Awhile back I became familiar with the Catholic Worker movement. A part of their philosophy involves voluntary poverty, and sharing everything in our lives with people in need. The credo is “if you have a coat on your back, and a coat in your closet, one of them belongs to someone else.”
This is a hard teaching for me.
I grew up in a family of modest means. My father died when I was six years old, so I was raised by a single mom who worked part time. Yet we always had adequate housing, decent clothes to wear and I cannot remember ever going to bed hungry. I now suspect that my mother sometimes did without things that she would have liked in order to provide for me, but I never heard her complain about it, and I don’t recall her ever being in any sort of true physical deprivation. I was afforded every opportunity in terms of education, despite our limited resources, and I was not saddled with the crushing student debt which is so common today.
I have lived “from hand to mouth” at many points in my life as an adult, but I have not yet ever experienced the desperation of poverty that afflicts tens of millions in the United States. At the age of 56, I am not wealthy, but I finally enjoy what might be called a “solid middle class” standard of living.
In short, for most of my life I have thought of myself as one who was struggling to get by, not as one living in relative abundance. Like many who share my status, I felt that I was “doing the best I can” to help others by making regular donations to various charities.
At long last it has occurred to me that it’s not truly “the best I can do.”
Yet, it is difficult for me to imagine myself doing as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin did in establishing Catholic Worker – forsaking even a modest level of comfort to live and serve among the most destitute in our community. There are, of course, many “practical” considerations involved. What about my wife and daughter, who have not been stricken with such a revolutionary conviction? It would be one thing for me to deprive myself, but I’m not sure that it would be just or proper to require such a thing of them.
Perhaps this is all just rationalization. Suffice it to say that I have struggled and pondered these sorts of questions for many months now. There was a particular moment where the weight of guilt came crashing down on me while hearing this story from the Gospel According to Matthew.
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.
During Advent of 2013, at Reconciliation, I broke down in tears while describing this struggle of conscience to the priest. I left the rite with a determination to do more than simply write checks to charities as a way to meet my Christian obligation to others. I decided to find ways to participate directly in meeting human needs. It may not be all that is required, but it is a start.
I met with Sr. Denise, the Pastoral Associate at our church, who prayed with me and gave me information on several organizations in our community working to reduce the suffering of those in poverty. This morning, I worked for the first time at the Center of Hope, a local food pantry. It was ninety minutes of honest work, pushing a broom, mopping floors, helping to unload a truck from the food bank and breaking down boxes for recycling. I met some very fine people. Some of them have been volunteering at the Center for a decade or more. I hope that one day I will be able to look back on as many years of dedicated service.
This post is not written in a spirit of self-congratulation. To the contrary, I feel deep shame at having squandered so much of my life, turning a deaf ear toward the pleadings of the Gospel and a blind eye toward the needs of others. I am also still terribly troubled about the question of my second (and third, and fourth) coat, and all of the other comforts that I enjoy and do not yet share.
Dorothy Day said “I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.”
This morning, for the first time, that statement gives me hope.