By MEGAN RAMSEY
My introduction to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker was not originally through The Long Loneliness or Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays. Instead, the movement’s philosophy was passed down to me, secondhand and well-worn by the people who made up my world growing up.
Some have referred to me as a second-generation Catholic Worker. In St. Louis, my parents both spent a short time at a Catholic Worker before they chose to move into a neighborhood along with a number of other young families who had previously lived either at the Catholic Worker or at another intentional community. Their goal was to hold onto some aspects of communal living but with their own independent households.
We shared harvests from gardens, power tools, meals, conversation, and childcare. New families were drawn to the neighborhood and the community grew. We were surrounded by people who chose to live faithfully to their values, to raise children to do so as well, by modeling an example in real life.
All the adults in my life seemed to have careers centered around the service of others. There were social workers and nurses who worked with the poor and mentally disabled. Many were educators, including a woman who spearheaded creating a Montessori program for our underserved area, and a number of high school and college teachers who empowered students to question what they were told, to think for themselves, and to impart change in the world.
Whether professionally or recreationally, the residents of our neighborhood were all philosophers and activists. From community dinners to impromptu sidewalk chats, there was rarely a dull conversation. To name each individual and how they have impacted me, and others, would take several pages of this issue, and would not begin to do them justice.
I studied the works of mercy by observing the way these folks lived out their lives. I never questioned why the family down the street made a space in their home for a houseless man. As a child, I wish I knew Spanish to be able to play and make friends with the refugee children staying in an old tavern my community converted to give sanctuary to families moving into our country.
Through numerous role models, I learned how to interact with others. I remember regularly witnessing one father (who worked as a judge) patiently listen to each side of a fight before asking the involved parties to negotiate their own solution to the problem—my first taste of conflict resolution!
Life interconnected with scores of people of every age, and I came to acknowledge how much effort and care meaningful relationships require. Along with the work that goes into nurturing these bonds, I also understood the importance of gathering together in celebration with this extended family crammed into homes for Halloween, the winter solstice, an annual Beatles party, and more.
The core values held by this growing group influenced our local church, St. Cronan. Parishioners required church leaders and each other to actively address current issues in our society. A fellowship of lay preachers would rotate doing the homilies, always challenging the congregation to examine their lives and the world we moved through.
St. Cronan’s drew people in from across the city that were seeking out this (sadly) unique focus. When threatened to be closed by the diocese, the community fought back and was spared; the church became the designated “social justice” parish of St. Louis. Politically on the fringe, this parish is fondly considered to be a gateway church: it is either the first church people try out as they consider entering (or returning to) the Catholic faith or the last one some Catholics attend before they believe the Church is no longer the place that reflects the love and justice God calls us to.
When we speak of prophets, what may first come to mind is the image of those fervently rousing crowds, calling out the powers and principalities. But societal change also requires prophets who lead by example, who show us how to bring to life the seemingly impossible calls of the Gospels.
Social transformation will require a collective effort, people to lay the foundation of an alternative way of life. It takes individuals willing to put in the work to create the environment where some may find it easier to join in “to be good.”
Having spent the first half of my life in a small version of that society, I now see that community as idyllic and rare, but not entirely out of reach. I found myself craving something similar as I established my life in Los Angeles. Seeking out the Catholic Worker was naturally my move.
I will never forget one of my first times volunteering at the Hippie Kitchen, the community gathered around the chopping block at the end of the day to debrief serving that day and to discuss a potential upcoming action. “Either we protest tomorrow, or Obama will be bombing the sh!t out of Syria by the end of the week,” Jeff Dietrich earnestly shouted at us all. I had found my people and felt compelled to continue the effort of developing community, to bring more into the fold of this alternative way of being.
Megan Ramsey is a Los Angeles Catholic Worker community member.