This past year, I have been a Quaker at the Winona Catholic Worker in Minnesota, a house of hospitality. Volunteers like myself choose to live in poverty and seek solidarity with the disenfranchised. We welcome strangers into our community by providing free dinners Monday through Friday, and we have rooms available for both travelers and people experiencing homelessness. Rather than stereotype and fear the homeless, we build relationships and treat them the way we’d like to be treated.
Living in a house of hospitality requires us to be open to strangers, and we greet them with open arms and unlocked doors. As a volunteer, my life is filled with cleaning toilets, making coffee, playing cards, preparing large meals, gardening, and separating food scraps into separate buckets—one for composting, one for feeding our chickens, and yet another for hauling to a pig farm. I am also part of silent morning prayer we hold each weekday morning.
While institutional Catholicism is vastly different from the Religious Society of Friends, the Catholic Worker movement has much in common with Quakerism. Both are nonviolent, non-hierarchical movements based on consensus decision making. Both have many different practices under one label. Statements like “Those Catholic Workers aren’t really Catholic Workers like us” is heard as often in Catholic Worker communities as “Those Quakers aren’t really Quakers like us.” Quakers share a common religious history in George Fox, Margaret Fell, and other early Friends. Likewise, Catholic Workers share a common history with the founders of their movement: Dorothy Day, a radical who wrote for Communist periodicals before converting to Catholicism, and Peter Maurin, a Christian Brother who became convinced of radical, back-to-the-land, personalistic politics. Together, Day and Maurin created the Catholic Worker newspaper and then opened up houses of hospitality and farms. People across America were so inspired by their activism that they started their own Catholic Worker communities, each one independent from each other. Now, the Catholic Worker movement can be seen as a dialogue between Catholic social teaching and radical Christian anarchism.
For a long time, Quakers have been attracted to the Catholic Worker’s politics and communities. The Winona Catholic Worker house where I live currently has as many Quaker as Catholic community members. Ammon Hennacy, an influential Catholic Worker, was a Quaker for most of his life. The yearly Midwest Catholic Worker retreat hosts both a Catholic liturgy and a Quaker meeting for worship. And in Winona, the small local Friends Meeting brings a large meal to the Catholic Worker house once a month. This is probably because while the first Catholic Worker houses were started with a Catholic world view, many of the principles are congruent with Quaker values. Dorothy Day saw houses of hospitality as a biblical mandate based on the works of mercy (“shelter the homeless”), the book of Isaiah, (“bring the homeless poor into your house” [58:7]), and the book of Matthew (“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” [25:35]). In her essay, “Room for Christ,” she says, “It is no use to say that we are born 2000 years too late to give room to Christ…. Giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” While Dorothy Day’s rationale for houses of hospitality is based on Catholic social teaching, she encouraged people of all faith backgrounds to consider this form of hospitality: “All those activities which we Catholics call ‘works of mercy,’ are also performed by many Protestant, Quaker, and other groups in the country.” As a Friend who is not Christocentric, my work in the Catholic Worker is based not on biblical teaching, but on the belief of the inner light and holiness of everyone. If every person is sacred, then it is right and just to provide hospitality whenever possible.
Many Friends, especially the unprogrammed branch that I’m involved with, seem reticent to publicly label their activism as religious and Quaker. As a group that avoids proselytizing and is comprised of mostly introverts, we fear making people of other backgrounds feel uncomfortable or unwelcome if we are too vocal about our faith. Because of our small numbers and leeriness of outreach, many Americans’ only experience with the term “Quaker” is a giant corporation that makes oatmeal. Our insularity hurts our attempts at hospitality. I believe there are many people who would be interested in attending meeting for worship, but they rarely, if ever, meet a Friend or encounter Quakerism as a living tradition.
An additional hindrance to creating hospitality in the Quaker community is our class makeup and often unexamined class bias. I see meetinghouses near universities and in neighborhoods where I can not afford to live more often than I see meetinghouses in low income neighborhoods. Some Friends schools serve as bastions for the upper class. Even Friends commitment to earthcare can be based on middle-and upper-class biases: driving a Prius and buying local, organic food are often cited as how we show our commitment to environmentalism, but we ignore the fact that manufacturing new cars (even ones that get over 30mpg) is bad for the environment, and that both new cars and local, organic foods are often inaccessible to people on a limited budget. Our nearly collective acceptance of green capitalism—where you can buy your way into sustainability, if you have enough money—both ignores the environmental crisis inherent in industrial capitalism and makes Quakerism less approachable to those in poverty.
Not only that, but we live in a society that discourages openness and hospitality towards strangers. From mass media to education, we are taught to fear the other and despise the poor. Some people believe that poverty and inequity are inevitable and unavoidable facets of human existence even though there is biblical, historical and anthropological evidence that humans once existed as equals in a world without poverty. Looking back, we see that poverty and homelessness are not inevitable, but the results of a specific system. It is difficult to live our Quaker values within this system. We strive towards simplicity in a nation of excess and a culture that romanticizes greed. We strive towards equality in a world where many are born into dire poverty because a few are born into extravagance and wealth. We strive towards integrity when the basis of our economy is unsustainable destruction and the very land we live on is the result of unrepentant and often unacknowledged genocide. So while we must provide hospitality for our neighbors who are harmed by society, we must also address the fundamental injustice that harms them.
Quakers already do a lot to provide hospitality to people experiencing poverty through organizations like Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); as individuals, however, we could be doing more. I dream of a world where meetinghouses open their doors to the homeless and Quaker houses of hospitality are as common as Catholic Worker houses. Addressing our privileges and acknowledging the economic system and government we live under for what it is and what it does to the poor is a first step. Providing radical hospitality could be the next.