Cool to be Kind

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

Another couple, 22-year-old Susannah and 26-year-old Stephen, live in an abandoned house nearby. They have no electricity or running water, and they're frequent visitors at Kabat House." They're not my blood family," Stephen says of his neighbors. "But it's the best family experience I've ever had."

On Finn Mateo's second birthday, Workers and guests gather in Kabat House's small kitchen to sing "Happy Birthday." Finn's present, wrapped in a pillowcase, is an interlocking wooden train set given to Carolyn Griffeth by a friend. His cake is a donated muffin from Whole Foods with one candle on top.

Stephen helps himself from a box filled with more Whole Foods pastries. "These are, like, three bucks each," he says. "They're so good."

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.

Then he and Susannah head back to their squat, which is heated by a wood-burning stove. An American flag serves as the door between the bedroom and the kitchen.

Previously, Stephen lived at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, a nonprofit in south St. Louis' Benton Park neighborhood that has become a haven for experimental musicians. But he says there was little involvement with the local community.

"That's always a problem when you get a group of progressive white people together and they move to a poor neighborhood," Stephen says. "They encounter that other side of things: The neighbors treat their children a certain way, play their music really loud. Here there's so much more interaction. That's what sold me on it."

A few years back, a group of Catholic Workers and Karen House guests decided to create Dorothy Day Cohousing, a long-term community where they could try to share their lives on more equal footing. Cohousing participants didn't live under the same roof, but they shared meals and prayed together. There were also meetings — lots of meetings.

Carolyn Griffeth, whose family took part in the project, which has since disbanded, describes it as "an interesting experiment."

Another participant, Lorraine (who declined to give her last name), laughs when she hears Griffeth's summation. "It was," she says. Then she's silent.

The first time Lorraine was a guest at Karen House, in the mid-1980s, she had three children, was pregnant with her fourth and was trying to escape a domestic situation that had turned violent. Ultimately, she'd bear eight children over seven years, ending with twins.

Though she battled a crack addiction, her main goal was always to keep her family under one roof. "If Karen House wasn't there, I don't know where I'd be," she says. "I probably wouldn't have my children together. I probably wouldn't be off drugs. They have become not just my friends, they are also my support system."

She's sitting in the front room of the house where she now lives, a few blocks from Karen House, dressed in a blue velour tracksuit and wearing glasses with thick lenses and clear frames. It's afternoon, and the sun slants through the blinds. She has her wood-paneled television set tuned to a Christian channel.

Once during the Cohousing era, Griffeth decorated a willow branch with berries and origami animals as a stand-in for a traditional Christmas tree. "Lorraine's children said they guessed it was better than nothing," Griffeth remembers. "It was a relationship between two completely different worldviews and cultures," she adds. "The cross-racial and cross-cultural aspect was difficult."

"That's exactly the kind of thing Carolyn would do," Lorraine says, though she doesn't specifically recall the willow branch. Her memory has been bad since she had a lump removed from her neck last year; so has her health. "Carolyn is one of my favorite people. But she does some things that other people might think are strange."

She pauses. "A lot of people call it Dumpster diving?" she ventures questioningly. "People at Karen House, they act real poor. I know some people could afford new shoes, but instead they put tape over the holes. They wear them in the sleet, rain, snow — everything."

The problem with Cohousing, Lorraine says, was that some former guests felt the Workers intervened inappropriately, telling them who they should bring home and how they should treat their children.

"It was complicated," she adds. "They usually had a better education, better lifestyle, better finances. But they don't know the struggles that go on behind closed doors."

At one point the group tried having the children at the meetings, but that didn't work out. "[The kids] said they didn't want white people in their lives telling them what to do," Lorraine says.

With the aid of a copper cane, she crosses to the door to let in her son Walter, a lanky nineteen-year-old who's home from his job in a school lunchroom. "That's the child I delivered at home," she says as he walks to the kitchen. "It was a hundred and six degrees that day, and I was taking care of three other children along with mine." Her eldest son, who was six at the time, helped her with the labor. Then he walked six blocks to the nearest pay phone to call 911. "When the paramedics got here, they were joking with me. They told me I was trying to take their job."

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