Jason Byassee: Institutionalized anarchy for Jesus

Catholic Worker houses rock. Especially when they’re Protestant.

Catholic Worker houses rock. Especially when they’re Protestant.

I love how such communities arise by accident. It perfectly fits the ethos of the sort of institutionalized anarchy of the” Worker.” When Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin launched the publication in 1933, they were creating a newspaper, not a community.  The “Catholic Worker” would be a riff off the communist newspaper “Daily Worker,” drawing on the Catholic social teaching from which Day and Maurin drew such hope. Day had found in her time as a writer and activist in communist organizations that their intellectuals talked about the poor, but the Catholic Church actually had poor people. Their paper called for houses of hospitality. And people started lining up outside the office where the paper was printed, asking where these houses were. Someone put on a pot of coffee, and the Catholic Worker was born. There would be food, coffee, places to stay, opportunities to engage in the works of mercy and to resist works of violence, and none of it would be planned. That was the (unplanned) plan.

I’ve written before about the wonderful paradox of Protestants pursuing this Catholic way of living. On the one hand, nobody’s church hierarchy much likes to hear rhetoric from its pastors that sounds socialist or communist or whateverist. Day’s own diocese occasionally flirted with asking her to shut down (pacifism was, after all, not very popular during World War II). She agreed -- always eager to be in obedience to her bishop. Yet she added that she’d send to his office all the poor and homeless and jobless people who daily turned to the Worker for help. Cherith Brook’s Presbyterian kin have been supportive of their ministry, if a little puzzled. But other Catholic Worker houses are not puzzled. Christian anarchists can’t have rules that say Protestants can’t join. So they do join in fellowship, and friendships pop up where they “shouldn’t.” See how cool anarchy is?

I recently met Colin Miller, a founder of a similar house.  A PhD student under Stanley Hauerwas and a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church, Miller and his wife started something like a Catholic Worker house, also by accident. Their local parish had a nasty and protracted fight that left the church rolls almost empty. So there was no one left, in Miller’s words, “to run off the homeless people.” So the Millers and a few friends got to know them. Once when a man got in a fight and needed a place to recuperate after going to the ER, the Millers offered their home. Then, the man’s friend also needed a place to stay. “It was easier to house them both, actually,” Miller said. Because they were friends, the two could encourage and entertain one another “and trade smokes.” The house was born. Recently the Millers moved out, leaving their furniture for the two men and a third who’d joined them. Colin still spends much of his day there, “Getting food, fixing the refrigerator, whatever is needed.” But there’s no program. Just hospitality offered in Jesus’ name, which sits crosswise with the way most churches, even the most benevolent, treat the homeless.

This house has no name, for fear of coming too close to an institution. The men are surprised they don’t have to do anything for their clothes or food. “You mean you don’t want me to hear a sermon, or give my Social Security number?” (notice they’re used to being objectified by church and state both). The Millers don’t even ask them to sober up in return for largesse. The house is “run” (such as it is) by anarchists. For Jesus.

But here’s where I’d quibble with them. They are an institution. They have a building, they receive money from their parish (since revitalized somewhat). They have a sort of charter: to follow the Catholic Worker’s way of hospitality. They’re in conversation with CW houses and others who offer similar forms of hospitality, like Rutba and other CW houses in North Carolina. There’s an altar in the house with a chalice and paten. And there is hope that when Miller is ordained in a few years, he will be allowed to celebrate Eucharist with the house members. It’s all for Jesus, it’s just unplanned, in a planned sort of way. It’s anarchy institutionalized.

Which is a bit like what the church is at our best.