Is Going “Hyper-Local” Enough?

A recent article in The Nation celebrates the hyper-local focus of new Catholic Worker communities. But is this really a “new” trend in the Catholic Worker? And more importantly, in the face of rampant militarism, is it enough by itself?

A recent article in The Nation, “The Anarchism of the Catholic Worker” by Renée Darline Roden, proclaims that “in its 90th year, the radical peace movement is reinvigorating itself by going hyper-local” and says, “a household name among peace activists, the movement is finding rebirth in its 90th year by returning to its roots.” The article celebrates that the reborn, reinvigorated Catholic Worker “is global in reach but hyper-local in focus, dedicated to solving community problems on the neighborhood level.”

Coincidentally, this old, long-forgotten February 25, 1994, National Catholic Reporter piece by Bob Baldwin about our farm in Maloy, Iowa, “Catholic Workers stir things up in Iowa,” somehow popped up on my computer. It is a short version of the story of how I became mayor of our little farm town almost 30 years ago and it is relevant to the questions and assumptions raised in Renée’s article.

The trend of CW communities “that are turning to Maurin and Day’s original vision” may have only been noticed by some “in the past five years,” but it has been around for a while.  The NCR noted in 1994:

Although most Catholic Worker houses are in urban areas, Terrell says rural communities are in keeping with the philosophy of its founder: “Peter Maurin’s vision was to reintegrate people with the land. A soup kitchen is what most Catholic Workers end up doing, but that’s not how we’re going to build the new society out of the shell of the old.”

Our own community was founded on these principles in 1986, others were started about that time and some pre-date us by some years. Ours is not the only CW community “turning to Maurin and Day’s original vision of spiritual and economic change to combat the despair of late capitalism” that is more than five years old. As this article attests, our little community was also deeply integrated into our Catholic parish before it was closed in 2009. Betsy and I have been Benedictine oblates for more than 30 years.

While we have been busy on our farm with intensive gardening, engaging in craft economy, raising children, raising chicken and dairy goats and being neighbors for more than 30 years, our “hyper-localism” has not interfered with or precluded acting globally.  The NCR quotes the editor of our local county newspaper, who when my record became a controversy wrote:

The farmhouse at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Community Farm.
The farmhouse at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Community Farm.

It’s true that Brian Terrell has been arrested in the United States, Central America and Israel in demonstrations… The demonstrations have always been to stand between weapons and their victims or to disrupt the manufacture and distribution of weapons, Terrell notes.

Later in 1994-95, I was to spend four months of my second term as mayor as an inmate in a federal prison for protesting nuclear weapons at the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska.

Over the years, Catholic Worker farmers young and old have participated in and provided leadership for protests and nonviolent direct actions against militarism, torture, racism, police violence, the weapons industry, all without compromising their commitments “to solving community problems on the neighborhood level.” As recently as this spring, young urban and rural farmers were integral to planning the protests against the F-35 fighter-bombers at the Midwest Catholic Worker Faith and Resistance Retreat in Madison, Wisconsin, in March; and in April, several CW farmers took part in the annual Sacred Peace Walk from Las Vegas to the nuclear test site, some of us facing criminal charges in coming months as a result.

I regret, though, that we miss the participation of the specific CW communities that The Nation features in these works of mercy. As Rosalie Riegel tells Renée, “I don’t see the activism that I once did in the houses,” and Renée herself notes, “This newest cohort of Worker communities is less inclined to talk about organized resistance or mass political protest.”

Another writer who celebrates the spirit of these same new communities as “pockets of hope in the movement… who are starting Worker houses and farms which seek to adhere to the Catholic vision of Day and Maurin” and who finds in them a “sign that there is still green sap in those trees” is the theologian and “owner” of a Catholic Worker farm, Larry Chapp. In a recent article published by the National Catholic Register, Larry finds particular encouragement in the fact that these communities don’t partake in what he terms “the fetishization in the movement of a ’60s-style form of political protest.”

Larry elsewhere decries the “strong elements in the contemporary movement that have simply degenerated into leftist sort of ooey gooey politics, the latest cause de jour and so on.” By 1957, Dorothy was already dealing with such criticism, “the usual complaint that the paper is not what it used to be. Too much stuff about war and preparation for war, and the duty of building up resistance.”

It is of interest, I think, that the root of the word “journalist” is the same as Larry’s “cause de jour” and that Dorothy identified not as a scholar, but as a journalist. From the very first issue of The Catholic Worker (some headlines from that issue: “Thirty Hour Week,” “Negro Labor on Levees Exploited by U.S. War Dept.,” “Communists, Despite Noise, Are Not Only Defenders of Scottsboro Case”) to this day, speaking out and acting on the latest cause de jour has been the very purpose of the Catholic Worker movement. The fact that the latest causes de jour are largely missing from the publications of some of these new houses does not indicate a return to the movement’s roots.

In 1940, Dorothy was perhaps already fetishizing the ‘60s before her time, when she wrote, “We still hold that nonviolent resistance is the only sane solution, and that we have to continue to make our voice heard until we are finally silenced—and even then, in jail or concentration camp, to express ourselves. If there are not some who still hold this ideal, still speak in terms of the counsels of perfection, the ideal will be lost. You know how with great suffering and great prayer we are trying to hold up these ideas.”

July 1978, two years before she died, Dorothy wrote in her column:

I rejoice to see the young people thinking of ‘the works of mercy’ as a truly revolutionary, but nonviolent program. The spiritual and corporal certainly go together, and often involve suffering. To oppose nuclear buildup has led to the imprisonment this last month of two of our workers, Robert Ellsberg and Brian Terrell, in Rocky Flats, Colorado… Meanwhile, I am confined in another way by weakness and age, but can truly pray with fervor for those on active duty, and sternly suppress my envy at the activities of our young and valiant workers.

I don’t mean to boast of the work of my generation or of earlier ones nor to dismiss the good work done in these new communities. I accept that some of these good people will share Larry Chapp’s stated dismissal of my position as “the acerbic fulminations of a disgruntled old man.”

Of course, there is room in our movement for even the most basic disagreements. “You are bone of our bone, not a bone of contention,” Dorothy wrote to John Cogley, begging him not to leave the movement because he could not accept its pacifism.  

If these new communities are to “return to the roots,” though, and if they are to reinvigorate the 90-year-old Catholic Worker movement, they will have to urgently embrace nonviolent resistance as the only sane solution to the militarism that threatens to destroy the very neighborhoods where they live. In the process, they will necessarily lose some of the prestige enjoyed by good, charitable people who stand above the fray. Some of them will go to prison and this would be a good thing. Otherwise, as Dorothy said, “the ideal will be lost.”

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