Thursday, April 14, 2005

'The world's best-kept secret'

The Salt Lake City Weekly has a piece about the Catholic Worker house in Albany:

Fred Boehrer’s voice fills the gym of St. John the Evangelist School in Schenectady, N.Y., prodding, but also understanding how much he is asking. “Pray for your enemies? Pray for people who plan to execute people, bomb people, torture people, hurt other people, hurt their own people? This is tricky stuff. … Some of the stuff Jesus comes out with is a little off the hook.”

The hundred or so high-school students sitting in long rows of folding chairs—white, well-dressed, many who walked in talking on cell phones—are silent. They are here to hear Boehrer speak as part of the social-justice and service units of their confirmation class. One of the first things Boehrer had asked when he started to talk was how many kids were there because they wanted to be. Only about six had raised their hands, but at this moment, at least, he has all their eyes. No one rises to the bait though. At least not out loud.

Later, when Boehrer tells them about a Russian family that couldn’t stay in the homeless shelters because of problems with their documentation, one girl whispers derisively to her neighbor, “In other words, illegals.”

[Boehrer] plays some excerpts from Seinfeld’s “Muffin Top” episode, in which Elaine and an acquaintance open a shop selling only muffin tops (because everyone knows those are best part!). Looking to get rid of the less-desirable muffin bottoms they’re not selling, they drop them at a homeless shelter, only to get harangued by the shelter director for assuming the homeless should be grateful for second-rate food.

On the show, the enraged shelter director is played for laughs, but Boehrer asks the kids to take her seriously: What could the store owners have done instead? He gets several ideas—give the shelter money, bake them some bread—but what he’s looking for is much simpler: They could have asked. “Part of what we’re called to do as Christians is to listen,” he says.

“They say Catholic social teaching is the church’s best-kept secret,” says Boehrer with a laugh, quoting from a 1998 report by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. In response to that report, Catholic social teaching is supposedly being given more attention in Catholic schools and religious education programs, but it still faces some serious competition from the secular world, as Catholics have become a more affluent, and less isolated, cultural group.

The social activism of Catholic Workers bears little resemblance to what is thought of as Christian politics today across much of the country. Emmaus House holds regular vigils against the death penalty, and is active in the antiwar and restorative justice movements, while casual conversation there often includes references to gay-friendly Christian retreats or groups that support women’s ordination. “Jesus never said a word about contraception and homosexuality, but he said a lot about compassion, mercy, justice, the poor,” says Chura. “You have to look at the Gospel as a whole.”

Catholic Workers’ relationship with the left-leaning activist culture with whom much of their politics naturally lines up is also not so simple. Many of those activists are generally suspicious of religion, especially Christianity.

“We hope to show them that our faith brought us to this place,” says Longobucco, when asked about working with secular activists. “The most important thing the peace movement needs to do is define what peace is. For example, I don’t think shouting curses during a peace rally is peaceful.” A few minutes later he rephrases, with more emotion. “The curses at peace rallies, it just shrivels my soul sometimes. It really takes it out of me.”

“Sometimes it’s the folks who talk the most about diversity who don’t seem to realize they have a discriminatory policy of their own,” says Chura. “One of the problems I think is ignorance: People of a secular mindset have a very narrow view of what religious people are.”

Boehrer places some of the blame for that on the media. The late Pope John Paul II gave a long, detailed, impassioned speech about how the war in Iraq is unjust and wrong, he says, but if he tacks on one little line about a matter of sexuality, that’s what the media will cover.

For their part, “What’s their stand on abortion?” is usually the first or second question out of the mouths of secular social-justice activists when one brings up the Catholic Workers. And more often than not, they don’t quite believe the answer, which is that it is not an all-consuming priority. “We tend to focus on areas that don’t get the kind of attention they would otherwise get, whether it’s from the media or from the pulpit,” says Boehrer.

Though most Catholic Workers will say that they are anti-abortion, many are sensitive about being painted with the same brush as religious right zealots who oppose abortion but won’t support programs for poor or immigrant children. “We’re committed to nonviolence and nurturing life,” says Boehrer carefully, “but what’s more important than where you stand on an issue, is what are you doing. How has your lifestyle been changed? . . . So [for example], if people are morally opposed to abortion, are they willing to host people who [otherwise] would be considering that?”


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