ROSETTE STREET RAMBLINGS… SUMMER, 2013 by Mark Colville
“Bringing the Gospel is bringing God’s power to pluck up and break down evil and violence, to destroy and overthrow the barriers of selfishness, intolerance and hatred, so as to build a new world.” -Pope Francis
“Everything a baptized person does every day should be directly or indirectly related to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” -Dorothy Day
“Find a place to stand, and stand there.” -Daniel Berrigan
A week ago, in the midst of a brutal heat wave, with long lines at the door and the Amistad Catholic Worker Block Party four days away, there arose a somewhat unfortunate scheduling conflict. I was being summoned from Rosette Street to answer charges in two different courts, one in New York City, the other in Washington, DC. Arrested for “dying in” on the federal courthouse steps in New York last April, and then again in June for refusing to leave perch against the iron fence in front of the White House, the third week of July felt like a particularly inconvenient time to be subject to the tedium, the lost time and the uncertain outcome of another trek through two imperial court systems (and possibly their jails), let alone one.
At times like these there comes a sudden (if familiar) reorientation of priorities; the focus is abruptly moved from the work at hand to the larger picture, the longer view. We are laboring, yes, toward a society in which it is easier to be good, and perhaps now more than ever these labors are done beneath an ever-darkening sky of injustice and repression. We must take responsibility for what we know. Silence is sin.
Like so many friends in Catholic Worker and other houses of hospitality throughout the country, our engagement in the Works of Mercy in New Haven is undertaken day by day within a national context of creeping fascism that seems ever on the verge of a full blown gallop. Indefinite detention without charge, solitary confinement, mass deportations, torture and the blatant disregard for international norms of humane treatment, have been fully endorsed now by two successive regimes (Bush and Obama) with no relief from Congress or the courts. Unchecked militarism, drone strikes which inflict intolerable mayhem and slaughter upon the innocent, massive surveillance programs at home and abroad, secrecy, impunity, the corporate control of government, the systematic destruction of the environment and the social safety net; these are dominant and deepening structural realities in this nation. By any sober analysis or reading of history, the U.S. has become a rogue state, and this paranoiac embrace of war without end against an enemy whose face seems to change at the whim of the war makers, is likewise causing our society to crumble from within.
I’m reminded of a trip to Chile long ago in the mid-1980s, during the heyday of the Pinochet dictatorship, at the invitation of several Maryknoll Missioners who had been there for many years. Near a small chapel called Jesus Carpintero (Jesus the Carpenter) we visited a soup kitchen in a tiny section of one of the huge slums, called “poblaciones”, that had sprung up on the outskirts of Santiago after the government dismantled all the social programs on which the people depended. In reality, this was nothing like our soup kitchens here. Everyone was poor. There was no help coming from the government or private sector, and very little available from the churches. Most of the food was provided by each family bringing something to offer from the little that they had. In this way, everyone was able to eat from a huge common pot, and thus have at least one square meal a day. The experience was deeply moving, with its obvious resemblances to the gospel stories of Jesus feeding the five thousand from the few loaves and fishes. But as I hung around awhile and talked with some of the people there, it began to dawn on me that something even more remarkable was going on. In a nation that had succumbed a decade earlier to the brutality of a paranoid dictator who had shut down the congress, closed the universities, eliminated social programs for the poor, massacred civilians and empowered the secret police to torture and disappear people at will; here on the margins, in the poblaciones, the new Chile was being imagined, discussed, called into existence and created out of the dust. The poor were not only getting fed, they were getting organized. Expelled students and dismissed professors had set up underground universities. Relatives of the disappeared and incarcerated were uniting with church-based human rights ministries to demand information from the government on their loved ones. The neighborhood people were learning to govern themselves and become self-sufficient communities, women were finding their power as leaders and agents of change, and all of it was happening around a common table where everyone came to be fed. And it seemed like everyone was talking about God and politics in the same breath! Looking back, this was probably the first moment when I began to understand that feeding the hungry could be, and probably should be, a subversive act.
Here on Rosette Street, fifty or sixty people continue to return to our table every day for breakfast, and then again as many for the midday meal. Fourteen or more have been squeezing in to sleep on a bed or sofa every night, and many more would join us if they could fit. Hundreds come together on the Green each Sunday for an outdoor Eucharist and shared meal. We operate from a house that is 113 years old and in need of repair, yet the door remains open and there is always someone here to say “Come in, you are home, we can help you.” Last month the FCC police came demanding that we shut down a “pirate” radio station that some friends had set up on the back porch to broadcast news, information and music in Spanish to immigrants in New Haven. And now we have become a center for organizing efforts aimed at preventing the displacement of hundreds of low income Hill residents by the City of New Haven, in a gentrification plan that does not (well, not yet, anyway…) include the poor.
Like most of our neighbors, we don’t have enough regular income to face the future with a realistic or dependable budget. What we do have is a plan, a program straight out of the Gospel, to subvert the powers of darkness and death, over bread broken and shared at a common table where people come to find one another, know each other’s burdens, discover a common cause, and make a way forward. The multiplication of loaves and fishes is a daily reality here, and because we have seen it so many times we have come to see it differently: It is not that Jesus creates bread out of nothing. That would be too easy! The miracle, the revolution begins when He turns to us, His disciples, and says, “You give them something to eat yourselves.” It is the call to lose ourselves, and find ourselves, in the daily embrace of the Corporal and Spiritual Works Of Mercy; to turn away, “by little and by little,” from the culture of empire, selfishness, isolation and death; to turn toward one another in community and ask, “How many loaves do you have?”. It is the invitation to come and see the new society that even now is springing up within the shell of the old.
It remains the only way forward that we know, and we are grateful to be on that way with you.
Blessings and Peace….
The Amistad Catholic Worker