What Do You Do at St. Jude?
On occasion I am asked, “What exactly do you do at the Catholic Worker House?” My answer often depends on who’s asking and how much detail I feel like giving at that particular moment.
Sometimes I give the rote answer, “Well, there is a family who lives with us, and another woman we take care of, sometimes we give shelter to others for short periods of time — we have open hours where people can use the phone, do laundry for free, check their mail, get something out of the Free Store, get help or information about social services, some people have used me for a job reference, and sometimes people just hang out and talk or get warm… and on Thursday evenings we have a community dinner, open to anyone who comes.”
Other times it is police, fire-personnel or paramedics who ask me “Dave, why do you do this?” (They all know me by name.) The fire-personnel and paramedics joke that I am their ’combat medic,’ and the cops think I’m crazy for getting between two angry big guys fighting — without a gun, a billy club, a taser, a badge, the authority of the state and kevlar to protect me — while being under 130-pounds. (Yes, there are bad days. My personal joke is, “a boring day is a good day!“) And, of course, there are those who try to tell me, “You’re wasting your time… ’those’ people are losers… they f’…ed-up their lives and they deserve what they get.” To which my favorite sarcastic retort so far is, “So what you’re saying is, that I should be helping ’winners’ like you instead?”
In essence this is all really just me evading the answering of the actual questions. Even a response that outlines a position of social and economic justice, leftist-political/philosophical theories, or a critique of power structures and capitalism, is still dodging the real substance of the questions… even if those perspectives are true, in my opinion, and part of the answer, but not the root of it.
What we do is not charity, in the mainstream sense of the word. There is no ’giver’ and ’receiver.’ We at St. Jude are not like an NGO or a typical non-profit that most people are familiar with. This is not my ’job,’ we are volunteers, and we do not have ’clients’ or ’cases.’ I am not a professional anything… let alone, a trained social worker, nurse, clergy, counselor or therapist. In fact, my actual degree is a dual major in art technology, music composition and a minor in film… so, quite a ways from any of the above, but I often find myself performing some of those duties.
So, the questions still remains: “What do you do at the Catholic Worker House?” and “Why do you do it?” Well, I would say that the answers to both of these questions are fundamentally connected.
SO,WHAT DO WE DO?
Yes, some of our functions, such as those I mentioned in the beginning of this article, are similar to what social service agencies do… but our guests are often those that social service agencies have turned away — for whatever reason.
As a result, many of the people who come to us are coming to us where ’the hole is the deepest and the darkest…’ often they are coming to us when there is no other hope. Unfortunately because of our limited resources, we sometimes are unable to help as much as we wish we could. (Our operational expenses for both houses averages about $1000 to $1200 a month which is actually near the federal poverty level for a single adult with no children.) But, in spite of our limited capacity and resources, we do what we can, even if that means just treating people with dignity, understanding, compassion and without judgment.
Sometimes just listening with humanity is enough to give someone hope when they’re in that deep, dark hole. Sometimes that is all it takes to give someone hope in spite of all the tragedies.
When I was a boy my uncle Jack, my grandmother’s brother, who was a wicasa — a holy man — taught me many things. I did not have a father, so the responsibility falls on a male from the boys maternal side of the family to teach him as he grows. It is a responsibility accepted, a bit like a godfather in European culture. For me my uncle Jack was that person.
Every summer I would go and live him and his wife, my aunt Lily, for a couple months. I would have to help on the farm, go fishing, hunting, ride horses, and visit other relatives. They were poor too, but to a kid from housing projects in Gary, Indiana—it was like going to another world.
One time he turned to me and said: “The only enemy a warrior will ever face is his own fear. A coward sees fear, runs, and does nothing… a fool sees fear, ignores it, and dishonors himself… but a warrior sees fear, acknowledges it, welcomes it, is at peace with it, and does what must done in spite of it.” He only said it once. He rarely ever repeated himself. It was his way. Either you were listening and understood his meaning, or you weren’t and it was your folly. That was what he called, a “sacred manner.” You had to be listening and paying attention at all times. If you missed it, it was your own mistake. There was no point in repeating because you weren’t listening in a “sacred manner.”
IN A SACRED MANNER
So, where is the answer to those opening questions in all of that? What do we do at St. Jude Catholic Worker House? Yes, we do provide access to much needed basic services and necessities to those who wouldn’t have access otherwise… but most importantly, we “listen in a sacred manner.” With all the respect, dignity, and compassion that every being deserves — regardless of their imperfections. It is difficult to do — and there are undoubtedly some very dark moments. But that can be a part of “human-ness.“ And, why? Maybe simply because of no other reason than… it is what must be done.
— Dave Powers