Cool to be Kind

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

Jan 31, 2007 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

One of the eight women who founded Karen House in June of 1977 was Virginia Druhe. At the time she was 24 years old and had recently returned to Catholicism. That first winter was an exercise in improvisation, she says. No one even knew how many residents the house could accommodate.

"People come to join us in 'our wonderful work,'" Dorothy Day once wrote. "It all sounds very wonderful, but life itself is a haphazard, untidy, messy affair."

The third of five children, Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1897 to a lower-middle-class family. She joined the Socialist Party while in college, then dropped out in 1916 and moved back to New York. Traveling in bohemian circles, she worked for a Socialist daily, got pregnant and had an abortion. When she got pregnant a second time, she converted to Catholicism and had the child.

Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement (and a newspaper, also called the Catholic Worker) in the early 1930s. Their aim: to bring society back to the Gospel via freewheeling discussions, houses of hospitality and sustainable farms. Within ten years 30 houses of hospitality had opened around the nation. But even as the movement grew, Maurin, who died in 1949, and Day, who lived to the age of 83, set few rules.

The movement's credo — to love one's neighbor as oneself — was straightforward enough. But putting it into practice proved complicated.

During the four years Virginia Druhe lived at Karen House, she always felt like she was working in the dark. "Are you supporting the guests or enabling them?" she says. "Are you giving them a shred of dignity, or are you fulfilling your own need to feel like a dramatic savior? Is it enough to give a person a sandwich? When is it enough?"

At one point seventy people lived on the premises, including eight two-year-olds and six women who were more than eight months pregnant.

Eventually the Workers imposed occupancy limits. ("For one thing, the plumbing can't support that," Druhe points out.) They also stopped allowing boys older than thirteen, having found that the presence of males led to competition among some women residents.

The neighborhood changed around the house. At first it wasn't uncommon to hear gunfire coming from the streets, but by the 1980s and '90s St. Louis Place began to empty out. "It became very quiet," Druhe says. "Almost like living in the country." According to U.S. Census figures, the population of the roughly 80-block area dropped 39 percent between 1980 and 2000, from 4,243 to 2,572. St. Liborius stopped holding services in 1991.

In 1995 rows of identical vinyl-sided houses began to spring up, fronted by identical front yards dotted with identical shrubs. About 90 units have been built so far; more are in the works. It looks as if the suburbs had dropped down from outer space. The houses originally sold for about $90,000, says Judy Woolverton, owner of the firm that built them, Choate Construction and Development, but a few recently resold for about $150,000.

The Workers have watched the gentrification with concern. In 2002, when the Archdiocese divested itself of the church and convent, they considered relocating. But ultimately two Workers and a friend of the community bought the two properties for $1. Today they rent out St. Liborius to a statue-restoration company that uses it for storage. Grass sprouts from cracks in the concrete; blackbirds nest in the disused bell tower.

Druhe, now 54, lives in a small apartment not far from the church. She stands in her kitchen ironing handkerchiefs, her back door open to the Workers' urban farm. "Living in voluntary poverty still strikes me as a more honest way to approach people," she says. "But I want everyone to have health care, and I want me to have health care."

She gestures to her living space. The kitchen is clean, with lots of light and an old porcelain sink. Plants hang in the windows. "I want everyone to have a decent home," she says. "So I claim that for myself."

New Roots Urban Farm occupies six previously vacant city lots next to St. Liborius. The vegetables, planted in neat rows, are cultivated organically. A greenhouse has been constructed out of recycled windows; a small coop houses three chickens.

Trish Grim and Joseph Black, a recently married twentysomething couple, started the farm in 2004, basing it on a model in which individuals invest, one growing season at a time and, in exchange, receive fresh vegetables once a week. New Roots had sixteen shareholders its first year. Last year there were 25. The arrangement leaves plenty of food to donate to the local houses of hospitality and neighborhood residents.

"What we do here, it's less of a job, more of a lifestyle," says Grim. "There's such a social aspect to farming. It's a great thing, but it can also be a curse. Rarely do I get a full day's work done."

At the end of last year's season, New Roots hosted a harvest festival, complete with tiki torches, a bonfire and a homegrown feast. "We're young and we like parties," says Grim, "so we figured we should have one." There were potato-sack races and pumpkins to paint for the kids, many of whom had volunteered at the farm during the summer. For the adults there were five cases of Schlafly beer, donated by the St. Louis brewery.

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 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.

"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.

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.

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."

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."

She ends the story with a laugh that's throaty and bit empty, then calls out to her son to check on the mousetrap in the kitchen while he's in there.

Just around the corner from where Lorraine lives is the sustainable house Tony Hilkin and Julie Jakimczyk are rebuilding. The structure is entirely "off the grid"; electricity will be generated by two solar panels and heat provided by a wood stove.

Most of the building materials were purchased secondhand or scavenged. The walls are made of straw and clay. There's no hot water. But there is a skylight, a big tub in the bathroom and a vase of roses in the window. In the bathroom Jakimczyk has carved a T and a J into the tile. After November's ice storm, when the neighborhood lost power, theirs was one of the only buildings that had heat.

"There's a lot of projects like this in rural communities, but this is the first one that we know of in a city," says Hilkin. A 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story described the work-in-progress as possibly the "most environmentally conscious building in the St. Louis-St. Louis County area." They plan to move in this spring.

"It's not a Catholic Worker project. It's important to be clear about that," Hilkin notes. Catholic Worker projects, he explains, develop via consensus, and he and Jakimczyk wanted to make the decisions about the house themselves.

Propped against a chair in the kitchen is a poster board that displays photos of the house before the rehab. There are no steps leading to the front door. The back of the house is crumbling, and a vine has grown up through the inside, out a window and onto the roof. The floors are covered with garbage a foot deep.

"It used to be an old crack house," says Hilkin. "That's been confirmed by people at Karen House who used to use crack. They come over here and they can't believe what it looks like now. That's a real 360 there, for the house and the people."

With a trowel he smoothes a section of wall to which he has been applying a plaster-like substance made from mud. He and Jakimczyk plan to use the house to educate people about sustainable living. "Maybe we can just set a bar," he says. "I know we're more extreme than some people ever dream of being."

Both of them struggle with the idea that their work might not make a difference. "It's hard to live with the notion that this might have no impact," Hilkin says. "It's probably the biggest challenge."

"We fail all the time," Jakimczyk puts in. "In our relationships with the guests, we're not always as loving as we should be. We make mistakes, and we get selfish sometimes. I know that's not the way to change the world.

"I know it's unlikely there will be a change," she goes on. "But I know our society's lifestyle doesn't work. It's not sustainable, it's not loving, it's not kind. I think it's irresponsible not to look for something different."

Their quest has led them to construct a tidy, mud-and-straw building with a new blue roof amid an urban no-man's land. It is a cold day and the yard is covered in straw and snow. An unpainted wooden fence is punctuated by a gate with a shiny black latch. A few blocks to the north, the bell tower at St. Liborius juts skyward. Five birds fly over it, black flecks in a clear blue sky.

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