It was so good seeing so many of you last week as we got our full schedule under way for the semester. The GCW is a big, extended community, and we rely on you to keep doing the work we’ve committed to doing in service to and in solidarity with our friends and neighbors who are struggling because of poverty, homelessness, addiction, unemployment, mental illness and more. If you’re thinking about finding something you can commit to on a weekly or monthly basis, we hope you’ll consider helping out this semester as a regular volunteer here at the Green House–at Dorothy’s Cafe, the microfarm, Art for All, football game Saturdays, or one of our other projects. We could use your help!
So many cool things happening this week…
EXPERIENCING THE CAMINO: This past summer, GCW co-founder Kelli Brew walked the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage from western France across the north of Spain and ending in Santiago de Compostela. The Camino dates back to medieval times when pilgrims would walk to Santiago de Compostela to visit the tomb of St. James, apostle to Jesus. People walk the Camino for a variety of reasons. This Thursday, from 6:30-8pm, Kelli will share her experience at our first Roundtable of the semester, “Notes from the Camino.” Walking the Camino is a transformative and reflective experience, and Kelli will talk about her reasons for going on pilgrimage, share insights and stories gleaned from her 40 days walking the Camino, offer practical advice for people who may one day undertake it, and more. Join us and bring a dish to share if you can for the potluck dinner!
ARTISTS AND CRAFTERS UNITE! This Saturday, from 1-4pm, we’ll host our first Art for All workshop of the semester. Former house member Kendera Omanga, along with stalwart community members Mary Peer and Linda Gardner, are organizing the Art for All workshops every other Saturday through November. Art for All is part art therapy, part cottage industry (folks needing to earn a little money who want to sell their artwork or crafts through our in-house boutique are welcome to do so) and simply creative and fun for all who participate. Local artists will be on hand to teach or advise participants as needed. Everyone is welcome to come!
REMEMBERING A FRIEND AND SUPPORTER: The GCW continues to live and grow because of the generosity of so many–not only those who live close by but from friends and supporters all across the U.S. Last week, we learned that one of our most generous and encouraging supporters, Herb Bazur, had passed away at age 88. Herb, along with his wife Betty, supported our work from afar for many years (they lived in Michigan during the summer and winter in Central Florida, and recently relocated permanently to Ft. Wayne, Indiana). John wrote a short post on Herb on the site here for folks who want to know more about him and what he meant to our community and to John personally. Herb is survived by his wife Betty; please keep her and his entire family in your prayers. Herb was a sweet, sweet man and we will miss him something fierce.
ODDS AND ENDS: No Green House Knitters on Labor Day Monday this week. The Knitters will start back up next Monday … Jade says that he can use some extra help at the microfarm on Thursday mornings, whatever time you can spare, but he’s also open to folks helping out on Tuesday mornings if that fits your schedule better. See the project page for how to get in touch with Jade and get directions to the microfarm … And our new brochure is now available! Hard copies can be found at the house and a PDF is online and can be found by clicking here. The brochure includes our schedule for the semester, contact info, project descriptions and more.
Hope to see you this week at the GCW!
That was the title Diedre Houchen gave the Roundtable discussion she led last Thursday. After sharing some of her own faith journey, she invited others to share a bit of their own. Many had similar tales of finding connection with a particular community or way of being “spiritual,” then leaving to move on to something else. The two ends of the Christian spectrum that folks moved along seemed to be the personal encounter with Jesus and vs. the mandate to follow Jesus’ “Way.” This is a well-documented divide: Evangelical (conservative) vs. Progressive (liberal). Diedre wondered if there was any commonality, any way for the two to “talk.” We didn’t come to any conclusions, but hopeful ideas like humility, openness, honest debate, and recognition of a common search for meaning were discussed. In the end, it seems helpful to recognize that each of us comes to “faith,” or seeking faith, from a place of vulnerability that should be honored – regardless of our own conclusions (or current resting place).
Diedre recommends an episode of Krista Tippet’s “Speaking of Faith”- Evangelicals Out of the Box – as a great follow-up. It’s a big subject and one that causes a lot of heartache between people who call themselves followers of Christ.
Joe Brew, Kelli’s son, is about to leave for his third summer in Guatemala where he will teach at the “Institut,” a school which Holy Faith Catholic Church, the GCW’s home parish, helps sponsor. He led the Roundtable discussion this past Thursday.
Joe talked about the growth of gangs in Ciudad Quetzal, an extremely impoverished area on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Here, deplorable violence is perpetrated by gangs on the community whereby they exact a “tax” from households, individuals, schools, clinics, churches, etc. in exchange for not killing one of their members. Joe had personal experience with this when one of his students was shot in the head and killed after witnessing one of these murders, and again when his next-door neighbors had to flee overnight after receiving a telephone request for $5000 in exchange for not killing their child. It’s a terrible situation that creates a climate of fear and causes daily deaths in the street.
Joe talked about the history of the gangs in Guatemala, how they first came about when desperately poor Guatemalans had entered the U.S. to seek work. Once in the U.S., because they were poor and separated from their families and communities, and because they had no status as U.S. citizens, they were vulnerable to street crime and violence. When undocumented workers are threatened in the U.S., they have no recourse to legitimate forms of civil protection that U.S. citizens enjoy. So from within the Guatemalan community in the U.S., groups were formed to offer “protection.” These groups quickly became gangs, adopting aspects of U.S. gang culture and functioning to give their members protection, identity, a sense of belonging, and more. When these gang members were subsequently deported back home, they brought their gang identity with them. Especially for second-generation deportees, who spoke little Spanish having grown up in the U.S., the gangs offered them community and status in a now-foreign place.
Joe used gang violence to discuss two different tracks of religious thought in Guatemala – the “liberal” liberation theology track and the conservative, evangelical track. In a nutshell, evangelical Christians stressed personal sin, and the liberal (usually Catholic) Christians stressed structural sin. The personal sin side is easy to see in the case of gang violence against innocent families and children. But Joe clarified the structural side by comparing it to the familiar tale of “Les Miserables.” Many of us are familiar with the story of Jean Valjean who is imprisoned for decades because he stole bread for his starving nephew. The harshness of prison life and the disdain of the public for ex-convicts once he is released – on top of the injustice of being punished by the system that created the inequities that would have caused most people in his situation to steal bread for a child – creates a bitter, hateful man. But, in Les Mis, we can read Valjeans story with mercy because we get to watch the “true” Valjean emerge after he is offered understanding, forgiveness and a fresh start. It’s interesting to try and apply this mercy to gang violence – something current, and as repugnant to us as Jean Valjean’s behavior was to the powers in 18th century Paris. Joe made clear the point that gang violence is both a terrible personal failure as well as a structural one. The situation is complicated, but Joe pointed out that a large part of the solution is, as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin once envisioned – to “make it easier to be good” by helping Guatemala become a place where people can support and care for their families – and in the meantime to work on creating more just immigration policies here.
Joe is heading off in a week to teach basketball, English, and history to displaced Mayan and poor Ladino (mixed European and indigenous ancestory) children. We’re looking forward to hearing all about it on his return in September. Meanwhile, check out his Guatemala blog!
Listening to his two-part interview with Bill Moyers (part one, part two) in its entirety and watching his interview with the National Press Club are helpful in understanding the context in which these statements were made. Moyers gives some background on Wright’s most controversial statements and respectfully gives him the opportunity to respond. Wright’s speech before the National Press Club was equally thoughtful and enlightening, although, in contrast to Moyers, the facilitator at the NPC was not only less respectful, but sometimes downright antagonistic. This did not bring out the best in Wright, who came off as being combative and arrogant during the question and answer period. The two of them together sometimes behaved like they were participating in a high school debate, smirking when they thought they made a point smartly. This part was a little painful to watch.
But the content of Wright’s remarks shouldn’t be ignored because some of us are put off by his oratorical style. He uses the cadence and fist-shaking accusations of the prophetic, “woe unto you”-style of preaching reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets. It’s not unlike some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s truth-telling sermons and speeches and brings to mind the style and delivery of a number of African-American preachers on any given Sunday.
It’s troubling that charges of divisiveness by the mainstream press – and by Obama supporters afraid of the political fallout – are muffling the crux of what he’s saying. He’s an articulate, intelligent, well-educated person who has lived out many years shepherding a church in an extremely impoverished neighborhood in Chicago. He’s walked the walk – hearing and seeing how racial injustice has affected the people he loves, seeking to inspire them to rise above and claim their own share in the American Dream, expressing his and their disillusionment and – yes – anger over how very much more difficult it is for some than for others. Yes, he’s offensive to some ears, as surely Jesus was to those whom he called a brood of vipers or whose tables he kicked over in the marketplace. But if we can get past the discomfort and drop the knee-jerk offense at the impoliteness of it all, it becomes clearer that he’s calling it as he sees it, as a good pastor, activist, and reformer should – and that he may be seeing some things most of us miss.
For instance, as an educated man, aware of the Tuskegee Experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service on 399 black men without their knowledge (1932-1972), his mind has been opened to the possibility of purposeful, wrongful death perpetrated by the government on black folks. He’s also aware that the U.S., for all its “war on drugs” hoopla that has sent many an offender to jail (a disproportionate number of them black), has used the drug trade to further our foreign policy goals. The billions of dollars we spend on war-making and the billions made on selling arms to countries around the world (often to both sides of a conflict) hasn’t profited inner-city Chicago – not to mention what it’s done to the poor globally. And the terrible events of 9/11 are, in fact, seen differently through the eyes of a person who has witnessed the ongoing assault of his country’s own policies on the poor in his neighborhood – and the desperation it breeds. He is too educated and experienced to let patriotism blind him to the truth of America’s contribution to a good deal of “evil-doing.”
To say he should be criticized for his lack of patriotism, shunned for being “divisive,” or quieted down for being animated and angry about the underbelly of U.S. policy and its effect on folks with dark skin, is to attempt to shut up an articulate voice in the multiple narratives that tell the complicated story of who we are as a people and that might help us move forward in a new way.
The story of our country looks different to a Native American and will include a history of genocide and immoral land acquisition and its long-ranging repercussions. The story of an African-American embodies enslavement and long-term racism and its continued effects on the hopes and dreams of young black children. The mother of an addict will read differently the historically documented information regarding U.S. foreign policy in Central America and its effects on the drug trade. And the families of the black men who died thinking they were being treated for syphillus while they were actually being treated like lab rats, will feel differently when they read news stories about illnesses affecting a disproportionate number of black folks. Wright speaks of these narratives and embodies the anger at injustice of a people he loves and for whom he feels a responsibility as pastor and brother.
The only ones who benefit from everyone playing nice – not mentioning the elephant in the room or the naked emperor on parade – are those in league with the oppressors, standing to gain from the status quo, or not wanting to be ruffled by the messiness of historical reality. Those of us who hope for change need to sit still and listen to folks like Reverend Wright – even if it makes us uncomfortable. There’s not much wrong with what Reverend Wright has to say.
This past week, the addiction issues at the house came to a head again, and sadly we had to ask two people to leave. We will truly miss them; we already do. But facing the truth and its consequences are part of living responsibly as a community together. We hope with all our hearts that these friends will be back someday.
Also, this week, my son Joe came home briefly and brought home with him two other difficult stories I want to share with you. One was a chance meeting with some migrant workers at a bus stop in Atlanta a few weeks ago. The bus was terribly late, and there were a number of folks stuck waiting at the station who did not speak English and were baffled about what to do after four hours of waiting. They had left jobs in one place to find work in another (the plight of migrant workers), but if they didn’t arrive on time they would lose those jobs. Joe translated their concerns to the desk clerk, who was “not helpful.” The clerk said he had no idea about the bus (although he had announced every hour for the last four that the bus would arrive in approximately 20 minutes) and said he could not refund their money.
Joe spent the wee hours of that morning talking with two of the workers, a young couple from Oaxaca, Mexico. He said his own powerlessness within the Greyhound system really made him feel for the precariousness of their situation – new to the country, not speaking the language, desperately looking for work, having no idea what to do or to whom to turn . . . yet still more hopeful of finding work here than in their home country. While Joe felt abused by the bus situation too, he had resources they didn’t; they had emptied their pockets buying the tickets. In the end, they wound up staying in Atlanta – and they are still looking for work. Joe arranged to meet with them at the same bus stop on his way home this weekend so he could give them the English language book they had requested. They plan to stay in touch.
Another story he shared was an interview he had with a former Viet Nam vet. It was part of a history class project, and he was excited to be able to interview Scott Camil, a well-known Gainesville veteran. He asked Scott to share with him not just the stuff he could get off the internet, but what it was like to be a young man in Viet Nam. The little Joe had time to share with us over breakfast just tore at our hearts. You can know the story of Viet Nam or any war – its statistics and strategies, its motives and historical impact. But there is nothing like looking into the eyes of a person who has borne some of the brunt of it. The death and destruction he witnessed and participated in at such a young age – and the struggles and persecution he faced when he told the truth of his experience – had a tremendous and ongoing effect on his life. Today, he is still struggling to make some sense out of it – and to somehow redeem his own participation in it by telling the truth every chance he gets.
What do we do with these stories? They are part of who we are as a community and as a country, but they are so painful. Joe said he could understand why Scott might fall completely into despair after having experienced what he did. But Scott found the heart to come to terms with it and to face down the painful truth by telling it. And the two Oaxacan immigrants, struggling to get by in a strange system where their labor is needed but not respected have the heart to befriend a college student passing through the same bus station. As for the addiction issues… I still don’t know where to find heart in it. I do believe it is good, though, to face such a sad issue straight up, good to offer help whether taken or not, good even to suffer the consequences we all make ourselves vulnerable to when we face a difficult truth.
As Christians, we profess to believe that walking with people in their struggles is a way we can follow Jesus in the here and now. Jesus put himself in places where the difficult facts of human existence were apparent. He shone a light on hard and ugly truths people would rather not have seen. Dorothy Day often quoted Dostoevsky: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” That truth is glaring on Good Friday when we contemplate a love that brought Jesus to the cross. But we remember at Easter that truth and goodness – God – prevailed. May God be with all of us this Easter season and may we all – such a struggling lot – be somehow transformed into Easter people, brimming with life and hope.
Last Thursday Joan Prado, who has worked for many years for the Department of Labor, led a discussion on immigration. She described the current political atmosphere and attitude toward undocumented migrant workers and also the harsher penalties being considered for “illegal aliens” and those who employ them. The conversation around the issue was particularly interesting because of the diverse experience of the folks at the table.
Joan pointed out some of the misinformation we regularly hear: that these people do not pay taxes for instance – which they do through their employers; and that they are taking jobs away from American citizens – when her perception was that they were taking jobs (and hours), as farm workers, that no one else wanted. Several folks who work at labor pools in construction pointed out that they felt they had lost jobs they were seeking in construction when Latinos, who were willing to accept much lower wages, were hired before them. These folks understood the desperation of people who have traveled so far from home to work but were feeling the pinch because of it. This led to a discussion about the loss of production work in the U.S., since so much has been sent overseas to lower paid workers in order to increase profits for shareholders (at the expense of the workers who relied on that work to take care of their families). It made us wonder how the resentment between workers will grow if the economy continues to falter.
And if there’s anything we can do about it. Toward the end of the discussion, someone pointed out that there were probably not five items in Jubilee House’s large dining room that were made in the U.S. Are there ways that our habits of consumption are supporting this system that is causing harm to some of the most vulnerable people? How much of it is so far gone that we are locked into a system of supporting unfair practices in other countries, as well as our own? Do our own spending patterns mirror the greed (in a very reduced way) that motivates corporate execs to abandon factory workers here to increase their own profits?
It also raised the question of what is going on with the migrant workers’ home country’s economies that they are forced to travel so far from home and family – and often at extreme risk – to find work. One friend from the labor pools, experienced in construction work, put it clearly: “If you’ve got a leak, you don’t keep mopping up the mess, you look for the source.” This made everyone consider whether our time and energy prosecuting illegal immigrants might be put to better use helping support their home countries’ economies.
We ran out of time too quickly, but I think we came away from this roundtable better informed by the various viewpoints – and the complexities of the issue. We’re hoping to revisit issues surrounding immigration soon.
Disturbing, but that was the understanding we came away with after last Thursday’s roundtable discussion led by Joe Jackson. Joe is a professor at the UF Law School and regularly offers his services to homeless folks as well as to those who try to help them.
Joe gave an overview of his understanding of poverty and homelessness and how it has changed over time as he has gotten to know people dealing with these issues. His growing understanding of homelessness and his friendship with homeless people led him to become involved first with the committee tasked with finding a location for a “safe space” shelter (none was ever found that met with community approval) and later with the HOME Van (Homeless Outreach Mobile Effort). Most recently he helped bring a suit against the city for discrimination when it tried to close down the “Fire of God” church based on its membership – primarily poor folks. He is currently involved with a series of city commission meetings where the commission is being asked to restrict churches from serving the “needy.”
Megan, a UF student, brought up the question of how we define the needy. Are poor students on financial aid needy? Or is it the way people dress? Where they live? And this seems to point to the concern behind the concerns. What is the real problem with serving a meal to a hungry person – or to many hungry people if there are a lot out there? Or with offering shelter to someone who has no place to sleep or come out of the rain or cold?
Downtown business people and homeowners associations carry a lot of clout with the commission. But however they dress it up, the main concern is neither with a church’s ability to adequately care for needy people nor with public safety of downtown shoppers and nightclub frequenters or families living near neighborhood churches. Churches and religious groups have done a good job of stepping up and filling in when the city started restricting services at St. Francis House – our city’s homeless shelter. And there are laws on the books to protect people and property from individuals who are disruptive, dishonest, or dangerous. The fact that downtown bars that encourage irresponsible drinking and the dangers (and annoyances) that accompany it – drunk driving, brawls, public urination, littering, and other irresponsible and harmful behaviors — operate with little interference from the city, lays the lie to the public safety concern of many of the people who are complaining the loudest about churches.
The bottom line seems to be… the bottom line. Business owners are concerned about the down and out detracting from downtown’s ambience, and homeowners are worried about property values. It’s money.
And it’s us. If you repeat something often enough, people begin to believe it. “Most homeless people are ‘transient vagrants’ who choose to live that way;” “Downtown is dangerous because of all the ‘homeless people;’” “If you feed them, you just encourage them to stay around here rather than moving on.” All these statements smack of bigotry and recall times past when it was common for white people to make assumptions about black people and their presence affecting property values and “our” lifestyle.
If we made the effort to get to know people, we would know – like Joe – that homeless and hungry folks are pretty much like “us.” They’re a mixed bag of people trying their best to cope with the hardships in their lives. People living on the streets have suffered almost insurmountable hardships: debilitating mental or physical illness, abuse, addiction, poverty, unemployment and other human failings and vulnerabilities. What should the attitude of those of us who are getting by be toward our neighbors who are struggling? Shun them? Send them packing? Keep chasing them out of the “safe spaces” they’ve found on their own? Make it illegal for folks who want to help to be able to do so? Some community.
It’s as wrong to treat the poor and “needy” as second class citizens as it is to treat someone with a different skin tone that way. We can do better – as individuals and as a city.
The next city commission meeting dealing with this issue was postponed. Stay posted for the new time. Joe said it would make a difference to the city commission if many of us attended. For our part, we can show up being as passionate about the well-being of our brothers and sisters as we are about our bank accounts.
It’s no secret that a lot of homeless folks are addicted to either drugs or alcohol. The ways they got there are as various as anyone else’s. But the toll has been higher; it’s left them high and dry, wasted, alone, and needing another hit. Badly.
It’s easy to judge, especially for those of us whose addictions are culturally sanctioned – junk food, television, shopping… and/or alcohol or pills behind closed doors (because we have doors). And it’s a fact: addiction is wrong. It puts some people in jail and it kills others. And it is always de-humanizing. It strips us of our ability to act responsibly, even morally. Like Edward in the Chronicles of Narnia or Gollum in the Lord of the Rings (handy references for folks who don’t know an addict – or think they don’t), we would sell out our sister or our brother or our souls to get that thing that literally means the world to us.
Personally, we are experiencing this in all aspects of our lives right now. The Gainesville Catholic Worker is struggling with finding ways to treat folks who are addicted to drugs or alcohol with both mercy and responsibility. Those substances aren’t allowed in the house, and no one living in the house is supposed to be using illegal drugs or entering the house under the influence of anything. There are too many people struggling with this to allow what some people even consider fairly normal use – wine at dinner or parties, etc. And we try hard to treat guests and visitors with respect and dignity, whatever their addiction.
We are also experiencing this in our family life as Ben deals with the painkiller addiction that his cancer treatment left him with. If you are inclined to let Ben off the hook and differentiate him from other addicts, he would be the first to tell you not to. A lot of the folks you see weaving in the streets started out their drug use for the “legitimate” pain and trauma caused by accidents and illness. Even more sought emotional relief, like Ben,from a substance that was available to them. Ben will also be the first to admit that, if he didn’t have family, insurance, or other resources at his disposal, he could be out on the street too. That is a fact, but it doesn’t really help. We are as helpless as any addict in the face of addiction when it comes to dealing with addicts – whoever they are. They have to hit “rock bottom;” they have to decide they want help and find within them the humility and heart to ask for help.
And we have to wait and hope and hold them accountable, while offering alternatives and “tough love.” And we try to recognize ourselves, or a loved one – or Jesus – in the brokenness of it all. I don’t know what else. I wish I did.
UPDATE: Being Salt, College Students Take Over the Roundtable, Youth Group Takes Over the Cafe, New Living Local Blog
Busy week at the House, please check out the schedule HERE, and join us if you can. Highlights include an invigorating scripture study, Lenten Morning Prayer, a Roundtable featuring some of our most active college students, and a Cafe run by high school youth group members.
Also, we started a spin-off “blog” for any of you who mght be interested in learning along with us to live more locally here in Gainesville: What We Need is Here: Learning to Be Local. As many of you know, a primary goal of the GCW has been to support local farms and businesses with what we do at the house. We’ve learned some things and have a lot more to learn in how to live more deeply here in Gainesville, using and appreciating the resources available to us and being more conscientious about how our decisions affect others. We would love to hear your insights and ideas as well, so jump in and add a comment.
And we are still waiting to get the new listserv set up. Hopefully you’ll get an email soon asking if you want to remain on it. Have a good week. Hope to see you!
Gainesville Catholic Worker
218 NW 2nd Avenue
Gainesville, Florida 32601