Theo the Roamin’ Catholic Worker: European CW Gathering 2023

Theo travels to the Netherlands for the 2023 European Catholic Worker Gathering, where he finds a CW sensibility not unlike the Sugar Creek Midwest Catholic Worker Gathering.

This article originally appeared on Theo Kayser’s blog, A Troubadour for the Catholic Worker Movement, where you can find more great stories, photos, and videos about his visits to Catholic Worker communities.

If you’ve ever been to the Sugar Creek Midwest Catholic Worker gathering, you already know the vibe of the European CW gathering. In fact, it was that very same annual Midwest gathering on which our European comrades modeled their convergence on.

Just as many things in the Netherlands (the host for this year’s European gathering) might be slightly different though recognizable to their U.S. counterparts (chunkier light switches, different toilet flushing mechanisms, actually functional public transit, etc.), so it is with the gathering itself.

Sure, maybe more folks sleep indoors than camp in the field; they refer to their “talent show” as the “cabaret”; the neighboring goat farm replaced by cows and rabbits; and they drink their coffee stronger than the average American; but in the end, it all felt like any U.S. Catholic Worker gathering might. “It feels like family,” shared someone during one of the roundtable discussions, a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many Sugar Creek attendees in the past, and I too couldn’t help feeling like I was going to a family reunion with a bunch of relations I’d never met before.

The action kicked off on Wednesday, the day before Ascension Day (a national holiday in the Netherlands and Germany), with folks starting to trickle in around midday. Less than 48 hours on “the Continent,” I caught a series of trains with others from the Jennette Noel house in Amsterdam to Wijhe before walking a half hour to our location. This year’s get-together was hosted by folks from ATD who usually use their space to offer poor folks a place to get out of the city on vacation.

That first evening, Susan and Daan hosted a get-to-know-you name game and made sure folks knew the schedule and other logistics for the week. I particularly enjoyed their “spectrum” exercise where each end of the room represented two extremes and participants were encouraged to physically place themselves between them wherever they felt they fit:  Are you more of an urban or farm type?  Introvert or extrovert? Spiritual or secular?

The next morning saw communities giving updates on how they’ve been this past year and new folks (like myself) introducing who they are and what brought them there.

After this second round of intros, we broke out into the “affinity groups” with whom we’d share responsibilities over the weekend. Not only were groups assigned dishes duty at various meals and responsibility for setting up the coffee table at strategic intervals, affinity groups would also take responsibility for a component of the gathering: planning Sunday’s liturgy, preparing breakfast, evaluating this year’s event and planning the next year’s, or putting on the Cabaret.

Roundtables (or workshops as our Euro friends tended to call them) dominated the next couple of days with options to attend discussions on the patriarchy in the CW, biblical study as an aid to climate activism, a discussion on “what is inherent to the CW’s DNA?”, Theo’s U.S. CW travel pics, and more.

There was also time for “excursions” to off-site activities. I went along on a kayaking trip with some folks, while others went swimming in a nearby river, and still more chose to take an extra-long nap.

The evenings saw the whole group gathered around the campfire, sometimes singing along together from the Anarchist Songbook and other times just chatting and roasting “stick bread” over the fire (it was kind of like a bagel cooked over an open flame!). Conversations ran late into the night and ranged from the practicality of non-violence to home brewing.

Saturday evening brought the Cabaret. As soon as dinner was finished everyone not in the Cabaret affinity group was booted from the common space to set up the event. A bit surprised by the aggressiveness with which this event secrecy was enforced, I asked a seasoned veteran of the European Gathering if this was normal. “Oh yes,” she responded. “Putting on the Cabaret is as much part of the act as the other performers.”

When the time came, the doors to the assembly space burst open and out poured a series of CWs in bright warning vests holding signs and chanting “Laughter is NOT OK! Cancel the CABARET!” “Canceling” (as in the oft-talked-about “cancel culture”) joy was the comedic theme of this year’s show. The Catholic Worker is very serious stuff after all; there really isn’t any place for fun, so each act that would take place was a demonstration of what would NOT be allowed at future CW gatherings. The gag would return throughout as members of the protest group would scold the crowd for giggling, offer tips on how not to laugh, and give us glimpses of their meetings throughout.

The usual slate of Catholic Worker acts occurred: skits and songs and children performing gymnastics. Jennette Noel house made fun of Frits’s obsession with compost toilets. The Dorothy Community sang a rendition of “down by the riverside” reworded to be about how impressive their protests are (the best in fact). Herman belted out an updated version of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”

Sunday morning brought liturgy out in the woods featuring Taizé songs and a shared homily on the parable of the mustard seed. Folks were also invited to add a rock onto a pile we left in the woods representing something they were grateful for. After an hour of prayer amongst nature and the sharing of bread and grape juice each CWer was given a small satchel of flower seeds to take with them to plant wherever they were going.

After some deep cleaning, folks headed out to their various places: the UK, Netherlands, and Germany, with abundant hugs and “see you next year” aplenty.

Cover photo: Dietrich of Hamburg Catholic Worker. All other photos by Theo Kayser. The original article appeared here: European CW Gathering

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