“What will separate us from the love of Christ?” we read in the scripture during one of our daily morning prayers. “Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:35-37).
I’ve read this scripture passage many times, assuming that what I am reading concerns me as well as every other christian. For some reason I never reflected upon the obvious fact that I never in my life have had to fear or experience neither persecution, famine, not having enough clothing or ending up in an armed conflict. An other long term community member brought it to my attention though, by after the prayer saying something like “We need to realize that what we read in the scripture does not always apply to our selves. More often it applies to other people, such as the women that we live with. We have a great deal to learn from them and their experiences, and with this in mind this community is not about us evangelizing them but about them evangelizing us.”
“Why is our house for homeless mothers and children called Mary House?” we asked one of the long term community members during one of our first weeks living in this house as volunteers. “Because Mary is a mother, and she was homeless as well” was the simple answer we got. As simple as the answer was, it’s yet true, and it helped me to remember that our Savior wasn’t only poor, he also spent his first hours of his life in some kind of stable and was then forced in to migration when Mary and Joseph had to search refuge in Egypt away from Herod. With that in mind, the mothers of Mary House have a lot more in common with the mother of Jesus than I’ll probably ever have.
The women of Mary House don’t only evangelize us by sharing their experiences but also by taking care of us. Not only are they the mothers of their own children, when we moved in to Mary House three months ago I felt like getting three extra mothers myself. Every night one of them makes food for all of us in the house, and it is clear that they all put a lot of love into making this food and bring this love to the table as they serve every one of us a share of that food. After dinner we are supposed to make the dishes together, but often one of the women starts washing up, telling us to go and have a rest after our long day of work. We usually insist on helping out of course, but often the answer we get is something like “Please let me do this for you, this is the only work I’ll do today and I see how hard you work every day. I also need too feel like I am achieving something.” Some days one of our “mothers” brings us chapati to eat for breakfast as we are on our way putting on our shoes to go down to the Farm for another day of work. Other days, one of the women at the Farm greets us with a hug of encouragement when we arrive there and they see that we are tired. In small everyday events they show us that they care for us as much as we care for them.
I myself and probably many others with me sometimes think about volunteering as something where you altruistically give of yourself to other people. Experience have shown me though, that this is not entirely true. Yes, I am giving. But I think it is important to stress that I am also receiving. I do believe that true community life is about mutual exchange, and living here without expecting or accepting to get something back from our Guests would, I believe, mean to not live in true community with them. “There was plenty of charity, but too little justice” Dorothy Day writes about the Church in her autobiography The Long Loneliness. Charity is for me a word that indicates distance between the giver and the receiver. It’s about helping people out without sharing life and conditions with them. What we do here at The Catholic Worker Farm is something else, which is not charity but community. This is not only about me taking care of others, its also about letting other people take care of me.
I do believe that Jesus himself never made people passive objects when helping them out. Instead he interacted with them in a way that acknowledged their humanity and agency. In fact, there is plenty of examples of how Jesus asks other people do do things for him. He insists that John the Baptist should baptize him even though John suggest that the opposite would be more suitable, he asks the samaritan woman by the well to give him water, he goes to Martha’s and Mary’s home to eat dinner and he asks the tax collector Zacchaeus to invite him to dinner in his home as well.
By living in voluntary poverty, by not only giving shelter to homeless people but also sharing this shelter with them, I’ve become not only more aware of my own privileges but also more aware of how much I share with these women. These months we have laughed together, we have cried together, we have been angry with each other sometimes, we have played games together, we have shared confidences and we have worked together. We are more alike than different, but one major thing separates us: we do not share the same experience of “anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword”. They have experience of something that I maybe, probably and hopefully will never experience and therefore they can show me, and others in the same privileged position as I, what it means to really trust in, and depend on, the love of Christ.
“The poor show us who we are and the prophets tell us who we could be, so we hide the poor and kill the prophets.” the peace activist Phil Berrigan once said. I guess that something that happens, according to Berrigan, when we stop hiding the poor and instead start to interact with them, is that it becomes clear to us who we really are. I for example become able to realize something so simple as that all scripture passages doesn’t apply to wealthy people as myself.