A Different Intersection of Church and Politics
Issue-specific protests are now so ubiquitous on the menu of New York experience that Mr. Hart has had plenty to do since the police cleared Zuccotti Park of demonstrators in November. Last week had him rallying in Union Square to denounce the rise of student debt. Several days earlier he was arrested at the Brooklyn Supreme Court for participating in an action organized in part by Karen Gargamelli, a Queens housing lawyer who sought to disrupt foreclosure auctions by gathering demonstrators to sing during them. Two weeks ago, 63 arrests were made in a series of these disturbances around the city (which take place under the banner Organizing for Occupation), and many of those hauled off were, like Mr. Hart and Ms. Gargamelli, members of the Catholic Worker Movement.
May 1 marks the 79th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s great achievement: a movement whose vision of activist faith couldn’t be farther from the moralizing of the religious right that has seemed to define Christianity’s incursion on politics since the 1980s. The Catholic Worker, which Day founded with Peter Maurin, a French immigrant, was — and remains — a philosophy, a social initiative, a way of life. Its understanding of personal responsibility maintains not that we all must rely on ourselves, but rather that we are all beholden to better the lives of the less fortunate. On May 1, 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, Day took to Union Square handing out the first copies of her newspaper, also called The Catholic Worker, which delivered the message of compassion and justice at the cost of one penny; the price has never gone up.
The movement has always sought “a new society in the shell of the old” — peace, less disparity of wealth, an end to economic exploitation, violence, racism and so on. Its goals can seem broad but its methods are intimate and practical. Around the country and in various parts of the world, Catholic Worker communities exist as households where lay members, typically committed to voluntary poverty, often live among the homeless and needy they are aiding. It is a model for Occupy Wall Street — like that more recent movement, it is decentralized and decisions are largely made by consensus — which has said it will hold protests around the country on Tuesday, historically a significant day for the labor movement. There are no headquarters or board of directors and, since Day’s death in 1980, no leader. Things have hardly faded: in the past 17 years, the number of communities has grown from 134 to more than 210.
The oldest of these is in New York —in two buildings in the East Village, one primarily for men, the other for women — and a visit there offers lessons in the kind of radical empathy we rarely get to witness. Mr. Hart lives among 25 or so mostly homeless men at the St. Joseph House on East First Street. Every Friday he cooks for the 80 to 200 nonresidents who show up each weekday for a midmorning meal.
Among the live-in volunteers at St. Joseph is Megan Fincher, who, at 29, having completed college (at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Day studied) and graduate school, decided to devote herself to the movement. She had long considered becoming a nun, but her own spirit was more anarchical. She cooks, visits residents in the hospital, disperses clothes and laundry, and stocks and handles donations (nearly everything in the house is donated). She has a few clothes of her own, a used laptop with no Internet access, a cellphone given to her by her mother and little else. Her friends — corporate lawyers, editors, agents — experience a more dramatically familiar Manhattan life. When I asked her if she felt she was missing any of that, she said that as someone who loves good food, she occasionally misses going to restaurants.
The men’s residence, where Ms. Fincher lives, harbors a number of unmedicated schizophrenics, but she doesn’t keep a lock on the door to her room. She has never felt unsafe, she told me. “Being a Catholic means following the example of Jesus,” she said. “And I don’t know how to do those things in this society. Jesus says, ‘Come follow me.’ How do you do that with a job and an apartment?”
It is this vision of Catholicism that has come so maddeningly under review by the church establishment. Two weeks ago the Vatican reprimanded American nuns, dozens of whom had broken with bishops in support of health care reform two years ago, for focusing too heavily on poverty and social inequality at the expense of decrying abortion and same-sex marriage. Miraculously, Rome’s ingratitude hasn’t caused those ministering at St. Joseph’s to pack it up and head to Babbo.