I’m sitting here looking at a photo taken shortly before Christmas 2008. It’s a very good photo: dramatic and sharply focused. It’s a December afternoon in downtown San Diego: trees dotting a vast swath of sun-washed, empty parking lot. In the foreground, walking away from the camera, is my 11-year-old son. His head is bowed, and it’s because of what is in his hands: a chilled bottle of water and a brown paper lunch bag.
On the outside of the bag is a child’s Magic Marker drawing of a Christmas tree, and also a word: “Faith,” “Hope,” “Peace,” “Joy,” or “Love” — I’m not sure which, but I know it’s one of those. I know because I was there in my kitchen when my wife Deirdre wrote it on the bag and on the 30 or so other bags that received the same treatment. One by one, they’d been labeled with the name of some spiritual good, decorated with a traditional Christmas symbol — stars, wreaths, trees — and filled: an apple or an orange, a Baggie full of Fritos, a napkin, and a sandwich. Some sandwiches got turkey, some got ham, all got a slice of cheese, a broad leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a thin layer of mayonnaise.
Back to the photograph and my son’s bowed head. It’s bowed because he’s unhappy. This is not how he wants to be spending his Saturday afternoon, even if he does see the point in feeding the hungry. He’d rather be doing what he wants with his free time — and who wouldn’t? (Here I am reminded of a splendid bit from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. The devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood that a great way to ensnare a man is to trick him into thinking his time is his own, so that every request made of him — regardless of its goodness — is an impingement, a source of irritation.)
These bagged lunches are bound for the homeless, you see, and my son would rather be doing this particular kindness from afar. It’s not like when he participates in the Christmas pageant for the old folks at Little Flower Haven on La Mesa Boulevard. There, he gets up in front of the crowd and says his lines loud and clear and generally brings delight, but as soon as it’s over, he gets to eat cookies and hang out with his fellow actors. He doesn’t have to, you know, talk to the Olds, the Strangers, and the Possibly Loopy.
Here, he has to look people in the eye. Here, he has to talk to people. And not just people — homeless people. Suffering people, who may be unfriendly, or too friendly, or smelly, or intoxicated, or crazy, or ungrateful, or just deeply embittered. Couldn’t he just do some jobs, get paid, and donate the money to charity? No, he could not. Because his father wants him to meet his Neighbor — the one Christ told him to love, the one lying in a ditch like the Jew found by the Good Samaritan. (G.K. Chesterton has a great bit on this in his essay “On the Institution of the Family”: “We have to love our neighbor because he is there.… He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”)
Many, many years ago, in my teens, I used to go to the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles to feed the poor on Skid Row, just minutes away from downtown Los Angeles and its luxury hotels. Here there were the poorest of the poor, but even more than this; here were people whose lives and hopes have been crushed, many of them fallen victim to drug and alcohol addiction, a small way of them dealing often with a lifetime of rejection, abuse, and the struggle with mental illness. We assembled there to feed the poor a Christmas Day lunch. The poor lined up outside and came into the hallway, with tables set in rows so people could sit down and have a meal. Inevitably, there were problems on the line, and Jeff Dietrich and his wife Catherine would calm things down. The faces are now a blur in my memory, but what I do remember are their tattered clothes and the fact that many of them obviously hadn’t been able to bathe in some time. And this despite the fact that the hotels just blocks away were probably only half full.
There were big vats to cook the soup; we used lots and lots of vegetables, carrots, celery, and chicken, and lots of spices. I remember pouring what I thought was sugar in my coffee and drinking, only to find out I poured the salt in; and I spit it out; which meant, I think, that I’d put the sugar in the soup. Not my best day, but I was a volunteer novice, especially as compared to those who worked the line each and every day. Making the big soups took quite a while, an hour or more; and the other Catholic Workers seemed to combine elements of recipes with on-the-spot quick decisions based on what leftover food they had gotten from the local markets. The big pots of soup fed hundreds and hundreds; how they always seemed to have just enough, we never knew. It was just as Jesus and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day said (in her Loaves & Fishes), “He took the five loaves and the two fishes; and looking up to heaven, He blessed and brake and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes. And they did all eat and were filled.… Matthew 14:16-20.”
There were hundreds of homeless who stood in line. We who served them stood over vast pots, cooking up a marvelous meal. The Catholic Workers were an unlikely bunch. Part anarchist, part communitarian Christians — like during the time of Jesus, when the church was dedicated to nonviolence — their iconoclastic ways make it a small miracle that they are able to live together, serve the poor, and keep a monthly paper. The anarchism and communitarianism was of a strange sort, inspired by cofounder Peter Maurin, who wrote, “The best kind of government is self-government. The best kind of organization is self-organization.” Though the Catholic Worker desired governments to help, they believed that the people should do the works of mercy themselves.