“I don’t have the money, anyway,” he adds.
Plus, in this case, bail is beside the point. They’re not going to fail to appear. This is civil disobedience; they want to speak their consciousnesses. “There’s value,” he reflects, months later, “to being in jail, to choose to be in jail, to stay in jail. Acting in truth.”
December 16, 2013: A week ago, Creighton, Mark, and Greg traveled to Hancock with a “People’s Order of Protection,” suggesting that the drones are more of a threat than a group of activists could ever be. They also carried a letter from an Afghan man whose brother-in-law was killed by a drone in 2008. And they brought some flowers for the colonel. They were quickly arrested on charges of obstruction of governmental administration, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. Mark received an additional charge of criminal contempt for violating the Order of Protection.
As I write, Mark, Creighton, and Greg are due in court tomorrow, December 17. The Hancock 17’s original December 12 court date has been moved to January 3. (I soon learn that the court’s calendars are never reliable. A friend of mine who lives at Amistad, jokes that it’s practically the court’s “hobby” to change Mark’s court dates.)
As the last days of Advent pass by, no one can predict what will happen tomorrow, or what the new year will bring. There is no easy ending here: no verdict, no answer, no future. But there was never any promise of certainty. The people that the Catholic Worker serves know this, because they walk on uncertain ground each day. Mark knows, too, and Dorothy Day certainly did. When Mark calls for strength that can move mountains, it isn’t his. He believes that there is, in the end, no promise but God’s.
But there was no moment that broke my heart open. Because I still believe in the promises of the world, and I cling to them. There was no “coming to God.” What I do know is that there will always be another pot of coffee and another open door at Amistad, for anyone who needs it, as surely as there will be another court date for Mark, another protest at Hancock, another issue of the Catholic Worker, which still sells for a penny a copy.
Dorothy Day ended The Long Loneliness like this: “It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” It all happened while we sat there talking, and we all lived in that space, between talking and working, safety and danger, faith and doubt, past and future. If I came to Amistad to be converted — and I think, maybe, I did — I learned that conversion, a lightning-strike moment of sudden belief, is impossible. Paul might have been converted on the road to Damascus, but I’m yet to have an epiphany on Rosette Street. What I know is only that it all happened, because I witnessed it. And it is still going on — at Maryhouse and Amistad, in jail cells and catacombs and courtrooms, in radio silence and peaceful protest, in soup kitchens and classrooms. It all happened, and it is still going on.