Friday, July 4, 2008

A day on a Catholic Worker Homestead

The sun beamed through the curtains and raced across the room, hitting me in the face, telling me that it was time to begin my day. This would be my first full day ever spent at a Catholic Worker. I've been to quite a few CW houses, mostly in the urban setting. I looked out the window, and the landscape was not painted with urban decay. Instead, I saw a pond. I could hear the dogs running around. Just as I looked out, a rooster crowed. A train whistled. This was no urban ghetto. This was the beautiful countryside of the land they call Appalachia.

I crawled out of bed to deliver my deposit to the community compost bin. Sounds a bit less crass than taking a morning dump, eh? A bit. I came into the kitchen to join Eric for a nice cup of coffee and a couple pieces of 'monk's bread'- a delicious cinnamon-raisin bread made by some Trappist monks somewhere in upstate New York. We chatted for a bit, and commented about how if you've been to one Catholic Worker, in a sense, you've been to them all. The walls were decorated with religious relics, icons of Dorothy Day and other heroes of the movement. There were random pieces of art, and of course many revolutionary posters. On the floor there were a few signs that were just waiting to be held in protest of the state's anti-immigration laws. We talked theology for a bit, and before you knew it, the house was bustling with life. The aroma of farm-fresh eggs, toast, coffee, and oatmeal soon filled the air. A man and woman grabbed the signs from the floor and headed down to the governor's mansion to have their voices heard. We were recruited to turn over a green manure crop in the garden early in the day, and go chop firewood in the afternoon.

It wasn't time for work in the garden yet, so we took a walk around the area. Jake finally crawled out of bed to join us. Eric took us on a route that he used to take everyday when he lived there. We passed old country churches with little graveyards. One even had a school with kids outside playing, disturbing the serenity of it all with their shouts of joy. This brought us joy as well, and we waved to them as we walked on by. The warm air was quite refreshing; one can't help but find hope in children and budding leaves, our minds leaving behind the graveyards and the dead of the Michigan winter.

Finally, we reached the end of our road, so to speak. We arrived at a large grassy pasture, not yet brought back from its winter slumber. In the background were the old, worn down Appalachian Mountains, covered in deciduous forest. Mountains aren't a part of my every day experience, or any of ours for that matter. We sat and enjoyed them for awhile, talking about life.

Upon returning, we began to work in the garden. While this was certainly no farm in the agricultural sense of the word, it did indeed have a pretty sizable garden. There were many small beds- some simple, and some decorated with logs ands signs that signified the crops grown there last year. We each grabbed shovels from the shed, and got to digging. We turned over the cover crop of nitrogen-fixing legumes into the soil. What joy I get from the simple act of getting my hands in the soil and being in touch with God's green earth! I think Eric and Jake shared my sentiments.

It was now almost the afternoon, and the hunger was setting in. We voted Eric as our lunch chef, while our host, Jake, and I finished the remaining beds. Lunch was a hodge-podge of delectable genius! It was some sort of spicy vegetable and mushroom concoction, mixed with peanut butter, and served over rice. Right after lunch finished up, our comrades that had gone to the protest that morning returned to the farm. Once again the kitchen was bustling with activity! These particular folk were the ones we planned to get firewood with. They were both on their cell phones (which I thought a little strange at the time), so one of the short-term guests took me up stairs to show me his collection of books related to alternative economics and the origins of the green anarchist movement. Very fascinating stuff. He himself was not a person of faith; rather, he was more interested in being a part of an intentional community involved with radical non-violent direct action. He was probably in his late 20's and had moved to the farm last fall with his dog, Banjo, from somewhere in Louisiana. Though he was feeling a bit under the weather, he did show us much kindness.

I came back downstairs to find that our afternoon of wood-chopping had been cancelled. Apparently some immigration raid was going on as we spoke, and our comrades were off in their trucks to go shut it down or something. These are no fair-weather protesters that go to a rally hear and there! They are seasoned veterans, and the movers-and-shakers within the radical activist scene. The government organization carrying out the raid was called ICE. I hadn't heard of that one before, so I asked asked our host what ICE was. He confessed that he wasn't really sure, but it was "sorta like the INS; just another one of the empire's three-letter abbreviations for oppression". I grinned. Fair enough.

Since firewood was no longer an option, our host gave us a tour of his family's "cabin" on the property. The cabin turned out to be an immaculate 3-story straw bale house. It was absolutely gorgeous! The walls were made from local clay, and it had red metal siding instead of shingles on the roof. The gutters led to rainwater collection barrels. The inside was very nice as well. It was definitely a living space, but not too messy. There were large windows and tile and mosaic floors. Mosaics were actually a theme amongst all of the buildings on the property. The main house had a giant sunflower mosaic that said "love" at the bottom. On another wall was one of a pond and cattails. Anyway, back to the straw bale house. One of my personal favorite things was the giant bookshelf from floor to ceiling. Our host just happened to be a Thomas Merton guru of sorts, (who happens to be my all time favorite spiritual writer.) I was amazed, because he had every single Merton book ever written... and he had read them all! I mean, I have probably over a dozen Merton books, but I've read 4 of them cover-to-cover. He probably had somewhere around 100 Merton books! It was really great to have him show us all the books that had changed his life. Each one had its own story. Some were transformational ideas, while others reminded him of the earlier days of the movement. We sat and listened like little children to stories about the Berrigan Brothers, Oscar Romero, and several others. Eric and I are both at a time in our life in which we are totally consumed by books. We were so enthralled by all of the books, and all of the stories that went along with them.

Before you knew it, it was time for dinner. Once again the kitchen in the small main house was bustling with life. Everyone seemed to be there for different reasons, and almost no two people looked alike. There was a woman there with her daughter. They were preparing for a WWOOF trip to Japan. It sounded like a dream trip. Our friends had returned to tell us of the ICE raid, and how, within only a few hours of everything going down, they managed to organize and have a meeting with 20 different people. We have a group of 6 people here in Detroit, and we have the hardest time coming up with a scheduled day to meet where all of us can make it. I must admit, I was impressed, inspired, and even convicted by the sense of urgency that they served with. It was clear that they had a fervor for the least of these in the world. Their work also seemed to be effective, which is encouraging. The cost appeared to be frequent jail time and and family dysfunction... but, I suppose, such is the life for a Catholic Worker.

Another guest at the table was a local organic CSA farmer named Tony. He was a large man, with a ponytail and a dirty white Johnny Seeds ball cap. I've had the pleasure of meeting many, many people in my day, but I don't think any of them were as crass or as vulgar as Tony. Profanity flowed from this man's tongue like a gushing mountain stream during the spring thaw. He used F-bombs like commas, and found creative uses for everything else profane in between his "commas". He had a deep, bellowing laugh that would get even the most pious prude laughing, smiling, or maybe crying. I mostly laughed, though I didn't fully enjoy his humor. After a few beers, he mysteriously developed an Irish accent. The madness continued. Strangely, I really admired this man. Though crass, he was a man of principles. He was a share-cropping CSA farmer that lived by a fairly strict 100-mile diet. He even joked about only dumpstering locally. I laughed.

The sun was now set. It was a pretty wild day, filled with people, adventure, and fun. We were going to go check out some local diner, but when we got there we found that it was closed. Nothing was open apart from a single gas station. We talked in the car about the day and all the excitement that we had. We lamented the fact that, though we very much admired everything they were doing here, the Christ-centeredness that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin envisioned didn't seem to exist. We talked about the kids that were raised there without ever being told what to do. While they weren't forced to believe or do anything, they truly seemed misguided... or maybe even unguided. They seemed apathetic and didn't really value anyone or anything. We wondered what it could look like to have a healthy family and raise kids in this atmosphere. These are deep questions that I don't really know the answer to. Regardless, it was a wonderful day and left me full of both inspiration and deeper questions as I try to understand how to live life in this crazy, crazy world.

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