House of hospitality: following in Dorothy Day’s footsteps
By Nicole Sweeney Etter
“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.’”
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement
And so they began two years ago in a worn white and brown clapboard house next to a Salvation Army headquarters on Chicago’s North Side, the lone home perched on a commercial stretch of Devon Avenue. Yearning for a different sort of life, Jerica Arents, Arts ’08; John Bambrick, Arts ’01; and friend Jake Olzen decided to follow in Day’s footsteps and create the White Rose Catholic Worker house.
“We’re a community based on prayer, hospitality and resistance work,” Arents explains, simply.
The community now includes eight workers, six of whom live in the house, and an extended community of about 30. Their four-bedroom rental has room for two guests, who might stay a night or three months as they get back on their feet. They offer three open meals a week to whomever might be hungry and wandering by. Twice a month, they host round-table discussions, which can draw up to 50 people, on topics ranging from immigration to natural family planning. The household gathers for a weekly community liturgy and twice-weekly morning prayer.
Room to care for the poor
They follow a tradition that began in 1933, when Day and Peter Maurin launched The Catholic Worker newspaper to address serious issues facing working-class immigrants at the height of the Depression. Soon the homeless and hungry were flocking to the newspaper staff’s headquarters for coffee and soup, and the Catholic Workers started offering temporary shelter. The “houses of hospitality” became a key tenet of the movement.
“The houses were a vision of Peter Maurin, who often quoted early church fathers who believed every house ought to have a room to care for the poor,” explains Dr. Susan Mountin, Jour ’71 and Grad ’94, director of Manresa for Faculty who teaches a class focused on Day and co-edited a book of essays about the movement. “It did not take long for similar Catholic Worker houses to spring up all across the country, mostly in large cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Chicago, etc. While all the houses call themselves Catholic Worker houses, they are loosely affiliated, run by volunteers and have no hierarchical structure or administration save that of what is created by the local community. The community decides how to live out the vision and commitments of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.”
Although their grass-roots nature makes the number of Catholic Worker communities difficult to track, catholicworker.org lists 192 throughout the United States, up from 120 known communities in 1994, says Jim Allaire, co-author of Praying With Dorothy Day.
“The young people attracted to this mission are generous and committed to justice,” Mountin says. “They are countercultural and value simple living and developing relationships with those who are poor and on the margins of life. While often times such a commitment goes on for three to five years, some volunteers make it a life commitment.”
Inside White Rose
The group’s three founders decided in January 2009 to form an intentional community, a place where they could live and work together toward a shared vision. Bambrick had already helped start another community in Chicago, but he was looking for a deeper, more shared-work model. After seven months of planning and prayer, he and Arents opened their doors as a Catholic Worker house.
White Rose has hosted guests ranging from traveling activists to a pregnant, undocumented service worker who fled an abusive situation and later named the house’s residents the honorary godparents of her baby.
Lwanga Semikenke, an attorney and native of Congo, stayed with the group for about six months while job hunting. He was referred to the house by a local parish. “The White Rose has been very kind to me,” he says. “I found it to be a harmonious community, and the harmony is assured by their faith. They’re a good group of people who do their best to apply their faith.”
White Rose’s residents are searching and praying for a more permanent house to allow them to take in more workers and guests. But they also don’t want to get too big. “We don’t want to be a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen we want to do this family-style,” Bambrick says.
Their lifestyle getting by on a patchwork of part-time jobs and donations, no health insurance, no 401(k) probably isn’t how their parents pictured them using their college degrees. But the call they felt at Marquette and, later, at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies was kindled by an education rooted in social justice.
“[Jerica has] always shown an interest in helping the underdog,” says Arents’ mother, Marcia. “I’m proud of her for wanting to do her own thing and accomplishing it. It’s not the lifestyle of my dreams for her, but I’m proud that she’s following her dream.”
As Marquette undergrads, Bambrick majored in social work and Arents in social welfare and justice. Arents remembers visiting the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection in University Archives and becoming fascinated with Day’s autobiography. Bambrick, too, became engrossed with Day’s writings. “I find a lot of solace in her life,” he says. “She fell in love with people and the poor and the masses.”
They note that often the ones working for social justice are not the ones in the pews and vice versa. What they love about the Catholic Worker movement is their faith and activism are intertwined. They’re especially inspired by the disciples described in Acts 4: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they all shared everything they had.”
They run the community on $2,500 a month, which covers occasional travel to protests at places like the School of the Americas in Georgia. “Because we don’t need a lot, we don’t have to work a lot,” Bambrick says. “It becomes freeing.”
He notes that the message young people and others often hear is about saving enough for retirement. “It’s not ‘Are you giving enough away to the poor? Are you living with less?’” he says.
Their home, with its colorful Tibetan prayer flags fluttering on the front porch, is often a destination for visiting groups and nonviolence/peacemaking training and retreats. This summer, they’re teaching a one-credit class at Loyola called Living the Green Revolution, which covers “sustainable living in the city, energy use and food justice,” Arents says.
Though they started as novice gardeners, they’ve become passionate about growing organic food. This spring, 120 tomato seedlings basked in the sunshine of a kitchen window under a tongue-in-cheek sign that reads, “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” a reference to a poem by Wendell Berry. Their backyard garden is an urban oasis fueled by rain barrels and a variety of composting experiments. They grow 40 varieties of vegetables in the ever-expanding garden. Pear, apple and cherry trees, and grape vines add to the bounty. Eggs from eight hens in the backyard coop provide daily protein. Bambrick jokes that it’s “our very local food.”
A housemate’s family gave them a 10-acre parcel of land in Monee, Ill., and they’re excited to try the Catholic Worker tradition of farming as a way to support the community. “In order to live more sustainably, we need to work more with our hands,” Bambrick says. They plan to give their excess crop yield to friends for free-will donations.
They feel sickened by some estimates that America throws away 50 percent of the food it makes. They scavenge through Dumpsters for recently expired food and other usable items, such as the 20 pairs of glasses they once found in a drug store trash bin. “We actually hope when we go to the Dumpster that we won’t find anything,” Arents says. Instead, they’ve labeled a bookshelf in their kitchen “Our Lady of the Dumpster” and filled it with gifts free for the taking. They hold periodic “free markets” where they give away their finds to whomever is interested.
The workers are also active with organizations such as Voices for Creative Nonviolence and Witness Against Torture. Recently Arents and Bambrick were acquitted of involvement in a protest in Washington, D.C., in which they chained themselves to the White House fence.
Their zeal can worry their families. When Arents went on a delegation to Afghanistan earlier this year, her parents feared for her safety. Bambrick says his mother jokes that with all of his protest-related arrests, he has helped her develop a more active prayer life.
“Jesus’ call was not one of safety and security,” Bambrick says. “Jesus was confronting the religious and political authorities to his death. So … how do we confront those same authorities and injustices today?”
Says Arents, “Living in community allows us to go deeper into those questions.”
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