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NOWHERESVILLE: AN ATTEMPT TO FIND THE CATHOLIC WORKERS MOVEMENT

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By Michael Nagel

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The Montréal Review, May 2014

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Image: Rita Corbin

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My copy of "Loaves and Fishes: The Story of the Catholic Worker Movement" is falling apart. There is almost nothing holding it together. On the front page there's an inscription written in light, now almost non-existent pencil: "A gift from Penny B." This inscription wasn't written for me. I bought this book used, five years ago, back when I thought the Catholic Worker Movement might be the answer to my crisis of faith. I taped this book back together with packing tape but it still feels delicate. The delicacy of this book represents the delicacy of the movement, I think to myself. I am proud of this observation and I make a note to use it later.

On a Saturday in April I take a train into Dallas. It's hot outside, too hot, almost 90 degrees. There is some sort of cultural festival going on at the train station near my apartment. While I wait for the train I watch Native American dancers dance to some sort of drum solo that is either poorly done or historically accurate. The sky is white like a sucked-dry snow cone. I am wearing a button up flannel shirt. I didn't expect it to be hot today. I am on my way to a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality somewhere near the outskirts of the city. I've put the address into my phone. The house, according to an online listing, is called Jonah House.

Houses of Hospitality: When Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started the Catholic Worker Movement — in the 1930s, largely in response to the depression but also the looming war — they had three goals: founding a newspaper (called, confusingly, The Catholic Worker), organizing farming communes, and starting houses of hospitality. For Dorothy, the houses of hospitality were simply a place where everyone was always welcome, where there was always enough room when someone needed a place to stay. For Peter, a philosopher and an idealist, the houses served a slightly loftier purpose: They were the beginnings of a new society. "A society," he said, "Where it is easier for people to be good."
         While the Movement has all but disappeared from the public eye over the past few decades, most of these houses of hospitality are still around. According to one Catholic Worker I emailed, "The number of Catholic Worker communities has more than doubled since Dorothy's death. There are now 227 or so communities...Perhaps you should visit one and see what you think."

I am leaning my forehead against the train window, watching the ground go by. The air-conditioning is freezing. The window is freezing. I take my copy of “Loaves and Fishes” out of my bag and start reading from the beginning. It's been five years since I’ve read this book, since I taped it back together. It feels like it's going to fall apart again. I am reading it for context. When I get to Jonah House I want to ask the guy who runs it a few questions. I want to ask why the movement has become so reclusive. I want to ask if the Movement is really even a movement anymore. Or maybe what I really want to ask him is why I've stopped believing and whether or not there is anything left for me.
         I transfer to a Blue Line train at Saint Paul station downtown and take the Blue Line through the city and out the other side. I am heading for Corinth station, a stop I've never been to before and never heard of. There is a little boy at the front of this train talking in a British accent, announcing the things our train is doing. He's wearing a conductor hat and a vest. He looks like a little kid but he might be older than I think. There is clearly something wrong with him. As our train is stopping he tells us that our train is stopping. He gets off at Victory Station and his mom gets off with him. I hadn't realized that was his mom. She puts her arm around his shoulder and leads him through the station.
        
I am twenty pages into “Loaves and Fishes” when we pull into Corinth station. I forgot how good this book is. Before Dorothy Day started the Catholic Worker Movement she was a journalist. She writes about the Movement without any sentimentality. "What we pray for we receive, but of course many times when we ask for help from our fellows we are refused. This is hard to take but we go on asking." I mark my place with my train ticket and I get off the train. Corinth station is in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing out here. I check the address again on my phone. I am a mile away. A man asks me for money and I tell him no.
         Why’d you have to say it like that? He says.
         I look at him and shrug. I used to give homeless people money all the time but not anymore. Now I hardly ever give them anything. I used to think pity was a form of morality but lately I see pity as a form of pride. It's a way for me to look down on people, which I try not to do.
         I take off my flannel shirt and stuff it into my bag. It's getting hotter out here. 95 degrees. Past the station the sidewalk is cracked open and bleached white. I walk over a bridge with slimy green water running underneath. I am entering some other sort of place. I pass an abandoned motel with the windows all boarded up. There's red graffiti on the plywood and it's not very good. The grass here is three feet tall. It reminds me of villages I've been to in Africa. There are two women in front of me, black women, both wearing bright orange and white dresses. It's like they're glowing. I am following the GPS on my phone but I also happen to be following them. We walk up a hill, past an elementary school, through a neighborhood. There are puppies playing the street. Cars swerve lazily around them. A German Shepard growls at me from behind a chain link fence. I think: He knows I don't belong. The women disappear and then reappear again. I wonder if we are all heading to the same place, to Jonah House.
         "Characters of every description and from every corner of life turned up and we welcomed them all," Dorothy wrote, "Some came with their suitcases, intending to stay with us a year, and, shocked by our poverty, lingered only a night. Others came for a weekend and remained for years."
         I take a left off the main road and the women don't follow me. I am alone now on a gravel road. My sweat has soaked through my shirt. I am thirstier than I can ever remember being in my entire life. My mouth is dry. I'll ask the people at Jonah House for a cup of water, I think. It will be just like a story out of the Bible. The GPS says I'm a hundred yards away but there's nothing here. I am walking up a hill and from here I can see the Dallas skyline. I think of that Death Cab for Cutie line: "The skyline looked like crooked teeth." And maybe the truth is that I never expected to find anything out here anyway. The website where I'd found the address was at least a decade old. I thought about calling ahead but that seemed wrong to me. In “Loaves and Fishes” people are always showing up unannounced. I wanted to experience the movement on its own terms. Maybe I was being idealistic, but wasn't idealism what this whole thing was about?
         Just as I am about to head back down the hill I see it. A house tucked into the trees, behind a padlocked chain link fence. It's not far off the road but it looks far. It's hard to make out the edges. I'm not sure, for a minute, whether or not it's really there. In the front window there are pictures painted on the curtains: proletariat-themed art, men and women in the fields, and beneath them, the word "WORK." This is the place alright, but there's no one home. I wonder if anyone has been home for a long time. Vines have grown over the windows. I walk around the side of the house and find a garden with freshly turned dirt. There are gardening tools leaning against a shed. A sign says to beware of dog but there's no dog. This whole place is somewhere between existing and not existing. If a stranger walked by I would ask them if they could see it too. I stand in the driveway for twenty minutes and wait for someone to come home or come out but nothing happens and I give up and walk back down the hill.
        
At the bottom of the hill an old man is picking up trash with his bare hands. He's putting the trash into a canvas bag. I ask him if he knows whether the Catholic Worker house up the hill is still open. Jonah House, I say. His skin looks like it’s been in direct sunlight for one hundred years. He says, The fuck you talking about? I say thank you and keep walking.
        
The neighborhood seems nicer the second time through. Friendlier, cleaner. I walk the same path back to the train station. The puppies that were playing in the street, strays I now realize, follow me for blocks. When I stop they swarm at my feet and jump up at my knees. I think about taking them home with me but I know I could never take care of them. After a few blocks they get tired. They sit on the sidewalk and scratch their ears.

On the train home I'm not sure whether my trip has been a failure or a success or what. I found the Movement but the Movement was not what I'd expected it to be. Not what I wanted it to be. Dorothy writes: "Young people in particular have always liked the word 'revolution' because it implies action, change, the renewed struggle for a better world. This is one reason why The Catholic Worker attracts so many young people." But revolution is hardly how I would describe what I've just seen: a dilapidated old house in a dilapidated old neighborhood, a house that may or not have been abandoned a long time ago. If there was a revolution going on, it was going on underground. But then, I wonder if that's not exactly what Dorothy Day would have wanted. If the revolution she was after wasn't an Occupy Wall Street type revolution but something much more subtle.
         "What kind of organization do we have?" Dorothy wrote, "It's hard to answer that. We don't have any, in the usual sense of the word."
         Maybe The Catholic Worker was always meant to just barely exist.

A few days later I email my Catholic Worker friend one last time. I ask him the questions I wanted to ask at Jonah House. Why has the movement become so reclusive? What is its function in the 21st century? And, maybe most importantly, does the Movement really even exist anymore? It's a few days before he writes me back. "Mike, your questions are too broad for me to answer well. Maybe the best thing I can tell you is this: The Movement goes forward."

When I get home from Dallas I read “Loaves and Fishes” straight through. I sit on my couch and drink Maker's Mark. When I put the book back on my shelf the cover is pulling away from the pages, the spine is cracked down the middle, the ink is fading and in some places it has been rubbed away entirely. But for the most part this thing is all still here. For the most part it’s holding itself together. The resiliency of this book represents the resiliency of the movement, I think to myself. I am proud of this observation. I make a note to use it at the end.

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Michael Nagel is an advertising copywriter. His essays have been published by Apt, Switchback, The Bygone Bureau, Curbside Splendor and others. He and his wife live in Dallas, Texas. 

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