Climb aboard the Catholic Worker bus
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor
"My boyfriend tried to crack my skull open with a sledgehammer," our guest Maggie explained when I asked her why she had to go to court one morning. She was going to testify against a lover-turned-assailant. Her explanation snapped me out of a self-absorbed reverie.
Life at the Catholic Worker is a bit like being on a very long, crowded bus ride. If you start to doze off or wonder where the hell you are going, a fellow passenger, newly boarded, jostles their way into the seat next to you and plops a confession in your lap. Maggie's story gushed out as we sputtered up Lancaster Street toward the courthouse in my friend's old jalopy. On that morning, her fight for sobriety seemed as tenuous as the car's efforts to crest the hill.
She started drugs when she was a teenager. "At 16, I was with a 34-year-old man. Then, one day, he called from jail and said he wouldn't be back for eight months. I was so sick and I thought I had the flu. I didn't even know I was dope sick." So Maggie hit the streets to "cure herself."
"Can you imagine that?" she said, starting to cry over her own history. "At 17, other girls were getting ready for the prom and I am going out on the streets."
More than vengeance for her boyfriend, Maggie wanted a sustained sobriety (she had had 13 good years before the addiction resurfaced) and she desperately wanted to regain custody of her son.
Nancy, a mother of three, who stayed at the Catholic Worker, also hoped to reunite with her children as did Ely, a petite and asthmatic woman whose history of addiction was written all over her body. One night Ely talked to me about her children. "They call every Tuesday and Friday at 8 p.m. I always make sure I am there by the phone. Their call is the one thing I hold on to," she said.
While she stayed at the Catholic Worker, Ely faithfully joined us for Night Prayer, her scarred face becoming beautiful in the candlelight that illuminated our breviaries. We tried to keep a set time for the Office but I was often late. Once, she left a note for me on the kitchen table, "Let me know when you are starting prayers tonight," it said. "I will be waiting."
I am remembering these women because here in Worcester, Mass., there have been heated discussions about the city's poor. City officials are trying to crack down on the panhandlers who increasingly frequent the major intersections. A community group is complaining yet again about overcrowding at the "wet shelter," that is, the shelter that doesn't have sobriety as a prerequisite. Even the local Catholic school has balked at the proposal that a house for women in recovery be placed within blocks of their building. The gist of the debate seems to be we must hide the poor because their presence diminishes the community.
My experience at the Catholic Worker has proved quite the opposite. Far from being a source of deprivation, the meager hospitality we offer to those who come to this house has enriched my life. There are frustrations. Some of our guests get on their feet, some never do. The repetition of need can get tedious, and I regularly fight against becoming indifferent. But there are moments of revelation that I would not miss for all the tidy spaciousness of suburbia. The poor wear fewer masks than most of us. To live amidst their honesty is a privilege and a grace.
Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
© 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115
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