Reflections on My Stay at Amistad Catholic Worker, Spring 2010

[Selections from this piece were published in the Lent 2011 issue of La Amistad, newsletter of the Amistad Catholic Worker.]

by Ben Crosby

I’d like to begin with the names of two people, both of whom in their own ways have powerfully affected me during my stay here at Amistad Catholic Worker House.

The first is Jeffrey Jones. I do not believe I ever met this man, or if I did he did not introduce himself. There is no way I could pick his face out of a crowd. How is it that this man who I do not know came to be so important to me? The answer is tragic in its simplicity: he died. At around 9:45 on Tuesday, March 9th, I was sitting at the desk in the third-floor room of Amistad Catholic Worker House where I was staying, when I heard around a dozen sharp reports: gunshots or firecrackers. Tired after a few days of work at Amistad, I uncritically assumed the latter and crawled into bed. When I tramped down the stairs the next morning to help cook the breakfast, I soon learned that the noise I had heard last night was more than a few kids playing with explosives. No: at the corner of Rosette and Hurlburt, just a few meters from the house, two men had been shot. One was dead, and the other was in the hospital. The dead man’s name, as the New Haven Register eventually reported, was Jeffrey Jones.

My immediate response, unsurprisingly, was a certain amount of fear. These were the first shots I had ever heard fired in anger, by far the closest I had ever been to violent death. Of course, I soon recognized that I wasn’t truly in any danger: I was staying with the Catholic Workers, after all, who were respected by even the local drug dealers, and besides was always safely ensconced within the protective walls of Amistad by nightfall. Once my fear had subsided, it was anger that I felt. People shouldn’t be shot on my street. People shouldn’t have to worry about their safety when walking home from a late-night shift at the factory. The resigned, sardonic “Welcome to the Hill” which a grizzled community member uttered at breakfast in response to my shock utterly broke my heart.

And perhaps most infuriating of all were the comments on the New Haven Register website, comments much blunter but not so different in substance from statements I’d heard back at Yale: The people out in the Hill are “animals” or “dirtbags.” It’s a “jungle” out there. Let them kill each other — one less person for the police to deal with. Classist and racist undertones aside, I found the ignorance of these statements incredibly frustrating. As Mark mentioned to me when we talked about it later, these people were clearly trying to separate themselves from the tragedy: violent shootings are something that happens to ‘those’ people in the Hill, in the inner city — not here or to us! But having at least a basic understanding of the systemic factors leading to the perpetuation of cycles of violence, poverty, and crime in so many of our cities and having spent a few days at Amistad, seeing firsthand the people fishing through the garbage for cans to sell or the groups of jobless young men lounging about on street corners or creaky porches, I knew that we couldn’t separate ourselves from this. We are all, in some sense, complicit in the death of Jeffrey Jones. We may not have pulled the trigger, but we are complicit in our continued wholesale participation in a system that leads to murdered black men in our cities just as surely it leads to shiny new S.U.V.s and minivans in our pleasantly monotonous suburban subdivisions.

I would also like to introduce the reader to Stewart. Stewart is a fifty-five-year-old African-American man. With his unkempt goatee, doo-rag, and missing teeth, he is the sort of person, to be perfectly honest, whose presence would not so very long ago have caused me to pick up my pace and stare fixedly at the ground were I walking past him after dark. I started a conversation over dinner with him. Stewart told me that he plays the keyboard. He’d begun playing it in his early teens, and after playing for a few decades had gotten sick of it and planned to quit. However, taking a break from playing for a while, Stewart told me that he had felt called to start playing again. He realized that although he may not have had much, he did have this God-given gift of music, and it was a gift he could use in the service of others. Stewart is quite convinced that after his somewhat wild youth, his continued existence is thanks to the grace of God and the assistance of people like those here at Amistad, and told me with quiet passion that he hopes that his music will safe just one life like his.

Now, I know stories like these are often used to to subtly suggest to middle-class readers that the poor are happy with their lot, that their lack of material possessions makes them more compassionate and holy in ways that assistance would diminish. This of course is not my intent: living simply is commendable, but being forced to remain in an environment of degradation, rampant substance abuse, and want is, to put it mildly, not good. With this caveat stated, I am truly blown away by Stewart’s gratitude and desire to serve his fellow man. I claim to want to dedicate my life to the service of others (and hope and believe that its a sincere claim) and have a tremendous amount of things about which to be grateful, yet next to him I appear just another spoiled, self-interested bourgeois teen. And, as I wrote in my journal that night, “this,” just as much as Jeffrey’s death, “is Rosette Street.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. An introduction is in order: my name is Ben Crosby. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago and am a freshman at Yale University, where I will likely major in religious studies. Raised a Lutheran, I was always very conscious of the social justice implications of my faith, and spent many hours with friends at Yale talking about what our theology should look like in practice. The Catholic Worker Movement came up in several of these conversations, and after reading a copy of the newspaper put out by the Open Door Community in Georgia, I decided to investigate the movement further. A few web searches later, I found Amistad Catholic Worker’s website and with it an email address. Desiring the opportunity to put some of the conclusions from those long conversations into practice, I wrote an email to Mark Colville asking whether it would be possible for me to spend my spring break as part of the Amistad Catholic Worker community. After I attended a few Masses and other events, Mark invited me to stay. So, Sunday, March 7, after completing a battery of midterm exams the week before, I walked through the gate and up the steps and into my home for the next two weeks.

It is now Thursday, March 18, and I find myself preparing to leave Amistad. The demands of classwork are beginning to press on me once more: there’s War and Peace to read, an essay on Faust to write, the daily routine of classes and extracurriculars are but a few days away. But I’ve been able to take a few hours this sunny afternoon to reflect on my time here, and in doing so I feel most of all a tremendous sense of gratitude to Mark, Luz, Herb, Lolo, Junior, the Colville kids, and everyone else associated with Amistad Catholic Worker for allowing me the privilege of participating in their community.

The work here, to be fair, isn’t always glamorous. If I had any romanticized notion of life at a Catholic Worker House as nothing but revolutionary political agitation (late-night meetings at the kitchen table, political rallies with shouted slogans, marches, etc.), they were soon quashed. Life here is more about keeping food on the table for people who might not eat otherwise than penning bombastic pamphlets about The Cause. My time has been largely occupied by cooking, cleaning (I’m now an expert at scrubbing grease off kitchen walls!), and reorganizing. But, in its own quiet way, Amistad Catholic Worker is more radical than than most of the student-activists I know back at school. For here are people who have made a conscious decision to live life simply, in solidarity with those that our society deems ‘animals’ and ‘dirtbags’ and expendable drains on state resources. Here is a place that really tries to be a community in a neighborhood that needs community desperately, where people sit down to break bread together and in doing so support each other. Mark often says — and I have noticed this phrase in various Catholic Worker publications as well — that Catholic Worker Houses aren’t institutions. And indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of meals at the House is that Amistad isn’t run like an impersonal, bureaucratic soup kitchen. Our neighbors come over to help us cook, and then we all eat together, and I’ve gotten to know Brenda and Bobby and Dawn and Rico and Marcos and Stewart as people in their own right, not just as drawn, weary faces in a queue.

I believe that one of the most important gifts that the people at Amistad have given me is the ability to put human faces on often clinical, unemotional presentation of statistics about poverty in our inner cities and in New Haven in particular. It has in some sense been a radicalizing experience for me: just as I know intellectually that the current configuration of the world political economy lets a tremendous number of people fall through the cracks, I now feel it on a visceral, emotional level. I’ve experienced it personally. Jeffrey Jones, age forty-three, is dead now. I hope that this both continues to inspire me to action and leaves me with a more profound ability to empathize with my fellow man.

While living here has both angered and saddened me, I am thankful that it has not left me trapped in the despair of urban degradation. Amistad is an oasis in a troubled neighborhood, a place where area retirees and unemployed come by to help make dinner, a place where the people of the Hill open their hearts and their wallets to aid each other in times of need, a place where Stewart talks about wanting to save young kids’ lives. I now know people who see the same injustices and inequities as I, and rather than succumbing to the despair which has beset so much of the theoretical Left, have dedicated themselves to living a life of radical openness and nonviolence, and, to paraphrase Dorothy Day, to struggling now both to provide daily food for those who will otherwise go without and to change the systems of exploitation and violence that prevent everyone, everywhere from having enough to eat. Grounded in faith and in a life of prayer, my friends here at Amistad still have that precious thing called hope. And as I’ve seen my faith and my prayer life strengthened during my time here, I am finding that same hope reaffirmed in me.

A question that has already been posed to me several times is how my experience here at Amistad will inform my life once I’m back at Yale. It’s a fair question; I know that when I get back I will be once again swept up into the life of exams, papers, performances, and so forth within that gated (literally!) community of privilege that is my university. Several people I have talked to, reacting with some incredulity at my passionate happiness here at Amistad, have remarked, “Ah, but you’re only there for two weeks.” And it’s true. I know that this is only a brief attempt at living radically, and that throughout the experience I always had the option of running back to my comfortable dorm room if the Hill became more than I could handle. And yes, although I will be back to Amistad as often as I can during the rest of the semester, the minor triumphs and catastrophes of undergraduate life will inevitably consume most of my time.

But I hope and believe that these two weeks will prove to be more than a quickly-forgotten spring break episode. I hope that I carry a little bit of the Hill with me when I’m back on campus. I hope that I don’t lose my sense that social justice isn’t a game for naive college students to play at or a hobby to be done in one’s spare time. I hope that I always remember Jeffrey and those gunshots that Tuesday night, and that I keep Stewart, and everyone else I interacted with here at Amistad, in my prayers. And I hope that these two weeks mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment to truly living life in solidarity with the poor.

As a parting thought, I’d like to share a few words by Archbishop Oscar Romero on the Virgin Mary. Now, as a Protestant, I was brought up to be very unfamiliar – and somewhat uncomfortable — with Mariology, but these words nonetheless resonate strongly with me:

Mary is not an idol.
The only Savior is God, Jesus Christ,
but Mary is the human instrument,
the daughter of Adam,
the daughter of Israel,
a people’s embodiment,
sister of our race,
who by her holiness was able to incarnate in history
God’s divine life.
The true homage that a Christian can make to Mary
is, like her,
to make the effort to incarnate God’s life
in the fluctuations of our fleeting history.

I pray that just as God incarnated Christ into our broken world through a poor, unmarried Jewish woman, God may act in my life so as to enable me to participate in the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven and the proclamation of Jesus’ good news to the poor today. Amen.

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Filed under La Amistad Lent 2011, La Amistad Newsletter

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