Cakalak Catholics: Radical Christians plant stubborn roots in the heart of the Bible Belt

by Jordan Green

Brushing a strand of blond hair from her forehead Lenore Yarger steps away from the row of black beans she’s been planting as the portable phone hits the second ring. The moment she answers her attention will turn to a decision faced by an anonymous soldier stricken with the mounting anxiety of an impending deployment to Iraq.

With the wind riffling through verdant stands of sunflowers and corn at this homestead in the Chatham County countryside, the call comes as a jarring intrusion to the pastoral calm, raising the specter of combat stress, the surreal business of killing and dying, and the most personal kind of agony that comes as a byproduct of the three-year counterinsurgency a half a world away. The 37-year-old Yarger listens intently to the soldier, doing her best to offer sound advice.

“You can contact your congressperson,” she suggests.

Then she listens some more, hearing the soldier’s doubts and considering the options.

“If they still send you, you would still have the right to complain,” she says. “That would have to be investigated up the chain of command.”

Later as husband Steve Woolford entertains their 2-year-old daughter, Geneva, and a slightly younger playmate in a sandbox, Yarger rests on a wooden bench nearby. At 38, Woolford’s curly brown hair shows some flecks of gray. His cherubic smile strikes a contrast to his wife’s austere gaze.

The calls from soldiers, routed to their phone by the GI Rights Hotline, represent the couple’s only gainful employment. They receive their paychecks from the Quaker House, a pacifist outfit in Fayetteville that has been helping soldiers get out of military service since the Vietnam era. The couple purposefully maintains an income small enough to avoid paying taxes and supporting military spending. Whatever else they need comes from the generosity of others.

The calls have tripled since the invasion of Iraq.

“We’ve gotten about four calls today,” Yarger says. “A busy day would be more than twelve. Most people who call have had bad experiences: promises not being kept, being abused, people who have been overseas and didn’t like what they saw and what they had to do.”

Some of the soldiers are facing their second or third deployment.

“They talk about not wanting to go back and having post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Yarger says. “There was one guy who drove a tank and he was told if a child got in the way you have to keep driving; you can’t stop. That didn’t sit well with him.”

The couple and their daughter, three guests, including one child, and a friend from the movement currently comprise the Silk Hope Catholic Worker community outside of a crossroads town named for the failed scheme of a group of enterprising Quakers. Aside from the commune’s abundant garden, its fruit trees and grape arbor, and its four beehives, any inventory of the members’ lives would have to include two bedrooms set aside for indigent guests, regular protests against the Iraq War, the death penalty and the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning -‘ sometimes going as far as civil disobedience – a monthly chautauqua with food and discussion, and a quarterly newspaper, The New Southern Catholic Radical, produced on a World War II-era Underwood manual typewriter, with columns cut to size with Exacto knives and waxed onto galley sheets.

The Catholic Worker movement has maintained a marginal if influential place in the American cultural landscape since 1932 when its cofounder, Dorothy Day – a maverick activist who went to jail for the cause of women’s suffrage, wrote for communist newspapers and kept company with bohemians like playwright Eugene O’Neill prior to her conversion to Catholicism -‘ made the acquaintance of Peter Maurin. A French immigrant of peasant stock who delighted in the world of ideas, Maurin almost immediately persuaded Day to launch The Catholic Worker newspaper, open houses of hospitality and set up agricultural collectives.

The fortunes of the movement have fluctuated with the vicissitudes of the times, but the pacifist politics of the Catholic Workers gained many new adherents during the Vietnam war with the emergence of the radical Catholic left – a time when two of Day’s friends, priests and brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, poured homemade napalm on hundreds of draft files dragged into a parking lot in Catonsville, Md. and lit them on fire.

The movement seems to have found fertile soil for growth in North Carolina during the years of the Iraq war, with its heartbreaking echoes of Vietnam. As home to some of the largest military bases in the nation and a prestigious grouping of state universities and private colleges, the Tar Heel State possesses just the right set of contradictions to attract the brand of idealists drawn to the Catholic Worker lifestyle. Add to that North Carolina’s distinction as the state with the sixth largest number of executions since 1976, which helps account for Sheila Stumph and Scott Langley’s decision to relocate from Boston to Raleigh in September 2004 to found the Raleigh Catholic Worker, a house of hospitality primarily for family and friends visiting prisoners on death row at Central Prison.

The first outpost of the Catholic Worker movement in North Carolina was the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, a southeastern suburb of Raleigh. The house was founded in 1991 by Patrick O’Neill, Mary Rider, their young daughter and a Dominican nun. Like almost all Catholic Worker communities, the Garner house provides shelter to the down and out. The house exclusively serves women and children because, as O’Neill explains, “it became very hard to segregate a battered woman from a street alcoholic.”

Hospitality, the calling card of the movement, would seem to be both one of the most attractive and difficult aspects of the lifestyle chosen by Catholic Workers.

“Living in a community with homeless people or mentally ill people would not be the first choice of a middle-class American,” says O’Neill, a longtime contributing writer for the Durham-based alternative newsweekly The Independent who gave up a career as a journalist to make the Catholic Worker a full-time commitment. “Your faith draws you to it. The rewards are not easily measured. This is a different measure. Success is not a word that appears in the Bible. We’re called to total love, and the buck stops there. We’re called to love unceasingly. That’s the appeal of the Catholic Worker.”

The Catholic Worker’s charitable endeavors are widely praised, but when it comes to its loud opposition to war the movement has a more nettlesome relationship with the larger Catholic culture. The Catholic Worker’s moral consistency seems to place it at an awkward station over the fault line of the nation’s increasingly polarized cultural terrain. The movement is thoroughly at odds with President Bush’s aggressive foreign policy, and mostly in synch with the larger Catholic Church’s increasingly strident opposition to abortion.

So Bush’s adoption of the Catholic term “culture of life” during the 2004 election and his success in gaining tacit support from mainstream Catholics for his foreign policy agenda would seem to place Catholic Workers further from the center -‘ or maybe, like the prophets of the Old Testament, in a position to more effectively critique the comfort and arrogance at the seats of power.

“I think it’s very important for a person of faith who wants to make the world a better place to have a relationship with the victims: the poor, the outcast,” O’Neill says. “Our lifestyle -‘ militarism and racism – this is not a victimless lifestyle. People all over the world pay for our extravagance with their lives’…. We’re blowing them up with our bombs. We’re stealing precious resources away from human needs. Subsequently, you have to resist war. I have spent two and a half years in jail for protesting against war.”

He’s quick to add: “I don’t even think civil disobedience in this country is all that extraordinary. I still get a place to sleep and three meals a day. I don’t get tortured. Going to prison is another way to serve the poor; you’re with the poor so it’s a good place to be.”

On a national level, the teachings and practices of the Catholic Worker tradition might resonate with both the anti-capitalist left and the social conservative right.

“The Catholic Worker is neither liberal nor conservative; it’s theologically traditional and politically radical,” says Michael Baxter, who teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame and lives in a Catholic Worker house in South Bend, Ind.

He laments the tendency among some Catholic Workers to put aside church’s teachings on social issues.

“They’re being overtaken by liberalism,” Baxter says. “There may be a diversity of opinion, but not all opinions are equal. People that don’t think abortion is an important issue – that view doesn’t hold much weight either in the church in general or the Catholic Worker movement in particular. Dorothy Day had very strong feelings about welcoming women into the house who were pregnant, and never turning them away. Never. She herself had an abortion, and though she didn’t talk about it much, she clearly regretted it.”

Yet Day articulated other views that would be unlikely to impress contemporary Catholic intellectuals in the pro-Bush camp like Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and constitutional law professor Douglas Kmiec.

“We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists ‘of conspiring to teach to do,'” Day wrote in the September 1956 issue of The Catholic Worker, “but this rotten, decadent, putrid, industrialist capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

In an earlier issue of the newspaper, published as the American left was facing annihilation from the hounding and investigation at the hands of anti-communist crusaders like Sen. Joe McCarthy, Day explained her embrace of anarchism.

“The word anarchist is deliberately and repeatedly used in order to awaken our readers to the necessity of combating the ‘all-encroaching state,’ as our Bishops have termed it,” she wrote, “and to shock serious students into looking into the possibility of another society, an order made up of associations, guilds, unions, communes, parishes – voluntary associations of men, on regional vs. national lines, where there is a possibility of liberty and responsibility for all men.”

Since the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House established itself in 1991, and the Silk Hope and Raleigh houses followed suit eight and 13 years later, respectively, North Carolina Catholic Workers have found fellow travelers in other faith-based activist communities, mostly in the Triangle area. A directory on a Catholic Worker website (in line with its anarchist nature, every house operates with autonomy and the movement has no national governance) lists 190 communities in the United States and 24 in other countries. Despite the vibrancy of the movement more than 25 years after Day’s death, those who have observed it closely say the Catholic Worker is unlikely to appeal to a wide swath of society.

“There’s a steady trickle of people coming off college campuses and other places who are drawn to this kind of life,” Baxter says. “Some people want to live differently than what seems to be a normal bourgeois life of making money and pursuing their career and providing for yourself and your loved ones and looking out for those in your small arena. People in the Catholic Worker movement want to make it their purpose to open themselves up to the claims of others, especially the poor – people who have nowhere else to live, no economic means to speak of, but who have a lot to bring.

“The central core idea is that the poor who come to us are Christ,” he adds. “What happens when you open yourself up to the poor can be salvific, in particular in revealing our own poverty which turns us to God.”

Literary intellectual that she was, Dorothy Day wove a variety of strands together to create a synthesis for an ideology and lifestyle that contended in the marketplace of ideas with the communists -‘ a potent force in American politics during the Great Depression. According to her chroniclers, Day drew from the example of voluntary poverty set by Francis of Assisi, the saint who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries; the soulful qualities of Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky; the economic ideas of mutual aid advanced by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin; the French personalist ideas of Emmanuel Mounier; and “the little way” of St. Thérese.

At the core of the Catholic Worker belief system and lifestyle, its adherents say, are seven verses from the Gospel of Matthew. The gospel would seem to separate the righteous from the damned, and call to the true believers:

“Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’

“The righteous will then answer him, ‘When Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.'”

The message of the gospel similarly inspires progressive Protestants such as Sarah Jobe, a member of the Rutba House in Durham. Jobe was ordained earlier this month and will start a new job as the Baptist campus minister at Duke University in the fall semester. Sitting in an armchair in Yarger and Woolford’s front room with a plate balanced on her knee during a recent potluck dinner and “round-table” discussion night at the Silk Hope Catholic Worker as her Catholic fiancé looks on, she ponders the commonalities of those with whom she has chosen to surround herself.

“All these houses exist on the idea that Christ says he’ll meet us as the stranger,” Jobe says. “So we try to take that seriously. If it says, ‘feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and take care of the sick’; if it says, ‘sell everything you have and give the money to the poor,’ I think we ought to at least give that some serious consideration before we take it to a metaphorical level.”

They’re going to get married in August, Jobe and her fiancé, a former high school teacher named Dan Schwankl. In a form letter published on page 2 of the spring 2006 issue of The New Southern Catholic Radical, Yarger notes that the Schwankl has been splitting the spoils of dumpster-diving forays between Rutba House and the Silk Hope Catholic Worker community, with huge blocks of Velveeta cheese going to the former house due to dietary preferences of the latter one.

“Dan also found time to get arrested on three separate occasions, along with other Catholic Worker and community members, in protest of state executions at NC Central Prison,” Yarger reports. “In fact, I am writing this column while sitting in court awaiting their trial.”

Another Protestant community from Durham, Isaiah House, is also represented tonight at the round table. So is a communal household from Pittsboro vaguely organized around spiritual intentions of “striving to be honest and live in harmony with the land.” Throw in three graduate students from UNC-Chapel Hill with ties to the anti-war and the anti-globalization movements but no apparent spiritual leanings, and the gathering takes on a decidedly ecumenical cast.

“‘Protestant Worker’ would sound funny,” says Bill Gural, a member of Isaiah House who attends a Church of Christ. “Protestants are already known for working.”

He sees himself as sharing the Catholic Worker’s impulse to return to communal the roots of Christianity – part of a trend in the past century towards opening monasticism up to the Christian laity.

“There’s a lot of individualism in capitalism that gets pumped into mainstream Christianity; the nuclear family isn’t everything,” Gural says. “With the ‘new monasticism’ you can live a communal life without celibacy. In the Middle Ages you had to give up sex to join a religious order.”

The members of the various houses prove to be vitally interested in the roundtable, this one a report from Argentina on the movement of unemployed workers and initiatives by employees of bankrupted factories to run the businesses as collective enterprises.

“The unemployed workers movement started in the mid nineties in places outside Buenos Aires,” says Liz Mason-Deese, a 21-year-old graduate student in UNC’s geography department. “They would create roadblocks of hundreds of people. The idea was to stop capitalism at the point of distribution. They were really successful at winning unemployment benefits for people.”

Then she goes on to discuss the recovered factories initiatives, and bakeries, sewing shops, pre-schools and other worker-run enterprises designed to put people to work.

“From the beginning they were going to be run as horizontal structures with no leaders, and they would just continue meeting until they came up with a consensus,” she says, “so meetings could sometimes go on for a very long time. The pre-school instills horizontal values at a young age. They would play musical chairs, but instead of losing your chair you’d have to share a chair with someone. Or ‘police and political prisoners,’ my favorite game. You would have some people be police at a protest and the police would arrest some people from the crowd. The kids would chant, ‘Release the prisoners,’ when you got arrested.'”

While few in the group seem to wear their religion on their sleeves, none show any reticence about expressing their passion for soccer. Roy Stawsky, an Argentine member of the Pittsboro Blue Heron house, pulls away from the discussion circle to kick a rubber ball back and forth with his young daughter. And the Silk Hope Catholic Worker members have faithfully watched the World Cup games this summer on an old TV with a rabbit-ears antenna on the front porch. It picks up the Univision channel out of Raleigh. Now that the games are over, Woolford has said he plans to give the set away.

And then there is this dilemma for Mason-Deese and her friends: whether to play for the anarchist or socialist soccer team in Chapel Hill. Waiting for the other arrivals, the three toss the ball between each other, and Mason-Deese considers the options before settling on a clever solution.

“We should start an anarchist soccer league and just say, ‘Fuck all the rules.'”

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