The Farmer and the Agitator: The Catholic Worker Needs Both

In the July/August 2023 issue of The Regenerative Reader, Spencer Hess writes of “Maurin-ite” and “Hennacy-ite” Catholic Workers—those who farm and those who agitate. But does that distinction really make sense? For many Catholic Worker farmers, the work of the land and the work of resistance go hand-in-hand.

The July/August 2023 issue of The Regenerative Reader, published bythe Kansas City-based Maurin Academy for Regenerative Studies, features an essay titled “In the Fullness of Catholic Worker Time? An Uneasy Essay” by Spenser Hess. In it, he says: “I recently read an old article from Catholic Worker Brian Terrell entitled, ‘Peter Maurin’s Vision for the Catholic Worker, an Idea Whose Time has Come.’”

This article is the text of a talk that I gave at the National Catholic Worker Farm Gathering in Platteville, Wisconsin, in February 2017, and was published widely at the time, including in the pages of The Catholic Worker, as “CW Struggle For the Land.”

“He begins,” Spencer says, “by noting how the farming side of the Catholic Worker movement has always been a sideshow to the running of soup lines and the protesting of warfare. That, ‘since its beginning in 1933, this aspect of its [co-founder, Peter Maurin’s] original intentions was relegated to the margins of an already marginal movement.’”

In support of this proposition, I cited Daniel Berrigan, in his introduction to Dorothy’s memoir, The Long Loneliness, published in 1981, a year after her death, that reflected a common if less-than-generous perception of Peter and his vision at that time: “They started a newspaper and the rest is history. They started houses of hospitality; that too is history. Peter was forever talking about something he called ‘agronomic universities.’ They started one, on the land; and that is something less than history.”

Spencer finds my opening assessment “obviously true,” just as he emphatically agrees with my conclusion “that if the CW movement is ever to be ‘the dynamic revolutionary social force it was meant to be,’ then perhaps the time has come for the farms to come into their own.”

While agreeing with the beginning and the end of my talk, Spencer’s essay overlooks my central point, that “over the past 30 years there has been a great shift in understanding and respect for Peter’s vision and what it means,” and that

there has been a resurgence in Peter’s dreams of farming communes in the movement.

This resurgence is evidenced not only in the unprecedented plethora of Catholic Worker farms around the country and abroad. It is also shown in the level of discussion given Peter and his ideas in the newspapers of the various houses. Peter’s influence is seen in the growth of urban gardens in the yards and vacant lots around our city houses. Catholic Worker cottage industries, such as carving spoons, repairing bicycles, making soap, all are examples of a growing movement.

One recent example of a growing awareness of Peter’s vision in the movement is the June 2023 newsletter of Cherith Brook Catholic Worker, also in Kansas City. It opens with the question: “What do protesting nukes, offering showers and weeding gardens have in common?” If the answer to that question might be obvious to Catholic Workers and their friends today, the question itself would have seemed irrational to most of us thirty years ago, because we all knew then that food came from dumpsters and that weeding a garden is a self-indulgent waste of time of irrelevant utopians with their heads in the clouds.

My advocacy for Maurin’s vision comes as a surprise to Spencer because, as he says, “I had previously identified Brian as a Worker more of the Hennacy-ite persuasion.”

“As something of a Maurin-ite,” Spencer admits, “I can’t help but feel it a tragedy that the influence of Ammon Hennacy has been effectually far more influential on actually-existing Catholic Workers than that of Peter’s.”

Spencer’s bifurcation of the Catholic Worker movement into these two factions or sects, the Hennacy-ites on the one hand and the Maurin-ites on the other, is an unnecessary and unhelpful distinction at best, in part considering that among “actually-existing Catholic Workers,” the farmers and the agitators are so often the same people. To stay with that characterization for the moment, though, it might be accurately said that Ammon Hennacy was a prominent Maurin-ite and with a bit of anachronist stretch, that Peter Maurin was an exemplary Hennacy-ite.

Focusing on Peter’s insistence on a return to the land and to a craft-based economy, it is sometimes lost that he was a tireless agitator. His time on the farm was matched by his stomping city streets, leafletting, arguing, and speaking from soapboxes, rubbing shoulders with his fellow radicals of all persuasions. To know Peter Maurin is to know that he attended Mass daily, but also to know that he marched on Wall Street, on Union Square, in Harlem, that he picketed the German Consulate in protest of the rise of fascism.

Spencer is concerned, as am I, with the CW’s place in history. In his own Easy EssayA Rumpus on the Campus” in contrast to Spencer’s “uneasy” one in The Restorative Review, Peter insisted:

And because history is taught
but not made
on the campus of our universities.
the Catholic Worker
is trying to make history
on Union Square,
where people have nothing to lose.

When I visited New York’s Zuccotti Park at the height of Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, I could only think of how excited Peter Maurin would have been to see it, how the occupiers’ demands, their placards and chants, resonated with Peter’s essays written decades before.

Peter, it is said, began losing his cognitive abilities around 1940, and he died in 1949. While the younger Ammon Hennacy was most prominent in the CW movement after 1950 until his death in 1970, he had known Maurin and co-founder Dorothy Day from shortly after it was founded in 1933. Ammon regarded Peter Maurin as “the second man of stature whom I had known; (anarchist Alexander) Berkman being the first.” (The Book of Ammon, pg. 51, 52)

If Peter Maurin needs to be remembered as an agitator, it should also be remembered that Ammon Hennacy was a farmer and that his witness was not limited to protest. Ammon was also the movement’s most vocal advocate for Peter’s back-to-the-land vision at the time when it seemed most marginal, particularly in his regular “Life at Hard Labor” columns published in The Catholic Worker newspaper, often to the annoyance of the paper’s more pious readers.

In the May, !952, issue he wrote:

It is a good thing that I like to do manual labor on the farm. A life of not paying taxes and of voluntary poverty such as I have set forth myself requires work as a basis. To talk about the dignity of labor, of life on the land, of a vegetarian in his own garden, of refusing to pay taxes, and then to mooch for a living gives a lie to all conversation. The best feeling that I have had during the past year was to look at the two rows of potatoes which I had laboriously hilled just right and planted before a storm broke over the mountains and the driving rain made me seek the refuge of my cabin.

In the aftermath of World War II, Peter Maurin was incapacitated, the pacifist CW movement was decimated by years of war, and the Great Depression that had given birth to the movement was giving way to a glut of counterfeit prosperity. Ammon Hennacy, along with Dorothy Day, were among a small minority not celebrating America’s ascendancy to leader of the “free world.” Ammon was the first to fast in reparation for the destruction of Hiroshima, among the first to picket the Atomic Energy Commission’s war preparations in Las Vegas, Cape Kennedy, Washington, D.C., and Omaha. This was not a departure from “Maurin-ism,” it was bringing the Catholic Worker into the nuclear age.

In July 1957, while Ammon and three other Catholic Workers were in jail for 30 days for protesting nuclear war drills, Dorothy wrote in her regular column:

There is the usual complaint of some of the older readers 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. But I repeat, in Peter Maurin’s day, the problem was unemployment. It was the time of depression. We still need to build up the vision of a new social order wherein justice dwells, and try to work for it here and now. We still need to perform the works of mercy because in spite of full employment there is still sin, sickness and death, and the hunger and homelessness and destitution that go with so much sickness, and our industrial system. But the work of non-violent resistance to our militarist state must go on.

Dorothy should not have needed to repeat in 1957, and it should not need repeating now, that in the time of Peter’s active life there were no nuclear bombs, there was no military-industrial complex. Peter, without citizenship and an undocumented laborer himself, did not live in fear of detention and deportation. There was no mass incarceration and the threat of industrialism for the climate was not known. The poverty caused by the Depression in the 1930s was not the same as the poverty accompanying the apparent prosperity of the 1950s, ill-gotten wealth that Dorothy never tired of reminding us was built on war. Peter, like Dorothy, like Ammon, like Saint Francis, like Jesus, like Jeremiah, responded to the political and social challenges of their times. We are called to do the same. Turning our faces from the evils of our present day because Peter Maurin didn’t know about them is not to be a Maurin-ite.

Peter, like Dorothy, like Ammon, like Saint Francis, like Jesus, like Jeremiah, responded to the political and social challenges of their times. We are called to do the same.

I do resonate with Spencer’s experience of the

bleak cognitive dissonance engaging in such activity reveals between the ‘nuts and bolts’ of what you’re actually materially accomplishing, and the type of institutions, community, and future you hope your labor is building up. It becomes increasingly hard to live in the gap between what is and what you want to be, especially when actually-existing reality is almost constantly raining (and sometimes hailing) on your parade towards paradise, you’re always getting a little shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

This is, however, an unavoidable part of the human experience. None of us feel that we have the time and energy to do everything we need to do and choices, sometimes hard ones, need to be made every day. Sequestering on a farm is no antidote.

Of course, we cannot do everything, but the suggestion that farming in the CW tradition is so all-consuming as to preclude activism is as absurd as it would be to suggest that CW farmers should not allow themselves to be distracted by liturgy and the sacraments or by parenting children. We cannot all of us be at the same time running a soup line, keeping a farm, sitting in court or in prison for acts of protest, and on a retreat. We can and must, though, all of us to the extent that we are able, be hospitable, care for the earth, and we all must stand in resistance to war and injustice.

Over the years, Catholic Worker farmers in the tradition of Maurin and Hennacy have participated in and provided leadership for protests and nonviolent direct actions against militarism, torture, the death penalty, racism, police violence, the weapons industry—all without compromising their commitments to building a life on the land.

In March of this year, young 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, and over Holy Week 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 as a result. In August, I was privileged to join dedicated Maurin-ites from several countries, resisting U.S. nuclear weapons at NATO bases in Germany and the Netherlands. In 1936, announcing the first CW farm, Dorothy wrote, “We believe that our words will have more weight, our writings will have more conviction, if we ourselves are engaged in making a better life on the land.” I am just as convinced that the example of our life on the land will have more weight, more conviction, if we ourselves are engaged in work for justice and peace.

Agitator & Farmer

Top: The author in the custody of the Royal Dutch Constabulary, protesting U.S. nuclear weapons at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands on the anniversary of the destruction of Nagasaki, August 9.

Bottom: The author harvesting beans on the farm in Maloy, Iowa, on August 20, 2023.

Spencer raises a crucial question: “What if the efforts of ‘historic’ proportions required for a network of local farms to thrive would require (among many other things) compromising on some of the until now pre-supposed sacred tenets of Catholic Worker-hood?”

Catholic Workers believing that they can use Peter Maurin’s “green revolution” or Dorothy Day’s “revolution of the heart” as excuses for not protesting militarism and injustice is one pre-supposed sacred tenet of Catholic Worker-hood that will have to go. If our movement is to reach its historic potential, the divisive and ill-informed pitting of supposed Hennacy-ites against supposed Maurin-ites in our movement needs to stop. The movement will need to throw off the “false religiosity” that Dorothy condemned, the comforting lie that there is no need to protest injustices, that we can serve soup and weed the garden while we quietly “live in this social order as it is, and settle down to an acceptance of it, and seek to save our souls by prayer and suffering alone.” Catholic Worker communities that have no critique of global war and systemic violence, or who keep theirs secret, will need to speak out and pay the price for that witness.

Peter Maurin’s vision was not one of withdrawal but of engagement. A “back to the land” movement that is not in solidarity with protest and resistance will make itself irrelevant. It will never be “the dynamic revolutionary social force it was meant to be.”

But the work of non-violent resistance
to our militarist state must go on.

Dorothy Day

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