Cool to be Kind

Voluntary poverty, sustainable agriculture, helping one's fellow man. A Catholic Worker community quietly grows in north St. Louis.

The sky over north St. Louis is overcast as Carolyn Griffeth straps Finn Mateo, her two-year-old son, into a car seat in her beat-up station wagon. They're headed to Walgreens, a store Griffeth would rather not support, but she needs a low-flow nipple for a baby bottle.

"You could make one," her friend Trish Grim had suggested.

"How?" Griffeth had asked.

Becca Young
Carolyn Griffeth, pictured with husband Tery and adopted sons Finn and Ghana, says she isn't sure Ghana even knows that all clothing doesn't come secondhand.
Becca Young
Carolyn Griffeth, pictured with husband Tery and adopted sons Finn and Ghana, says she isn't sure Ghana even knows that all clothing doesn't come secondhand.

Walgreens it is.

The house where Griffeth and her family live has a huge garden, a picnic table in the yard and "Instead of War" posters affixed to the fence. It is a few blocks north of downtown, near where Tucker Boulevard curves abruptly and becomes Florissant Avenue. Not long ago a young woman's body was left in a Dumpster down the street, but the event didn't attract much attention in the neighborhood, a place where houses are crumbling in on themselves, posters on rusty billboards are left to peel off and entire blocks are covered over with grass.

This wasn't the life that Griffeth, a small woman with auburn hair and freckles, imagined for herself. More than a decade ago, at age 21, she enrolled in the medical school at Washington University. She'd been raised in Pecatonica, Illinois in what she describes as a dysfunctional middle-class family. Her mother was a social worker, her stepfather a horse trader.

Three years later Griffeth embraced religious faith, anarchy and voluntary poverty. She dropped out of med school, leaving behind a $70,000 debt she intended never to pay. Instead of becoming a doctor, she became a Catholic Worker.

The movement, founded in 1933 by a Catholic convert named Dorothy Day and a Frenchman named Peter Maurin, advocates self-government, nonviolent protest and a radical commitment to caring for the poor. Workers often open shelters, which they call "houses of hospitality," where they live with homeless people, whom they call "guests."

About 185 houses of hospitality are scattered around the United States. Three are clustered around North Florissant Avenue. Catholic Workers have lived in the neighborhood since the late 1970s, but over the past few years their presence has grown. A young couple recently started a sustainable urban farm in a vacant lot, and another house of hospitality is expected to open this year.

"Most Catholic Workers are people with access to the American Dream who reject privilege and affluence in favor of solidarity with the poor," Griffeth explains as she drives past the empty lots and boarded-up houses of the north side. "We're really trying to create an ideal society on the smallest level. Most utopian ideas leave the poor behind. We try to build a community based on sharing and mutual support, then we invite the poor to be part of it."

Not every Catholic Worker is religious and not all are anarchists, but they do tend to agree on the importance of voluntary poverty. They try not to go out to dinner. They drive undependable cars. Many forego health insurance and speak reverently about their experiences in the waiting rooms of public health clinics.

Of course, the reality of self-imposed deprivation is fraught with compromises. Griffeth and her two adopted children are covered by a health plan through her husband's job as a teacher at a Catholic school. She sees this as a compromise. Same goes for the trip to Walgreens: Ideally, Griffeth says, she'd patronize an independent drugstore in her neighborhood. But the only business near her house is a run-down car wash.

"OK," she says when she reaches the streetlights, banks and chain stores of Lindell Boulevard. She takes a breath. "Civilization."

Finn waddles wide-eyed through the merchandise-packed aisles of the drugstore as his mother searches for the nipples. Once she finds them, she hoists her son, rests him against her hip and takes her purchase to the counter.

"The Catholic Worker is somewhere between an anarchist commune and a monastery," she says. "They're both dealing with the same thing: trying to find a humane way to live."

Back at the car, Griffeth realizes she has locked her keys inside. She could call a locksmith, but that would cost $80. One of her fellow Workers has an auto club membership (a gift from her grandmother), but she's at work, and besides, Griffeth doesn't have a cell phone. She returns to the store and pleads with the man behind the counter to let her use the store phone.

Eventually, a plan forms. Her friend Trish Grim will come pick them up. Later, when the woman with the AAA card gets off work, Griffeth will get a ride back to the drugstore.

"To make matters worse," she says as she waits for Grim, "Trish says we'll have to stop at Schnucks."

St. Liborius Church towers over the neighborhood just north of downtown known as St. Louis Place. Adjacent to it is the convent where Karen House, the first house of hospitality in the St. Louis area, opened nearly 30 years ago.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has no affiliation with the Catholic Workers ("They do beautiful Christian work with the poor, but they are an independent lay organization," comments Vicar General Vernon Gardin), but the pastor at St. Liborius was eager to offer the convent to a group dedicated to assisting the poor in his parish.

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