Monday, November 29, 2010

Consumerism and Catholic Workers

NOTE: This was written on Friday, Nov. 26

Ah, Black Friday, the day when retailers supposedly exchange their red ink pens to those with black. Long lines waiting in late November cold at truly ungodly hours of the morning snake around stores like credit card garlands, and the tryptophan of the previous day’s feast finally wears off as the terrified Best Buy clerk tries to unlock doors with a 9-and-a-half foot pole.

I spent today inserting 12-foot tall posts in Iowa topsoil with my uncle and cousins. It made me happy.

Yes, I do suppose that I am a bit elitist in how I turn my head away from today’s commercial activities. I have no more words to express my attitudes about Black Friday that A Charlie Brown Christmas could preach through Linus’ thumb-filled mouth.

It does, ironically, stimulate my thoughts around a group with whom I have been dining on Monday nights since shortly after I moved to Chicago. St. Francis Catholic Worker House of Hospitality on the 4500 block of Kenmore is a fascinating microcosm of a movement that has existed since the Great Depression, and the folks that occupy the house continually pique my sense of curiosity about counter-cultural lifestyles. The Catholic Worker movement was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, and even today the Workers espouse their values of compassion for the ignored and oppressed, simplicity in all facets of life, and a fierce spirit of independence from hierarchies and bureaucracies. Catholic Workers do not have to Roman Catholic in faith tradition, or follow any faith tradition in particular. Though many are ardently pacifist and represent some of the more proactive peace activists in the United States, others are quite content to spend their days quietly serving their neighborhood for friend and stranger, yuppie and hippie, junkie and teetotaler, and everyone in between.

The majority of the folks at St. Francis are 20-somethings who have stepped outside the race track to the top of society in order to explore themselves and service to others. None of the Workers have full-time jobs, though most have part-time jobs at supermarkets, non-profit organizations, or are enrolled in university classes. Many of the residents are recent immigrants from Africa or the Middle East who are seeking temporary housing until they gain their bearings in the Midwestern metropolis of Chicago. It amazes me that 18 people can live in an Uptown two story residence and not kill each other.

The Catholic Workers seem to represent the counterpoint to everything that Black Friday is. Where stress and hurriedness dominate the impatient throngs at a Target near you, time somehow seems to slow in the house. Where anything and everything has a price that is just low enough to convince the rabid consumer to drive another 45 minutes on name-your-expressway, the Catholic workers somehow subsist on donations and a meager communal pooling of resources. Where the American Dream consists of moving up (the corporate ladder) and out (to the suburbs), Catholic Workers strive to remain (with the) down(trodden) and in(side struggling neighborhoods).

This lifestyle is not for everyone, including me. I have had illuminating conversations with one Worker in particular, and his stories and arguments always impact me in some way. He claims to have never have had any real ambition for greater wealth and power, and his sardonic criticism of our society’s most guarded structures are incredibly simple, rational, and cutting. He offers no real solutions to our most basic problems, only his own story of wandering and eventual settling into St. Francis. Perhaps the thing that most struck me one night was how he described in the most matter of fact manner that he “really can’t think of anything that [he] wouldn’t give up for this place.”

I am convinced that God lovingly guides us to different places in life where we can use our gifts, talents, and passions for the most good, as long as we listen. For some that is construction while for others it is the management of a Fortune 500 company, and I pray that those two groups of people are the best construction workers and CEO's they can be. Some people spend their days behind computer screens and others spend their days in meat processing plants, and I pray that those two groups of people are the best office and factory workers that they can be. Then there are some people who somehow find themselves marching to a beat of a different drum than everyone else. These are the true counter-cultural prophets who constantly and quietly remind us that the dichotomy between intrusive, overbearing government and uncontrolled, oppressive capitalism is a false one. There is another way; there are other ways.

I thank my friends at St. Francis for teaching me this, and as long they continue to invite me to their dinner table, I will continue to learn in their house.

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