Two worker houses: where ‘stranger becomes neighbor’

Guest blogger, Amy Nee

One evening in May I sat on windowsill in the room I’d recently moved into at New York’s Maryhouse Catholic Worker. With legs folded into the frame, I watched a little window of sky that subtly made the dramatic shift from pale yellow to blazing pink without comment.  I was sitting with the thought that while I had spent my day absorbed in preparing for, hosting and cleaning up after a memorial service at Maryhouse, my Chicago-area White Rose Catholic Worker friends were participating in a nonviolent uprising that swelled in response to the NATO summit. 

Four demonstrators hold signs protesting at the NATO Summit in Chicago.
Demonstrators gather during the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 2012. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA.

These two communities, offshoots from the trunk of one movement, are sustained and shaped by the life and writings of the same woman (the venerable Ms. Day), and have at different times been home and church and classroom to the same woman (the ephemeral Ms. Nee). Yet, to the untrained eye, these sister houses can look almost opposite. 

White Rose: a half-dozen, highly educated, fair-skinned youths with the occasional overnight guest, all dedicated and devoted to sustainable living, social justice education and nonviolence not only in every action but in every word and expression as well. 

Maryhouse: twenty-five folks, a majority over fifty years old, of varying color, creed and acumen together in a household that day after day admits dozens of women and offers showers, clothes, a balanced meal and company (not guaranteed to be cheerful, but ever-present, nonetheless).

The exterior of Maryhouse Catholic Worker
Maryhouse Catholic Worker captured by Julia Walsh, FSPA, during her April 2012 visit.

 At the former I would spend three hours in a meeting (the results of which would be revisited, rehashed and revised the following week).  At the latter I spend three hours folding clothes that the following day will be stashed in bags, tossed on the floor and probably, eventually abandoned on park benches.  I often find both tasks more maddening than enlightening.  All the same, I consider the time well spent. 

At the former, each day, we concerned ourselves with the issues of the world – war, torture, environment, oppression of all kinds. And, we sought to educate (ourselves and others), create alternatives and partake in nonviolent demonstrations, open the door to others that we might eat and talk and play and pray together.  At the latter we concern ourselves with individuals in our community and neighborhood: the hungry, sick, lonely, weary in innumerable ways. We cook lunches, wash dishes, offer clean clothes and showers, visit hospitals, celebrate and mourn. 

I am often astounded at how two communities of the same movement could be so different.  One might be tempted to compare: which is better? which more successful? which meets the greatest need?  These questions, I think, are alluring as forbidden fruit that promises the knowledge of good and evil upon ingestion.  The end result, as our first parents demonstrated, is not an answer that reveals truth, but a blade that cuts apart holy wholeness, introduces shame and accusation and ultimately separates the seeker from the Word of Truth, that is to say, Love.

“ ‘In the end, the only thing that matters is love,’ those are the last words I ever heard from her mouth,” a woman shares at the memorial for Rita Corbin held at Maryhouse on Sunday.  Hers was one of many stories remembering the life of this prolific artist whose woodcuts, since the 1950s, have oft adorned the pages of the Catholic Worker newspaper and whose life infiltrated and enriched far more than just our readers. 

Image of Rita Corbin's Works of Mercy artwork.
Rita Corbin’s “Works of Mercy”

The gathering elicited reflections that evoked both laughter and tears.  Rita’s now adult children played folk music.  We served coffee and punch and huge platters of fried rice and salad with Wasabi-citrus dressing that had been specially prepared at St. Joe’s for the occasion.  I alternately filled and washed plates, introduced the food and myself, listened to reminiscences from Rita’s brother and showed visitors to the bathroom.  All the while members of the White Rose, along with thousands of others, marched and sang and maintained a peaceful presence outside (some eventually inside) Obama’s campaign headquarters, amidst an anxious crowd of activists and likely more anxious officers in full riot gear ready to make use of their training and tazers.   

 A critic of one persuasion might consider Maryhouse mundane and trifling, while one of another might consider the White Rose naive and dramatic.  Neither assessment is accurate, nor is the assessment that their actions are so very different.  Both are engaged in attending to matters of life and of death (which one might argue are themselves part of one whole), both are engaged in practicing, to the best of their ability, the Works of Mercy.  These seemingly separate houses seek the same revolution, a revolution of the heart where “stranger” becomes “neighbor” and we learn to love our neighbor as our self; that self that is a divine vessel, bearing the very image of the God who is Love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s