This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Catholic Worker movement. In truth, there is no such thing as a successful Catholic Worker: The life of the Catholic Worker is a life of struggle and disappointment that strips away your illusions but never achieves your expectations, much less your hopes. It is a never-ending learning process fraught with pitfalls and foibles. Anyone can serve soup, and many people put their bodies in places of social distress, but to live in community or to try to hold a community together over the years is seemingly impossible. It is a journey that begs for a providential combination of grace, guts and luck, writes Jeff Dietrich.
- National Catholic Reporter
When I came to the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which opened 43 years ago, I was just a 24-year-old idealistic draft resister. Like most of the young people who are attracted to the Worker, I was anti-authoritarian. And like all the young people who continue to be attracted to the Catholic Worker movement, I wanted to do good things and fight against authoritarian figures who oppress the poor and make life miserable for the world's have-nots. Energy, idealism and willingness to struggle -- these are all great attributes as long as they are focused on the outside world. The problems come, though, when we try to live together in a community filled with other anti-authoritarians.
After my first two years at the Worker, our founders, Dan and Chris Delany, left. Their exit came on the heels of some months of community conflict between the young people and the old people. (In retrospect, the Delanys were not so very old then, but the young people were very, very young.) This difficult struggle set the motif for a pattern of community conflict that would periodically appear between the old people and the young people, between authority figures and anti-authority figures.
In the absence of the Delanys, I tried to assume, if not authority, at least adult responsibility. However, my friend and fellow community member Danny Bender felt that I had become dictatorial and rigid. So one night, he got drunk, tore up the house, broke out the windows, threatened to beat me to a pulp, and certainly would have had I not thrown myself on my knees and started to pray the Our Father. "Oh shit," he said as he walked away in disgust.
During those days, our community was engaged in the blood strike, a high-profile campaign boycotting whole blood banks to obtain more money and health care for Skid Row donors. For three months we ran the soup kitchen, slept in the basement with 10 homeless men, got up every morning at 5.30am and picketed the blood banks. We were assaulted and threatened with firebombing and death. And while our efforts were met with much media attention and public praise, the end result of our strenuous efforts was not victory, but the closure of all the whole blood banks on Skid Row.
After three years with the Catholic Worker, I was exhausted and burned out. My best friend had attacked me, my brother had recently committed suicide, and my girlfriend had just left me to travel in Europe with her English professor. I was ready for a change.
Photo: Police take Catholic Worker protesters Martha Lewis, centre, and Jeff Dietrich, right, into custody after they refused to get off a construction vehicle at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Los Angeles cathedral on October 14, 1998