April 19, 2010


by Peter Maurin

In the first centuries
of Christianity
the hungry were fed
at a personal sacrifice,
the naked were clothed
at a personal sacrifice,
the homeless were sheltered
at a personal sacrifice.
And because the poor
were fed, clothed and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
the pagans used to say about the Christians
“See how they love each other.”
In our own day
The poor are no longer
fed, clothed and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
but at the expense
of the taxpayers.
And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed and sheltered
the pagans say about the Christians
“See how they pass the buck.”

There is a line from one of Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays that explains the title of this article well. “The Catholic Worker believes in the personal obligation of looking after the needs of our brother.” I couldn’t have said it better; however, understanding what this means for our lives is a more difficult task.

If we take a look at the Final Judgement passage found in Matthew 25, we read those recognizable words, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” In this passage, it is revealed to us that we are indeed our brother’s keeper—and that there are certain ramifications if we neglect this command. If we look at each individual phrase, we notice something else as well. Every single statement in Matthew 25 pertains to services that require the gift of time. We cannot feed someone who is hungry without taking the time to either cook or buy the food that will fill our hungry brother’s and sister’s stomachs. It is also important to note that there are no middlemen listed in this passage. The verse doesn’t read, “I was hungry and you gave to the United Way.” I mean the United Way no harm but am raising the point that too often we see practicing the works of mercy through the lens of the dollar. We freely give from our pocketbooks but let other priorities prevent us from giving the gift of time talked about in Matthew.

Living at the Catholic Worker doesn’t necessarily mean that we have this figured out either. Although we try to offer hospitality daily through a shower, some clothes, or a simple meal this task can be done without any love and care. These tasks, just like any other, can be stripped of personalism and then be found wearing the robe of bureaucracy.

There is a man who panhandles in our neighborhood named Bob. He sleeps most nights in a tent nearby. On one particular evening the temperature was predicted to dip well below zero so we opened our home to him for the night. We listened to him play guitar and tell stories. Then he began to speak about how he would rather sleep outside than at a local homeless shelter. The reason, he said, is that he doesn’t feel safe or trusted there. “There’s too much red tape.”

The homeless shelter Bob was referring to is a rather large establishment—a one-stop shop kind of place. They do a beautiful thing by offering temporary shelter to hundreds of people a night; however, because of the mass amount of people needing care, lines form. Lines form and people have to continue to line up for each service they need. Because of all these lines there are rules and policies in place in order to keep things running smoothly. The downside to all of this is that it can be very easy to never know anyone whom you are serving—which serves to perpetuate the dehumanization of our friends who experience life on the streets. These people, our brothers and sisters, end up being treated like cattle to be herded around and around.

The shelter, however, is not the only place susceptible to this dehumanizing, impersonal way. Even at Cherith Brook we battle our own inclinations to treat this life of hospitality and community like a job—clocking in at nine and clocking out at five. This happens despite us committing to remain small so we can truly know our brothers and sisters. Thankfully, our guests who come in for showers each day teach us the way to practice the gentle personalism Peter Maurin talks about. This teaching comes in unexpected ways and if we are not attuned to it, these moments will pass us by.

Our friend Crystal is someone we visit with regularly when we are spending time on the streets of the Northeast. We usually hand out sack lunches and chat a bit, but this time a volunteer of ours offered Crystal a tube of chap stick after noticing her cracked lips. Crystal’s face lit up with delight after receiving this unexpected gift. There are also a number of our friends from the streets who come to Cherith Brook faithfully every morning to sit and relax, but last week the whole room exploded with song and laughter when Luis played La Bamba on the guitar.

All of these stories—Bob and the shelter, Crystal and the chap stick, Luis and La Bamba—have something in common. All of these stories involve the unexpected. Crystal never asked for the chap stick, Bob didn’t ask to stay at our place and Luis wasn’t told to play La Bamba. All of these acts of kindness burst forth because a person loved another person so much that they were compelled to contribute to their well-being. Another word for this is thoughtfulness. It is no different than a child drawing something and giving it to their parents; no different than a husband attending a concert he may not enjoy because he knows his wife loves the band; no different than a family who stays day and night by a loved one’s bedside when he or she is ill. All of these things involve love, time, family and sacrifice.

There is another interesting common thread to all of these stories. All of these displays of personalism involved a person doing something more—something different—than the usual. Even though we offer people a shower, a meal and some clothes, it is the “little things” that show our love for our guests. These small acts of thoughtfulness tear down the social, economic, and racial barriers that have been erected in our land, and give birth to things like family and comradery. It is never the shelter, never the program that restores humanity. It is the individual caring for the individual that restores all of our humanity and creates community.

When we practice personalism we no longer treat people as objects to be proselytized. We no longer make people our own “fixer upper” projects. We no longer ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” as Cain did. Instead, we open our homes to one another, sing songs for one another, and give out tubes of chap stick. We say, “Peace to you, brother. Peace to you, sister,” as we throw our arms around our friends who are the poor among us. And by doing so, maybe we will again hear people say of the Christian, “See how they love each other.”

1 comment:

  1. confession: i have found your blog, and i have found that it is good. peace!