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The Counterculture Christians 

Catholic Workers take the teachings of Jesus seriously—enough to live by them.

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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.”

For now, leaving his provocative statement hanging, Boehrer segues smoothly back into the main topic of his talk—explaining his life as a Catholic Worker in Emmaus House, Albany, N.Y. He walks the kids through the decision he and his wife made to give up their full-time jobs and devote themselves full time to a life of voluntary poverty and living with the poor. At Emmaus House, they take in one homeless family at a time, helping them get back on their feet in whatever way they can, while also providing everything from groceries and rides to emotional support for 12 to 15 other struggling families, mostly in Albany’s West Hill area. They rely on donations of money and goods to keep both their own household and their “works of mercy” going.

The teens, in fact, have brought piles of stuff for them—paper towels, canned soup, baby Tylenol—which they have piled in grocery bags on a card table by the exit door. Walking a thin line between gratitude and not wanting to lose a teachable moment, Boehrer gestures to the pile as he tries to describe one of the major lessons he has learned about working with the poor: not to assume you know what they want. He 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.

Boehrer and his wife Diana Conroy have spent a lot of time since they founded Emmaus House in 1996 listening, and a lot of time asking—sometimes to learn, and sometimes to challenge. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement, now a network of houses like Emmaus, in the Depression. As with most of their fellow Workers, Boehrer and Conroy are countercultural in multiple dimensions—more left-leaning in most of their politics than mainstream Catholics, Christian in an activist world that distrusts Christianity, voluntarily poor in a consumerist world, and sharing their house with other poor folks at a time even most liberals consider helping others to be a career, not a lifestyle. And yet they have managed to surround themselves with the kind of community that much of America in theory is longing for.

A Feb. 2 Candlemas, and also the Feast of the Presentation, at Emmaus House’s monthly Mass is getting started a little late. The dozen people gathered in a circle in the living room are chatting animatedly. Walt Chura, a respected elder in the extended Emmaus House family, who for 11 years ran Albany’s Simple Gifts bookstore where Boehrer first encountered Catholic Worker philosophy and practice (and changed his major from accounting to religious studies as a result), is holding forth on the meaning of the presentation. Because God killed the Egyptians’ firstborn to get the Hebrews out of Egypt, he says, the Hebrews’ firstborn sons were considered to symbolically belong to God, and needed to be redeemed with a gift of two turtle doves.

“Freddie cost us three French hens, and Helen was four calling birds,” jokes Boehrer.

“Inflation!” chimes in Father Bob Longobucco, one of Boehrer’s and Conroy’s longtime friends, and also the Catholic campus chaplain at University at Albany, State University of New York.

The banter is comfortable, and it is clear as Mass gets started that it comes not from disrespect, but rather from a connection to faith that isn’t threatened by joking.

Instead of a homily, Emmaus House substitutes a discussion on the day’s Gospel readings, with people contributing both sophisticated interpretations of scripture and bits of more-or-less-relevant personal sharing. The group sings the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” while Longobucco blesses the host.

Despite Boehrer’s rhetorical challenge to the confirmation students, the prayers here don’t regularly include bin Laden or Hussein (or Bush or Rumsfeld for that matter). They do come up from time to time in careful wordings, but it’s hard to do without being partisan, says Boehrer, and they try to avoid politicizing their Masses. Still, the range of prayers is wide. Tonight it includes the pope and a specific homeless man in Troy who has disappeared, tsunami victims and the victims of other manmade disasters who are getting less attention, people serving in the military and those fighting for conscientious-objector status, including one Catholic, Camilo Mejia, whom Boehrer has been pushing to get any parish in the area to mention.

Before they opened the Emmaus House of Hospitality, Boehrer and Conroy were already living what many in this country would consider a generous, modest life. Conroy worked in human services, Boehrer as a teacher and youth minister. They tithed 5 percent of their income to various good causes, volunteered regularly at a soup kitchen, participated in a parish, and maintained close connections with college friends at potluck dinner gatherings.

Still, they began to feel that they wanted to go another step. They could see people falling through the cracks of the human-services system: undocumented immigrants, people whose problems took longer to resolve than time-limited government programs said they should, people just over the official poverty line, homeless couples who didn’t want to separate to go into single-sex shelters.

They began to feel like it might be time for them to open a Catholic Worker house. To prepare, they visited many, and sponsored other friends to go live at some to let them know how it worked. (Conroy says that there were several Worker houses that were only half-jokingly disappointed when Emmaus House was started and Conroy and Boehrer no longer had an income to be sending donations from.) They began to build support, paid off all their remaining debts, gave away one of their cars and their expensive stereo system, and (much to the disapproval of Boehrer’s grandfather) finally made the leap into voluntary poverty and a “ministry of presence.” Their first child was 3 months old.

Today, eight years later, the front door at Emmaus House, an unassuming two-family on North Main Avenue, is usually adorned with a few notices of protests, roundtables, prayer gatherings, or new additions to the resurrected Simple Gifts bookstore, which is now housed in two bookcases in the front room (sales support the house). In the front foyer an antiwar flier proclaims, “Not in Our Name.” On the inside door, a quote from aboriginal activist Lilla Watson is both welcome and admonition: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us struggle together.” On the other wall is a massive Mets banner.

Inside, the first impression is one of student housing. The walls are the slightly dingy white of a longtime rental unit. The furniture doesn’t match, and much of it is well-worn. There are lots and lots of books, strings of Christmas lights around the curtain rods, and posters covering both walls and doors, many held up with Scotch tape.

But after a few minutes it becomes clear that the analogy isn’t quite right. The dishes and floors and bathroom are clean, and the furniture is well cared for. The arrangements are not transient; the furniture will not easily collapse to fit in someone’s truck. Much of the clutter is children’s toys, and numerous icons of saints are mixed in with the posters on the wall. There is a smattering of the sort of nice things that adults accumulate throughout a life: the beautiful pottery chalice and bowl they use for Communion at Mass, for example, which were gifts. Though there are likely to be several other things going on at the time, anyone who visits is offered at least a cup of tea.

The extent of Boehrer and Conroy’s commitment to voluntary poverty doesn’t immediately hit you over the head when you visit Emmaus House; knowing that there is a big difference between being forced into poverty and choosing it, and knowing that with their college degrees and middle-class families and white skin they are still “filthy privileged,” they don’t make a dramatic show of their choices.

Their only earned income comes from some part-time teaching by Boehrer, amounting to $4,000 to $11,000 a year. Add to that about $20,000 in yearly donations on average, plus in-kind donations of food, clothing, and other goods. With that they raise their own three children and take care of their current guests, periodic live-in volunteers, and up to 15 other families. They have one basic phone line, no Internet connection, and no health insurance, retirement plan, or emergency savings. They keep the heat set at 62 degrees all the time (eliciting many complaints from guests, especially those from warmer climes), and have no clothes dryer, microwave or dishwasher.

Still, this is not poverty in the global sense, and they are aware of that. The goals behind the Emmaus House version of poverty are more complicated than merely having and spending as little as possible. They keep their earned income below the poverty level to avoid paying taxes that will go to the military. Some things, like health insurance, they simply can’t afford, and these things are their closest taste of what many of their guests live with all the time.

But many of their decisions also go beyond simple economics or resource use. A microwave or dishwasher might actually save energy over the long run, explained Boehrer, but washing, drying and putting away the dishes is a great communal activity, as is hanging around in the kitchen together while water is boiling for tea, or leftovers are slowly reheating in the oven. So, no microwave or dishwasher.

On the other hand, they also have to have enough time to be fully present with their guests and do their social-justice work. And so when their washing machine broke recently, sanity (and cloth diapers) called for it be replaced. Not that it was a simple purchase. Boehrer returned from his first visit to the appliance store empty-handed, both amused and frustrated. He was looking for a super-energy-efficient washer, manufactured in the United States, not made by GE due to the company’s connection to nuclear weapons. After he told the salesperson, who was trying to steer him to a fancier, less-efficient model that she herself owned, that even that model’s larger capacity wouldn’t make up for its miserable energy efficiency, she quit showing him options at all.

Voluntary poverty is a tough thing for our upwardly mobile society to grasp. The leader of the confirmation class that Boehrer visited in Schenectady met him at the door and said to be sure to explain to the kids how he has his Ph.D., but still chose to . . . She paused and made a sweeping “giving it all up” gesture. (Actually, he completed his Ph.D. after Emmaus House opened.) Apparently not confident that he would emphasize it enough, she went on to mention his Ph.D. (in theology, with a focus on nonviolence) at least three times in her brief introduction of him.

Perhaps more common is the reaction of supporters who admire and help, and then add a little caveat about how “I couldn’t do it.”

“I know that some people feel a sense of guilt when they compare themselves to the Catholic Worker lifestyle,” says Dennis Sullivan, who teaches classes on restorative justice at the University at Albany and grew up in a family that was close to the Catholic Worker movement. “That I know for a fact. But the whole idea of ‘personalism,’ the message, is not that everyone should be a Catholic Worker, but that everyone should build [the principles into] their own lives wherever they are.”

“Not everyone has to open a Catholic Worker house, or become a social worker,” agrees Boehrer. “Just take it down a notch. If you have premium cable, maybe take it down to basic and send the rest of the money to a food bank.”

Take Joan Cooney, a 74-year-old Colonie resident who keeps Emmaus House’s newsletter address file. She says she doesn’t have the “courage” to live as they do, but that she stays connected because it pushes her out of her comfort zone. She says they have influenced her to stop shopping at Wal-Mart, pay more attention to sweatshops, and question the death penalty. “They challenge you,” she says, “But in challenging you, they don’t say ‘There’s only one response to this challenge or you’re out.’” Trying to follow the teachings of Jesus closely and accurately has long been viewed as a radical or even dangerous undertaking by institutional churches. Adding Catholic social teaching—which among other things has a stringent definition of a just war (which the bishops say the current war in Iraq doesn’t meet), strongly supports the rights of workers to organize unions, and requires of Catholics serious attention to economic justice—doesn’t make it any easier.

“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.

St. Francis left the military when he had a conversion experience, notes Boehrer. But there are institutions, like Siena College, that are “Franciscan in name” but have ROTC on their campuses. Boehrer recalls with a wry smile the parish in Troy that petitioned to have a priest removed because he opposed the Iraq war. “Are you going to petition to remove the pope?” he asks.

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.”

In seminary, says Longobucco, “I was pretty quickly labeled ‘one of those peace-and-justice guys’. But it’s connected. The Mass calls us to peace and justice, and peace and justice calls us to the Eucharist.”

In many dioceses, the tensions between the Catholic Worker vision and the drift of mainstream Catholicism have created a serious rift between them. This may be why many Catholics, even those like Boehrer who go to Catholic schools, never learn about the Catholic Worker movement at all until college or later.

Emmaus House, and its sister Catholic Worker in Troy, Rosa House Peace Community, by contrast, have a very cooperative relationship with the diocese—something that Boehrer attributes to “a bishop who’s concerned with social-justice issues.” But though they work together closely here, he’s quick to note that there’s no official connection. “No bishop asked us to do this work, so no bishop can tell us how to do it,” he quotes Dorothy Day; and that independent, anarchist (yes, they use that word) spirit remains throughout the movement.

One of the clearest examples is the fact that Catholic Workers houses don’t incorporate. In Emmaus House’s first year, one wealthy potential donor was sitting at their kitchen table, checkbook in hand, when he asked about their financial record keeping. “We always send thank-you notes right away,” they replied. After some confusion, the checkbook went away again. But they value that independence. “We don’t want people giving us money in the expectation of getting something [like a tax deduction] in return,” says Boehrer.

Donors are not the only people who assume they are a nonprofit. Wanting to be in a more residential neighborhood than where they are now (they rent from the diocese and are surrounded by other diocesan-owned buildings, mostly offices), they are working with the Albany Community Land Trust to buy a house (completely with donations and no-interest loans) in Albany’s Mansion neighborhood. Reportedly, some of their new neighbors were concerned about yet another property coming off the tax rolls. But while they avoid federal income taxes, says Boehrer, they are not exempt from local ones, and have no problem paying them. They are, after all, not going to the military.

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?”

Emmaus House’s most recent guest—Elena, a nurse and single mother of two from Moldova, a former Soviet Republic—moved into her own apartment in Watervliet just last weekend. The Tuesday before, on which it snowed, Elena passes by all the kids of the house sledding on her way in from an errand, and as she heads into the kitchen to make some hot chocolate and lunch for the kids, she reports that “I told Freddie to put his hat on. He wasn’t very happy about it.”

Boehrer and Conroy mean it when they say their guests become part of the family. It leads to wonderful stories of close and lasting friendships: They are godparents to the children of some former guests, for example, and continue to raise money to help children go to school in the South African village to which another guest returned. They tell stories of learning Spanish, eating the freshest corn when a farmworker guest brought some home after work, being with families seeing their first snowfall, and observing Ramadan with an Islamic family. They tell of the time they almost threw out a donated handbag full of holes, but a guest rescued it and used the leather as a canvas for a beautiful painted icon of St. Nicolas, reminding them again not to assume they know what people want or can use.

They insist that they are not social workers, and that Emmaus House is a home, not a shelter, so while they do plenty of social-work-type things for their clients—help navigate bureaucracy, connect with resources, get to a doctors’ appointment, start some savings—they also won’t “make sure you’re in by a certain time, up by a certain time, doing something during the day,” as Conroy puts it. More to the point, there are unusual requests they will take that most social workers won’t or can’t. They will teach someone to drive in their car in the parking lot of the state office campus. They will arrange a reunion between a guest’s father, who escaped the civil war in Guatemala to Montreal and hasn’t been seen in 20 years, and his daughter. They will listen to troubles in the middle of the night.

But at least as common, if not more so, are the stories of heartbreak or failure. There was a couple they helped out of an economic crisis, only to discover that the woman was being abused, and that their support wasn’t enough to help her make the choice to leave her partner. One woman, just out of an inpatient substance-abuse program, needed more structure than they could provide and sank into a depression. There are families that never give thanks for groceries or other help.

“One of the frustrating things about our lives is there’s no happy endings for most of the people we work with,” says Boehrer. “It’s not a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie.” Boehrer and Conroy don’t try to hide these stories. Most of them end up in one form or another on the front page of their quarterly newsletter. The point is not some sort of target definition of success, but the practice of “personalism,” of seeing God in everyone. Still, Boehrer jokes, “Sometimes we think ‘God wouldn’t be calling us at one in the morning’!”

“The boundary between personal life and public life [for them] is relatively nonexistent,” says Sullivan. “For the most part, there’s no downtime.”

Aware of this, Conroy says they’ve been careful to keep a little space and a little time each week, even if it’s just one outing or one meal, for just the five of them. They take breaks between guests when they feel the need. Recently the kids, who usually enjoy additional playmates, have also started asking on their own for breaks, says Conroy.

And yet, the chaotic, swirling community of guests, former guests, volunteers and friends, coming and going for weekly pie nights, conversations over newsletter mailings, roundtables, work parties, and prayer is clearly worth it to them. In fact, they’re even hoping for more once they move.

“I want to be in a place where there are people to have a block party with,” sighs Conroy over the chatter of a gaggle of kids coming in from the snow. “Someone to sit on the stoop with.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Albany, N.Y.’s Metroland weekly.

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Miriam Axel-Lute

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