Rev. Dr. Colin Miller is a co-recipient of the 2014 Duke University Chapel Humanitarian Service Award. He writes here about how a group of people came to pray, eat, and live together, and eventually became friends across differences. This is a short history of how this community came into being.
December 2, 2014
We have all got it in our heads that the way to help the poor is to make them rich. In contrast, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, in founding the Catholic Worker Movement, claimed that the best way to help the rich was to share life with the poor. Neither side, it seems, has a monopoly on the fruits of life together. In a small parish in Durham we discovered the Catholic Worker Movement and its radical claims as we discovered that daily prayer was leading us to similar conclusions and that life together is no simple prescription.
In 1933 Dorothy Day, a young journalist and recent convert to Roman Catholicism, returned to her Manhattan apartment to find a French emigrant named Peter Maurin waiting for her. Maurin, an itinerant laborer who intentionally modeled his lifestyle on Francis of Assisi, had read deeply in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the New Testament and the prophets of Israel, as well as in modern critiques of industrial society, and had a vision of a new form of life for the Church in a rapidly changing world. As Peter would insist, it was to be a form of life “so old, it seems like it’s new.” Dorothy, Peter had been told, would be sympathetic, and had the organizational and literary capabilities to implement this vision.
Peter’s vision, which Dorothy articulated, had three central components.
(1) Houses of hospitality where the poor would be housed and fed at a personal sacrifice.
(2) Roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought, especially on the ways that Christian theology intersected with social and economic concerns.
(3) Farming communes, which Peter called agronomic universities, where both workers and scholars could re-learn a connection with the land.
These three practices were the scaffolding upon which to build communities “in which it is easier for people to be good.” Soon a monthly newspaper, The Catholic Worker, was born, the publishing office for which became the first house of hospitality, with its soup line, roundtable discussions, and visits from intellectuals interested in social matters from all over the world.
The Catholic Worker Movement had begun. Across the country people bought subscriptions to the paper, which was meant to bring the social teachings of the Gospel, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, to the people on the streets. New houses of hospitality and farming communes sprang up, each with its own distinctive flavor. Dorothy and Peter’s strong commitment to pacifism, non-violence and voluntary poverty in years that saw World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the creation of massive amounts of unevenly distributed wealth, was often a controversial challenge to the status quo. Against increasing institutionalization, growing impersonal bureaucracy, and expanding reliance on the State in social matters, the Catholic Worker consistently called each Christian to take personal responsibility for the plight of her neighbor. The Movement, now nearly 80 years old, today comprises about 200 communities including houses of hospitality and farms.
Sometime around 2005 the seeds for an Episcopal Catholic Worker House in Durham were planted. It started with a few of us gathering to say Morning and Evening Prayer together at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church. We did not all know one another and did not commit as a group to daily prayer. Each of us showed up for his or her own reasons. First, there was only one person, opening the church each day and saying the prayers alone. After several months, others began to arrive and join in the prayers. After a year or two a small community had formed of individuals committed to daily corporate prayer together.
After a while of coming and going day by day, we had become acquaintances, and in some cases started to become friends, with a group of men that lived on or around the church property. We were vaguely aware that these friendships were a call to something. Perhaps we could help our friends somehow, we thought.
It was so strange to pray each day, “Let not the hope of the poor be taken away” and then just to go back
home after chatting with the guys for a few minutes.
So we started looking around for other Christians who had been serious about prayer and been friends with friends like ours.
Fairly early on we came across Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker.
To our surprise, they kept telling us that the question was not what we should do for our friends, but how
our friends were God’s way of doing something for us.
So we started to think that fellowship – friendship - as a good place to start. Taking our cue from the Catholic Worker, we read around in the Sermon on the Mount, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, we talked to some local Catholic Workers, and we tried to creatively imitate some of Peter’s vision. Without really having any idea what we were doing, we kept praying the Office, and we started having breakfast in the Parish Hall each day with whoever was around after Morning Prayer. The measure of our success, perhaps, is just how complicated life got from there. Eventually, to cut a very long story short, a few of us begged together enough money to rent a small house that through various iterations and moves has served as a sort of ma-and-pops hospitality house, simply offering housing, food and shelter to various men, women, and drop-ins. We call it Peter Maurin House. It is a household, albeit a non-traditional one, in the broad tradition of the Catholic Worker where meals are shared, laundry is washed, the Eucharist is celebrated, and friends sit on the porch engaged in conversation for “the clarification of thought”.
We are hesitant to give more details about our adventures for a number of reasons:
(1) It has taken far too long to begin to win the trust and respect of these men, who are now close friends, to offer our story, which is equally their story, in print without great caution. Our reticence seems to increase in proportion to the dearness of our friends.
(2) This story of ours is full of flaws. At every turn we have acted without a script, often openly flouting the unwritten script society provides us all for the sake of the trust and friendship of the guys. We realized early that trust was a major hurdle and that few of the resources our society gives us for engaging the poor would actually inspire anyone who is not of the same socio-economic status to trust us (this may well generalize to other forms of difference as well). When you go off-script, there is the potential for something new and good, but also the inevitability of mistakes. So we made mistakes, and we made brilliant friends. Often, too, we chose the friendship of these men over the wishes and guidance of colleagues, even some of those who themselves work very hard for the poor and the homeless. The guys and our colleagues in Durham could give a better account of our mistakes. Our only comment is that we have made them honestly, and we claim them as our own.
(3) We have no method, no program, no system, and no institution to offer beyond critical engagement with our own daily prayers. Even if we shared every warty detail of our story, it probably would not give the reader any better idea how to better live a faithful life in Christ. If we have anything to offer, we believe it is the witness to what can happen if we respond with courage to what is given us and what can happen if lives are molded to the rhythms of prayer. We need courage not because the homeless are scary, but because friendship is dangerous and responding to another person faithfully is full of risk - risk of mistakes and rejection, of being shunned by the ones to whom you are trying to be faithful as well as those who do not understand that faith. We deeply believe that Christ has given us the grace to take this risk, and we believe that we have been blessed to see something of the fruit of that freedom in the friendships around the hospitality house. The emphasis on courage and on a continual re-evaluation of what faithfulness looks like, we think, will be useful to all the baptized. Still, it is no program.
This would be enough – God has thoroughly turned the lives of many of us inside out with this little adventure. But the fact that we are slowly but surely meeting new people who are enthusiastic about our story, and curious enough to join us on our little adventure, makes us think that God wants us to keep exploring how he might be answering our prayers. We’ve put together a group we’re calling The Community of the Franciscan Way, not least because St. Francis stands so close to the heart of the Catholic Worker Movement. We are simply committed to corporate daily worship and prayer, study, simplicity, and fellowship with the poor. Presently our work includes the hospitality house and support for the growing breakfast fellowship at Saint Joseph’s. We have recently started publishing a newsletter called The Little Way. We welcome support, camaraderie and participation as our little adventure proceeds.
Dorothy Day didn’t know she was asking for Peter Maurin and a life devoted to something called the Catholic Worker Movement when she prayed in 1932 that God would give her a way to serve the poor. We didn’t know that we were asking for Dorothy, Peter and friendship with the poor when we kept saying together “O God, make speed to save us” at Evening Prayer. But if God wants to use the Catholic Worker movement to spread hospitality and the works of mercy from early 20th century France, to lower Manhattan, to Durham, we are happy to be along for the ride. Our prayer is that God will continue to give us the grace to receive the gifts he provides.
By Rev. Dr. Colin Miller, Associate Rector of Urban Ministry at Church of the Good Shepherd, Raleigh, NC