Forty Years an Agitator
I have long-admired individuals who are able to dedicate their lives to fight for social justice and help those in need. I know people from many different spiritual traditions who combine their spiritual practice with voluntary simplicity/poverty and social justice work. As part of a series of Seva profiles, I wanted to share a column passed on to me by a dear friend, a long-time admirer of the Catholic Worker movement. In this beautifully written essay, writer Jeff Diethrich uses the occasion of his 40th anniversary as a member of the LA Catholic Worker to reflect on what the Catholic Worker movement means to him.
From the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of the NY Catholic Worker:
Forty Years an Agitator By JEFF DIETRICH
May you grow up to he righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Like many of my generation of Vietnam War resisters, I was a fugitive from the law on September 15, 1970. When I exited the plane at Kennedy International Airport, I was a young long-haired hippie draft resister who thought that you could not trust anyone over thirty. I had recently refused induction into the military, left the country, hitchhiked throughout Europe and Atrica, and six months later when I came back to the States, I fully expected to be arrested. Somehow, miraculously, I slipped through customs without notice. I had three dollars in my pocket when I stepped to the curb in New York and stuck out my thumb with more bravado than I actually felt, seeking a ride back to my home, three thousand miles away in Los Angeles. I had the same three dollars in my pocket two days later outside of St. Louis, when a psychedelic VW bus picked me up. “We’re going to a peacemakers conference,” they said and took me to what sounded like a dubious gathering in the woods not far from the city.
It could easily have been a rainbow hippie gathering or a flower child lovein, but instead it turned out to be something far more substantial and profoundly life changing. lronically, the Peacemakers were old people – I thought they were ancient, but they were probably only in their late forties at the time. Founded in the midst of World War II by three Union Theological graduates who went to jail rather than fight, the Peacemakers were a self-described “anarcho-pacifist” organization, whose members had continued their lifelong resistance to war and injustice by demonstrating, marching, sitting-in, and refusing to pay taxes. They participated in the southern Freedom Rides and committed civil disobedience against every Cold War weapon system introduced by the US. Beaten, jailed, and reviled, still they persisted in stubborn resistance.
Such heroism by “old people” was edifying for the newly-minted radical I fancied myself to be. But even more revelatory for me was my encounter at the conference with some young people from the Catholic Worker. Though I had been raised a Catholic, gone to regular Sunday Mass and attended Catholic schools most of my life, no mention of Dorothy Day and the soup kitchen subversives of her radical Catholic Worker movement had penetrated the sanitized suburbs of my youth. The young folks from the Milwaukee Catholic Worker ran a soup kitchen and hospitality house, and they had recently come from the courtroom drama of the Milwaukee I4, where their founder, Mike Cullen, and thirteen others, had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the crime of burning draft files to protest the war in Vietnam. As I listened to their story, a light suddenly went off in my head. This is what Jesus would he doing if He were around today, I thought He would be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!
It was what the Buddhist call Samadhi – in a flashing moment of realization, I understood that all of those Gospel stories I was vaguely familiar with were not just spiritual allegories; that the life ofjesus was not just some sacramental metaphor; that the Sermon on the Mount was not just a quaint collection of spiritual poetry; that Christianity was not just a set of dogmas and prohibitions; that we were not supposed to worship Jesus – we were supposed to practice Jesus. It was the most radical thing I could imagine, and it was being done by Catholics, a group that had been thoroughly purged as irrelevant from my recently formed radical soul.
I still had the same three dollars I started out with when I arrived back in Los Angeles, ten days later. In a kind of epic journey of self-discovery, strangers had taken care of me, fed me, housed me and transported me across the country. I had been given the gift of an insight that very shortly led me to the front door of the newly founded LA Catholic Worker, where I was, only thirty minutes after my arrival, made editor of the community’s not-yet-published newspaper, The Catholic Agitator. Each day we fed the poor of Skid Row, greeted county jail releases with coffee and donuts, and regularly protested the Vietnam War.
On Sundays, the small community gathered around the dining room table, with friends and supporters, with bread and wine, to read the Gospel stories and celebrate a simple liturgy In the context of our daily life of community, service and resistance to the war, the stories and liturgy came alive to me in a way they never had in the high church environment of silken vestments, linen altar cloths, and smoky incense. I prayed that I would be able to stay at least a year at the Catholic Worker before the FBI arrested me for draft refusal. because I knew that when I was brought before a judge, I wanted to be able to say with conviction, “I am not a coward. I do not refuse to serve; I simply refuse to serve the way you want me to serve. Like Jesus, I choose to serve life and not death. I am ready to go to jail.” Ironically, I had found a home in the Church that I had so thoRoughly rejected as irrelevant. I had caught a glimpse of the original founding spirit. I had found a place to ground my radical sensibilities – a radical foundation that stretched back 2,000 years to Jesus, and even further to Moses and the Prophets.
It now has been forty years since I first encountered the Catholic Worker, and I still feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. And though I have never burned draft files, I have poured blood and oil on the steps of the US federal building to protest the Persian Gulf war, cut the fence around the Nevada Nuclear Test Site to protest nuclear weapons, occupied the bell tower of the LA cathedral and appropriated the Cardinal’s bulldozer to protest the Church’s extravagant building project, blockaded the bathroom of City Hall to get port-a-potties for those who sleep on the streets, and placed my body under the giant tires of a dump trunk to protest the city’s theft of property from the homeless. In all, I have been arrested over forty times for various civil disobedience actions.
Some years ago, as part of a courtordered sentencing report, a federal probation officer wrote of me: “Mr. Dietrich is a sixty-year old man who works in a Skid Row soup kitchen. He makes fifteen dollars a week and has no bank account or assets and is thus incapable of paying a fine, “Over the years, he has been arrested scores of times and seems to be undeterred by incarceration. It is my opinion that further incarceration of Mr. Dietrich would serve no purpose, and would, in fact, be a waste of the governments resources.”
Next year I turn sixty-five, and in preparation for my “retirement years,” the Social Security Administration dutifully sent me a statement of my earnings. In 1970, the year that l came to the Catholic Worker, I made $2,553.82 in 1971, I made $0; in 1972, I made $0; in 1973, I made $0; and so on right down to 2009, when I also made $0. For my entire life, I have earned a big fat zero.
Some might ask, what’s the point?
You have created nothing, you have earned nothing, and you have not ameliorated injustice. There are more hungry people on the streets of Skid Row than ever, and there is another War going on that is more intractable than the one in Vietnam. What do you have to show for your forty years of toil? It is one thing for an idealistic youth to devote a few years after college to community service. That’s commendable and it‘s even helpful when applying for graduate school. But beyond that, it is something of a waste of time. talent resources, and an expensive education. After all the protesting, after all the years of work for social change, after all the decades of unremunerated service, what did you accomplish? By any reasonable standard, you are a failure.
Though I am old now I still operate out of the youthful assumptions that originally attracted me to the Catholic Worker–that basic sense of simplicity and the immediacy of the Gospel put into practice, that call to give up everything and become a disciple to serve those in need, to confront war and injustice, to be a human being, and to do all this outside of the context of an institutional apparatus, whether that be state or church or foundation or nonprofit corporation. To meet human needs in a human way–that is what appealed to the youthful pilgrim in me. Moreover, while l have not seemed to have accomplished anything permanent, the Catholic Worker was not founded with an eye towards permanence. It simply is just a living witness to the Gospel ethic of humans responding humanly to one another.
In a culture obsessed with the beauty and glamour of youth, Dorothy Day understood that it was the idealism and courage of youth that attracted young people to the challenging life of the Catholic Worker. She understood that the Gospels in practice, enfleshed in the world, were perennially a project of youthful fervor – they Were, in the words of poet and songwriter Bob Dylan, “forever young.” forever appealing to those who were willing to give up everything. to risk their lives and their futures on the possibility that feeding the hungry. sheltering the homeless, and burning draft tiles was the most compelling and efficacious and audacious thing that one could be doing. Those folks were usually uninvested in careers or jobs or professional advancement, the substantive elements of the culture, and thus by definition, “young”.
I believe the Gospels are the best story We have. They are the singular counter-narrative to our consumerist, war-mongering, media saturated, technologized, dehumanized, deathoriented culture. The story of the Gospels – the triumph of goodness and mercy over the powers of death and domination – cannot be proven, and we may not accept the story on faith alone. But we love the story so much that we want it to be true. Yet the only way to make it true is to live our lives as if it were true. To will the story into existence by our own living testimony to its veracity, thus giving witness to our deepest hopes for humanity-that is what attracted me as a young person to the Catholic Worker; and that is what still attracts young people to this day.
It is simply a love of the story and the existential recognition that the “making of the story real” is the best and perhaps only hope of humanity. What we do here at the Catholic Worker is so small and insignihcant, this practice ofthe insubstantial, this act of living poetry, this hope against hope. But, it is absolutely essential to the salvation of the world that we give witness to this alternative reality – that we say with our whole lives and our whole beings that there is another way of life, a more human and compassionate and meaningful way to live. I hope that I have lived my life conformed to this Gospel ethic, shaped by this movement that continues to call young people to respond to a suffering world, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
But, the truth is that while young people are attracted to the Catholic Worker, very few young people actually stay at the Catholic Worker long enough to become “old people.” Along with a handful of others, I am a rare exception. If I believed in luck, I would count myself a fortunate man indeed. But I do not believe in luck, and thus I must count myself exceedingly blessed. However, even though I feel blessed, I do not consider myself particularly saintly or wise or spiritually evolved, in fact, quite the opposite. But I do think that I am probably a more compassionate, sensitive and courageous person than I would have been had I not spent my entire life at the Catholic Worker. And though I am an “old person” now and I cannot boast any more of long hair, in fact quite the opposite, I am still a hippie at heart and I still aspire with fervor to the Gospel project of being “forever young.”
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