Wednesday, March 26, 2014

An Open Letter To All Prospective Madison Catholic Workers

I want to thank you for your interest in the Catholic Worker being formed here in Madison, Wisconsin.

Currently we are in the very beginning stages of a process of prayer, discernment and dialogue that we hope will lead to the formation of a Catholic Worker presences here in Wisconsin's capital city. To our knowledge there has not been a CW group in this city, so we are essentially building from scratch.

Here is a brief history of how we arrived at a place where we felt confident enough to launch a website and begin to invite others to join us.

About 2 years ago, Adam Lewandowski and I began volunteering weekly at our local Dane County Jail to serve as Catholic lay ministers for the men and women of the maximum security section of this jail. Our presences there is limited to providing a liturgy and small group sharing time  weekly to a group of about 20 men and 10 women. Soon, through talking with the inmates who came to our chapel service, we began to learn of the challenges that this population faced after their release. We began to consider other ways to accompany them.

We were moved to act by another group as well. While waiting each week in the lobby of the City County Builder which houses the jail, we met with several members of the homeless community who rest and often sleep in and around this public facility. Our awareness of these people's temporal and spiritual needs influenced in no small way our desire to search for a way engage ourselves in the Catholic Works of Mercy. Soon enough, we were considering Dorothy and Peter's model as way to respond to the Spirit-guided urgings of our consciousnesses.

Our current group of organizers remains under 10 members. We are planning to meet after Easter to begin a more formal process of facilitated conversations. I am happy to report that the small group possesses a strong “can-do” spirit and a deep commitment to Catholic prayer and social values. At this writing we have not yet formalized our vision, but have built an initial sense of trust that together we can contribute a collective portion toward the building of the reign of God.

So, if you are interested in what we have built or what we dream of building, we invite you to keep in touch. If you are looking for an established Catholic Worker community that you can join in the near future, we can't currently offer you anything. Madison, however, possesses many options for community and alternative living, so please check out the city for other options. We will certainly be forming an extended community of Catholic Workers very soon and will welcome you into this circle of prayer and community.

In the meantime, I invite you to read over the Means and Purpose of Catholic Worker . This is a general description, one we hope to use as a guiding voice as we walk together in the spirit of Dorothy and Peter.

Please contact us if you are in town and would like to meet with us over a cup of coffee or tea.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Visit to St. Francis House, Columbia Missouri

Last week I visited the St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Mo, the city of my college Alma-mater school, University of Missouri. After getting slightly lost due to Google maps not knowing that I meant to type Rangeline St. and not Rangeline Rd., I pulled up to a well built two story brick home located in a neighborhood that appears to be in need of a bit of urban renewal.

I arrived around 8:30 am, and was greeted by a 75-80 year old guest who was sitting on the front porch enjoying a smoke. He invited me inside, where I met Steve Jacobs, one of the long time Workers of this house. Steve poured me a a cup of coffee and we sat down a very large wood plank table, accompanied by a few other guests who were finishing their breakfast of fresh fruit and glazed donuts.

Steve's warm smile and calm manner made me feel welcome almost immediately so I launched into a brief explanation of the purpose of my visit. I told Steve that I first came across a Catholic Worker House while living in Chicago back in the 1980s. There in the neighborhood of Uptown, my partner Nancy and I were occasional guests at the evening meal. There we were introduced to the works of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of Catholic Worker, and saw the old Catholic works of mercy put into action. This experience produced in me a certain solid hope that some day I would have the chance to reconnect to this powerful work. Other pursuits filled the years since then, but the dream never really went away.

Steve then told his story. After serving a couple of years in the Philippines during the waning years of the Vietnam War, he became a conscious objector and returned to the US to study to be a Registered Nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia. When Phillip Berrigan came to town to speak on the Vietnam War, Steve was asked to accompany this priest/activist. It was Phillip Berrigan who first introduced Steve to the Catholic Worker Movement. From there he and his wife initiated a soup kitchen with others who attended the Catholic Newman Center on the MU campus. Soon their local movement grew, and they were able to put a down payment on the house.

What surprised me the most perhaps centers on the large number of groups and individuals that are connected to this project. At the soup kitchen that began in the early 1980s, groups of Christians, Jews and Muslims take turns preparing and serving those in need. For reasons you will surely appreciate if you read any of the writings of Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker tends to attract people of all faiths and philosophies. Their autonomous houses operate independently of any formal religious organization or structure and often do not even enjoy federal tax exempt status. Dorothy simply wanted to be unencumbered by such relationships. She was fiercely independent and beholding only to the God she followed.

I shared with Steve my dream of a Catholic Worker house in Madison. Although I do hope that some day we would be able to offer temporary housing to those in need, I explained that the group will begin by opening a day shelter or perhaps an occasional noon meal. Once we gain some support both from the neighborhood community as well as from interested volunteers, we will consider allowing the project to expand. I'd rather start with a modest goal that increases our chances of success than bite off more than we can handle. I am still of the mind that small is beautiful.

I want to thank those of you who have encouraged and prodded me over the years to act on this dream. Now that Adam and a few other key people have offered their help, I feel ready to move forward and put some wings on this idea. Currently we are forming a non profit corporation and opening a bank account that will allow us to receive the gifts many of you have so generously offered these past few months. For those of you wanting or needing to donate to a tax exempt entity, please stay tuned, we are looking into ways to make this happen. To those of you who have written or called to offer your time and talents, please expect a follow up phone call from one of us. We are just in the initial stages, but sense from your inquiries and offers that the Spirit is moving to bring this little project to life. Please contact us with any ideas, questions or thoughts. At this early point of departure, your influence will be quite strong in shaping our future.

In the mean time, please keep us in your thoughts and prayers. We seek to remain guided by the Spirit as we move ahead, depending on grace, both divine and temporal to carry out the works of mercy that our faith calls us to.