header icons

On not being “Dismissed So Easily”

The Editors of the Houston Catholic Worker lost an opportunity to promote the Catholic Worker movement at a recent presentation where they were invited to speak about faith and economics.

The Editors failed to make it abundantly clear that founding a Catholic Worker center and living the Catholic Worker lifestyle or the Gospel is open to any average Catholic or non-Catholic, or un-average, as far as that goes. It does not require that one have a special calling-all Catholics are called, have a vocation to serve and a destiny to fulfill and contribute to the Body of Christ. It is open to all, you don’t purchase a franchise (as in MacDonald’s).

We allowed the audience, all highly successful Catholic professionals and business people, to separate the Catholic Worker from average Catholicism and marginalize us as outside the norm, therefore to be admired, but not imitated.

The audience said that we were prophetic and congratulated us, and immediately put us outside workaday Catholicism, even though we were lay persons as they were: “You do great work–you are saints–but it’s not for everyone.”

Dorothy Day addressed this issue very well when others tried to marginalize her by calling her a Saint: “Don’t call me a Saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” (That rejection of marginalization did not mean she did not want to be a Saint; many times over times over the years she quoted Léon Bloy: “There is only one unhappiness-not be a Saint!”)

We failed miserably to communicate that anyone could organize a House of Hospitality following the ideals of Dorothy and Peter. Catholic Worker is open to the public. Peter and Dorothy deliberately avoided the taking of vows and a vigorous or rigid novitiate. In the CW, your novitiate is living and working with the poor.

The Editors see themselves as ordinary Catholic people who made a decision 25 years ago to serve the refugees from the wars in Central America.

But it wasn’t a precipitous decision. It was a decision made after spending months or years praying about it. Above all, it was a gradual process.

In fact, the Editors have been accused of gradualism. They did not respond like the fishermen in the Gospels or the challenge of the rich young man in giving up all and following Jesus-at once.

They said, “Wait a minute. We’re going to get educated so we can make a living,” and went on to get graduate degrees. Then they had children, to really complicate commitment.

Mark got his master’s degree first at the University of Chicago, had good work and purchased a house for the family, then over a period of several years put away a year’s salary, or even two. While being busy making money, he wasn’t home enough. Through discussion groups with friends, he and Louise came to the conclusion that with two little children, there was another way. Both could work half-time and thus have more time for the family and for participation in social change, for example, with the United Farmworkers. Cesar Chavez had visited them.

First, Louise needed to get a master’s degree in library science and children’s litera-ture-at UC Berkeley.

With that accomplished, Mark quit his job–which was the hardest thing to do, since he had a very good job. When they both worked half-time, they made about 1/3 of what Mark had been earning. This was the first big decision and the entrance to the slippery slope of living differently and with a different lifestyle.

But they still had their savings. They didn’t give that up, which allowed them liberty to survive if things went wrong.

The Zwicks tried learning Spanish in various classes, but without much success. They couldn’t get over their French and Italian, nor concentrate, even though working ½ time. They talked about taking a sabbatical to Spain as the children got older. However, friends in Mexico recommended that the best time to travel with children is when they are young. Pre-teens and teens don’t travel well, they told them.

So we began to explore. Maryknoll accepted us in their lay missioner program (we passed the tests-can you believe that?) and flew us to Venezuela to check out a program. The priest connected with the program, however, announced that he was going to start dating and was thinking of marriage. Maryknoll in Venezuela said yes, the program could begin, Maryknoll in New York said no.

We then were invited by Fr. Ralph Friedrich to work in El Salvador if we could pay our own way-which we could.

There we experienced the beginning of the war and violence in a very frightening way and were driven to re-examine the roots of our 60’s liberalism. Fr. Rutilio Grande was killed while we were there, as well as members of our base community, which put the fear of the Lord in all. We began going to daily Mass with the Sisters who lived in our neighborhood and cared for Mark when he almost lost an arm in an accident.

Celebrating Holy Week with the Salvadoran poor impacted us tremendously and we began to discover a new way to be Catholic. We were planning to give our lives to service with our savings intact.

Upon our return from Guatemala (where we went to language school after leaving El Salvador), we joined a Catholic volunteer group (Volunteers in Educational and Social Services) living and working in McAllen, Texas. We worked with 1100 children there in religious education before coming to Houston to be directors of social services at St. Theresa’s, still members of VESS.

There we discovered refugees fleeing from the war in El Salvador, where we had recently left. Refugees also began coming from the awful war in Guatemala and from Nicaragua.

Within several months after arriving at St. Theresa’s, the pressure was on-from ourselves and others–to serve the refugees. We began to say to one another, “If we had any guts, we would start a Catholic Worker house for refugees from Central America.”

But we had no guts, only excuses, until Louise was hired as a children’s librarian at Houston Public. That meant we would not have to take money from the CW house for the needs of our children. (There are no salaries in the CW.) That was the sign from the good Lord that we could survive with our income.

We rented the ugliest building in Houston. The rest is history

All of which is proof that the average Catholic can do much in living out the Gospel and Catholic social teaching.

This is the kind of faith-based initiative that we need-not the kind where the first half million goes to a few top executives and public relations people.

Pray for us.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January-February 2004.