Cool to be Kind

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

"I've heard a couple people say that Karen House is like a school," Hilkin says. "I think it is, at least for a lot of us."

He works at Karen House about 45 hours a week and spends his free time at the brick two-story around the corner that he and Jakimczyk are transforming into a sustainable home.

That's where he's headed after today's shift, but first he has offered to give volunteer Cocoa Duff a ride home.

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.

Duff originally came to Karen House nearly twenty years ago, when he was addicted to drugs and living on the street. Now he shows up three times a week at 9 a.m. to volunteer. He says he has been clean since October 2005, when Hilkin took him to a drug program. He's also newly married.

"His personality has really emerged — now he's consistent and reliable," Hilkin says, though he's quick to note that successes like Duff's are rare. "When you form a relationship, the bar is raised. It's not that it's not fulfilling, but as you become closer to someone you're looking for more — in yourself and with them. Things don't always work out that way."

From a roomful of donated clothing, Duff has picked out two camouflage-patterned hats — one for himself and one for his wife. He has no bag, so he's wearing both. He puts on his black leather jacket, anxious to go. His wife is expecting him, he says. He picks up a black umbrella. "Now I'm ready for the rain," he says. "I'm ready for it."

He stretches out his arms. "Don't I look good," he says, almost to himself.

Five years ago Jorj Arteaga was a film student in New York City who spent his free time break-dancing and doing drugs. Then, on September 11, 2001, he watched from the top floor of his apartment building as people leaped to their deaths from a disintegrating World Trade Center. "What I was doing became so meaningless when I realized people are actually killing the hell out of each other," says Arteaga.

Not long afterward he dropped out of school and moved to Peru to volunteer at an orphanage. When he returned to the States, he met some Catholic Workers and took up residence at a house of hospitality. He moved to St. Louis after meeting Carolyn Griffeth last spring. He no longer goes to nightclubs because they remind him of how his life might have turned out. The life he has found instead, he says, gives him far greater satisfaction.

That doesn't surprise Ken Sheldon, a psychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies positive psychology. "It sounds trivial, telling someone to commit two random acts of kindness a day," the psychologist says. "But most days are kind of blah. Even if you just make one person feel good, that can make a big difference in a life.

"It's interesting, because it implies that real altruism might not be possible," Sheldon adds. "This says there's something in it for you. But that doesn't mean it's not admirable."

When he's not doing odd jobs as an electrician or farming at New Roots, Arteaga helps Griffeth home-school Finn Mateo's thirteen-year-old brother, Ghana.

Griffeth met Ghana eight years ago while volunteering at a street camp for homeless children in Mongolia. "He had a lot of needs," she says. "He still has a lot of needs." At the time, he couldn't remember his own name and was so malnourished that he still appeared to be a toddler.

Griffeth's husband, Tery McNamee, proposed the night she arrived home with Ghana. They were living in a Catholic Worker community in Chicago, but the neighborhood was gentrifying. "A Starbucks had moved in," Carolyn says. "We knew it was time to move out."

Part of what drew them to St. Louis was the cheap real estate. In 2001 they bought a house on Monroe Street in north St. Louis for $7,000. Soon they were offering hospitality. They named the house after fellow Catholic Worker Carl Kabat. (Kabat, who was the subject of "The Clown Priest," a July 26, 2006, story by Riverfront Times staff writer Ben Westhoff, is serving a fifteen-month sentence in federal prison for breaking into a nuclear missile facility in North Dakota.) A few years later they bought a house across the street for $10,000, adopted Finn from Guatemala and moved in. For the first time, they were living as a nuclear family, without guests.

Her family, Griffeth says, is often the only one in the neighborhood without air-conditioning. "Everyone wants what's been denied," she says. "People who are oppressed have a greater need for security, success, comfort. What we want is a meaningful, joyful life. In part, we can go after this because we have parents and relatives who would back us up if we fell on our faces."

Adds Griffeth: "We want what everyone truly wants: to have a community, to be accepted, loved, a part of something meaningful. We have the support to do what most people want to do but don't have the freedom to do."

Arteaga moved into Kabat House last June, and today he and three other Workers manage the house and offer hospitality.

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