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September 18, 2009

Jason Byassee: A Protestant Catholic Worker House

Catholic Worker communities are places of wonderful contradictions. As was their founder Dorothy Day, these houses of hospitality are obedient to the hierarchy of the church, yet committed to something they call “Christian anarchy”-- a refusal to let the nation-state act as Lord when only Jesus is. The Catholic Worker movement is serious about the call to Christian works of mercy that look a lot like traditional Catholic piety -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, praying for the dying and so on. But they also protest social injustice as they see it, to the point of radical demonstrations at U.S. military bases that get members thrown in jail. They’re people dedicated to peace who have a rather pushy way about them. The tensions are delicious.

Friends of mine run a Catholic Worker house in Kansas City, Mo. Only they’re not Catholic. The movement doesn’t require a baptism certificate or permission from a bishop to attend meetings, open a house of hospitality, and call oneself a “Catholic Worker” house. If others want to join in, even us Protestants, the more the merrier. So my Presbyterian friends trained at a similar house, The Open Door, in Atlanta, before taking what they learned to KC and following suit. Eric and Jodi Garbison call their place Cherith Brook, after the story in 1st Kings in which God tells Elijah to stay by a brook, where he will be miraculously provided for. In a challenge to the market, the Garbisons trust God to give them what they need. Then they work like the dickens to make it so.

They started by choosing a neighborhood long since abandoned by whites (Italian immigrants originally) who moved out as poorer blacks and Hispanics moved in. They bought and rehabbed a couple of buildings (one advantage of living in such places: cheap real estate). Parents of two young children, they tried the local public schools, but found them to be little more than preparation for prison: kids were taught to line up, stay silent, and do what they were told. They quickly became home schoolers.

They ate at lots of soup kitchens. And they asked questions: What do you need? And they listened. For years. Finally they realized they heard one thing over and over again. The poor in their area had places to eat and sleep but no place to clean up. “We need showers,” they heard, so they set about building them. Now in its fourth year, Cherith Brook has a handful of showers, with lockers in the hall outside, so homeless men and women can clean up with some dignity and go about their day. After each shower, Cherith Brook members clean the bathrooms so guests have one place that’s all theirs and clean, just for part of their day. The guests often hide their toothbrushes in little crevices where only they can find them. Sort of like we housed people do in our bathrooms.

It’s all part of an ancient Christian monastic discipline: receiving every guest as Christ. These visitors are Jesus .Why not treat them as royalty? And the guests reciprocate. Even rival gang members sit in the line for the showers at peace with one another. They recognize Cherith Brook is a place of peace, an oasis of hospitality. Who would want to disturb that?

That’s not all Cherith Brook does. They serve community meals where all are invited -- guests, residents, the works. They live in intentional community with several other community members, with whom they pool resources. No one has health insurance. It’s a protest against an unjust system in which only the wealthy can count on care. If they need it they go to the ER like their poor neighbors. They grow an organic community garden on their front yard, preferring fresh food to an English-style trimmed grass. They keep several “Christ rooms” for guests to stay overnight. Dorothy used to say if every church had Christ rooms there would be no need for Catholic Worker houses. Alas, there still is.

The thing I love most about my friends at Cherith Brook is that they are raising their children there. Henri and Anna grow up thinking it normal to receive guests, feed the hungry, shower the homeless and view guests as Christ. The more bourgeois among us will gasp. Isn’t that putting their children at risk? Maybe, but no more so than those of us who relegate parenting to video games and MTV. Who knows what fruit of faithfulness will be borne in the lives of their children? Their lives and mine are pretty different, what with my mortgage and health insurance and other middle-class trappings. But I have a running joke with my friends in new monastic communities. I’ve always known Jesus loves them more, what with their doing a whole lot more of what he said to do. But I never realized until the economic meltdown that not having a mortgage was also a good investment.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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