Cool to be Kind

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

Not long afterward Grim took off on a road trip to California with a friend. Farming, after all, is seasonal work. "I worked insane hours all summer," she says. "Now it's my chance to rejuvenate."

Despite Day's and Maurin's seminal vision, until recently few sustainable Catholic Worker farms existed. That's no longer the case. "Now there's lots of Catholic Workers living on farms," says Rosalie Riegle, a retired English professor based in Chicago who spent years compiling an oral history of the movement before joining it herself. "I think it reflects changes in the bigger society. A lot of people are more environmentally aware.

"The only thing wrong with the Catholic Worker is the name," Riegle quips. "Because a lot of people are not Catholic and most don't work."

The urban farm Trish Grim and Joseph Black started in 2004 had three chickens last season but next year will have ten.
Becca Young
The urban farm Trish Grim and Joseph Black started in 2004 had three chickens last season but next year will have ten.
Nearly all the materials Tony Hilkin and Julie Jakimczyk 
used to rehab their off-the-grid house were bought 
secondhand or scavenged.
Becca Young
Nearly all the materials Tony Hilkin and Julie Jakimczyk used to rehab their off-the-grid house were bought secondhand or scavenged.

"The fact that it's a Christian thing was actually a deterrent for me," confirms Grim, 25, who has short blond hair and wears dark-rimmed glasses. While growing up in Springfield, Illinois, she attended a huge evangelical church with her family but became disillusioned with religion. "I didn't see them addressing the poverty in America," she says of the Springfield congregation. "Yet abortion was a really big deal."

What Grim liked about the Catholic Worker movement was that it offered a different model of living. "You get to a certain age, and there's so much pressure on achieving success," she explains. "I realized that there's a way to live outside the system. People think: 'Oh you're poor, you can't go to a movie.' It's not like we're these selfless saints. It's not a sacrifice to live like this — it's actually much easier. There's so much joy in giving. "

Recent studies on "subjective well-being," the scientific term for happiness, suggest this may indeed be the case. "There really isn't a strong correlation between material wealth and happiness," says Randy Larsen, chairman of the psychology department at Washington University. "One of the things that we know about happiness is that being sociable is one of the biggest predictors. So it may be that what people give up in terms of wealth, they make up for in terms of social relationships." Engaging in meaningful work and helping others, Larsen says, can also increase happiness.

Last fall Grim's work on the farm was recognized by Bank of America, which honored her as a "Local Hero" and presented her with a $5,000 check to donate to the charity of her choice. (In keeping with Catholic Worker philosophy, Grim and Black haven't registered New Roots with the state as a nonprofit corporation, so Grim had the check made out to a local housing collective, the Community Arts and Media Project, which in turn donated $4,000 to the farm.)

Dressed in a borrowed suit, with her mother and stepfather looking on, Grim dedicated the award to an eight-year-old who volunteers at the farm.

"To me, it's kind of embarrassing," Grim said afterward. "I feel like I'm selling my soul for money. But to reach people, you have to make compromises."

While working his shift at Karen House, Tony Hilkin answers a phone call from a woman asking whether any of the house's fourteen rooms are available. None are. Unlike other emergency shelters, Karen House imposes no set time limits; guests frequently stay for months.

According to St. Louis' Department of Human Services, the homeless population here numbers about 2,000. Every day Karen House receives about 30 requests for shelter. Additionally, many come to the house seeking food. Trader Joe's donates food every week, as do churches and individuals. The Workers hand out about 100 sandwiches a day.

("Certain aspects of their arrangement are a little bit different than other emergency shelters," notes Department of Human Services director Bill Siedhoff, referring to the living arrangements and the fact that Workers consider the people they're helping as guests, not clients. "That kind of commitment does add an additional element.")

In addition to the four Workers who live in Karen House, about forty people volunteer on a regular basis. Once a week a group of high school students makes dinner on the ten-burner stove in the kitchen, where signs caution not to light their cigarettes on the stove or put soda in the freezer ("It will go BOOM!"). Dust is caught in grease on the green walls.

Virginia Druhe, who continues to volunteer at Karen House, describes the shelter as having an immediacy. "The circumstances put people in a situation where they can't hide how they are," she says.

The phone is always ringing, the doorbell is always chiming, and someone always needs something from the storage closet. Meanwhile a little boy will be desperately trying to get someone to hold him. While another little boy kicks a ball around in the hallway. While an infant wails in the next room.

("So many movements try to set themselves apart from the world," observes Anne Klejment, a history professor at the University of St. Thomas who has studied Dorothy Day. "The Catholic Workers don't really do that. That's one of the tough things.")

Hilkin has lived and worked at Karen House for seven years, since he was twenty-four. His wife, Julie Jakimczyk, 32, lives here as well, although she no longer considers herself a Catholic Worker. Between the two of them, they earn about $5,000 a year.

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