The Los Angeles Catholic Worker community is part of the lay Catholic Worker movement founded over eighty years ago by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to “feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner” and offer a gospel-based critique of the dominant culture within Catholic tradition, but outside the institutional church.
Founded in 1970, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker is a lay Catholic community of women and men who operate a free soup kitchen, hospitality house for the homeless, hospice care for the dying, a bi-monthly newspaper, and regularly offers prophetic witness in opposition to war-making and systemic injustice. We are funded exclusively by individual private donations. We do not accept nor solicit donations from corporations, foundations, nor the institutional church. We do not write grants. We are not, and never have been, a 501(c).(3) non-profit corporation, therefore, donations to the LACW are not legally tax-exempt. (This policy was instituted by Catholic Worker co-founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who believed Christians should not expect reward from the government for fulfilling our Christian obligation.)
We believe the Incarnation is the basis of the Christian message. We are called to enflesh the Word of God by responding to the suffering Christ incarnate among our poor and marginalized sisters and brothers (see Matthew 25:31-46). The homeless, the addict, the mentally ill, the AIDS victim, the infirm, and the politically and culturally oppressed are the ones who Christ has told us will be first in His Kin-dom. If we too desire to become citizens of His Kin-dom, then we must live our lives in proximity to and in solidarity with those on the margins of our society, indeed with all victims of empire.
Although we were founded as a service/activist orientated community, we have learned over the years that it is necessary to strike something of a balance between service and prayer, between reflection and action. While we still definitely err on the side of activism and resistance, we have over the years tried to build a structure that forces us to take time for regular prayer, reflection, Bible study, and dialogue, because as Thomas Merton once wrote, “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others.”
The LACW believes in, and is a strong supporter of, a Consistent Ethic of Life. We respect and honor God’s presence in each human being and the inherent dignity therein, from conception to natural death, and thus oppose all forms of violence to and against the human person (and God’s created order), which includes war, torture, rape, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia. To learn more, please visit the “Consistent Life Network” website.
Hospitality Kitchen/ St. Francis Peace Garden
Our soup kitchen, known commonly on the street as “The Hippie Kitchen” is located in the central city ghetto of L.A.’s Skid Row. With approximately ten thousand homeless, poor and marginally employed residents, this area, with it’s numerous street encampments, shelters, and rescue missions, has been dubiously nominated “the homeless capital of the nation.” And with the city’s implementation of the “Safer Cities Initiative” (SCI), Skid Row is the most policed area in the nation, which results in near constant harassment of our homeless sisters and brothers.
After the 1987 earthquake, which severely damaged our former soup kitchen, it was cost prohibitive to duplicate that facility. We therefore decided to build a smaller “prep-kitchen” and utilize the balance of the money raised on an outdoor dining facility with tiled areas, trees, plants, flowers, fountains, gold fish, and chirping birds, both in an aviary and in nature. This beautiful garden literally is a dream come true. It is an authentic refuge from the mean streets, and it humanizes an otherwise inhuman situation, bringing grace and peace to both server and served.
Hennacy House is a one-hundred-twenty(+)-year-old, fourteen bedroom, six bath, three story Victorian home located in the working class Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, two miles East of the Hospitality Kitchen. It was purchased for us in 1977 by Tony and Joan Trafecanty, who live in a house adjacent to Hennacy House. It is at this location that the Catholic Worker community lives and provides hospitality to eight to ten homeless guests as well as periodically providing hospice care to the dying who have no immediate family.
The soup kitchen is the primary focus of our work. It is open three days each week–Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday–for two and a half hours each serving day. We serve a nutritious hot meal consisting of beans, fresh tossed salad (said to be the best salad in L.A.), slice of buttered bread and optional slice of unbuttered, and almost always have a variety of side items, depending on donations, with plenty of ice cold water as a chaser. We serve an average of 1300 plates on each day, or approximately 1000 people.
Since 1997, the LACW has distributed over 5000 legal shopping carts to our homeless friends to use for whatever they deem necessary. Some use them for transporting and storing their meager personal belongings, others use them to collect and recycle cardboard and other recyclables, yet others use them for both. We purchase them in bulk (at a cost of $50 each) with “Los Angeles Catholic Worker” on the plastic push handle, and mount a sign on the front of the cart that lists the municipal code that allows people to legally use them on the streets. We also do cart repairs–replace wheels and plastic handles–when necessary. We distribute and repair carts on each serving day at 11 am.
On alternate days–Wednesday and Friday mornings–from 7:30 – 8:00, when we are not serving in the kitchen, we serve a smaller meal of oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, fruit, pastries, and coffee at a location on the downtown side of the 4th Street Bridge. We serve an average of 100 people each of these two days
At any given time we will have eight to ten homeless guests living with us in our house of hospitality. At present most of our guests tend to be people with a permanent physical or mental health issue, although we do periodically take in someone on a short term hospitality situation as the need presents itself. Guests can stay from one day onward. Our current long-term guest has resided with us for over twenty years.
Beginning at the time of the AIDS crisis during the late 1980’s, we have periodically opened our home to the dying. The experience of being in proximity of death is both frightening and stressful, it has also given us many powerful and grace-filled experiences. When we walk with the dying, specifically the impoverished, we walk with Christ to the cross, and through this experience our faith is tested and strengthened.
While many people applaud and support our efforts to serve the poor, they have difficulty accepting the political dimension of our work. We must recall the words of Rev. Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who said: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
Thus we find ourselves protesting unfair treatment of the poor and homeless, the death penalty, U.S. torture policy, U.S. wars and occupations, U.S. nuclear policy, and bloated military budgets that rob from the poor and make the world an unsafe place to live. While most of our activities involve us in public vigils, marches, and prayer and fasting, we occasionally find ourselves being led by the Spirit to acts of civil disobedience (or what some call Divine obedience), which at times lead us to jail or prison.
The Catholic Agitator is the L.A. Catholic Worker community’s newspaper. It is written, designed, and edited by community members and published six times each year (bi-monthly). The Catholic Agitator gives us the opportunity to stay in contact with our extended community of supporters (circulation is over 8500) and spread our ideas on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in our current world. It is our deep desire to publish a well-written, aesthetically pleasing, and thought provoking newspaper that is both edifying and agitating.
A Typical Day
Well, there are no typical days at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. When one of your values is precarity, anything can happen. Our cars have been stolen, broken into, and regularly break down, our house also has been broken into and falls into disrepair, our bank account at times runs dry, people die, get sick, lose their jobs, get arrested, or rip us off, but these are, hopefully balanced by the times in which we are divinely surprised by that one thousand dollar check, the angry person who caused a fight yesterday returns today to apologize, the person who once ate at the soup kitchen returning after ten years of sobriety or getting back onto their feet to thank us not only for our work, but for the love we share, or finding a wonderful gift of brie cheese in the food donation. By definition, being vulnerable to God’s grace and goodness means that we must be equally vulnerable to chaos and disaster as well.
With that said, here is what we do on a typical day. If you are on the early crew, you arrive at the kitchen by 6:45 a.m.–the plants must be watered, the garden and sidewalk must be swept, the kitchen must be setup, and if you have time, you can grab some toast and jam before the real work begins.
The official day at the kitchen begins at 7:45 a.m. with a prayer–like that of St. Francis: “Lord, make me a channel of your peace, where there is hatred let me bring your love…” or other such prayers; By 9:30 a.m. we, with the help of our valued volunteers, have finished chopping the salad, cooking the beans, buttering bread, and chopping onions, then after a brief prayer we begin serving.
By noon we have served anywhere from fifteen hundred to two thousand meals, and if you are fortunate, everyone who came to the garden to eat was in a good mood, or their mood improved when they arrived and there were no altercations. By now you are pretty tired and you might like to go home and take a nap, but you still have about an hour of clean up to do.
At the end of the day we gather around the chopping block for a final prayer. If it is Tuesday, you will attend our weekly business meeting, which usually runs from 2-4 p.m. Then if it is not your house day, that is if you do not have to prepare dinner for everyone in the house, you can simply relax or take a nap until 6 p.m. when dinner is served.
Wednesday Days of Reflection
Because our days can be pretty exhausting, we have had to force ourselves to create the time to be reflective. On Wednesday, after we serve a simple breakfast of oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, fruit, pastries, and coffee to about one hundred folks, we have a silent prayerful vigil in opposition to U.S. wars and occupations at the U.S. Federal Building complex in downtown Los Angeles or a vigil against the death penalty by the Criminal Court building. Upon our return to Hennacy House we gather in our “upper room” for Bible study from 10:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. It is in Bible study that we constantly renew our understanding and commitment to the work we do. In our busy lives it is easy to forget that we have set out to do God’s will, not our own. Bible study helps us to put it all into perspective. It keeps us grounded and focused. Our many disappointments and failures are not as important as being faithful to God’s Word. The day culminates at 6 p.m. at our in-house liturgy with our extended community, followed by a potluck dinner.
At the present time, there are ten of us who live and work together fulltime and three who are part time at the L.A. Catholic Worker. Together we work in the community’s ministries with full timers receiving room, board, and a weekly fifteen dollar stipend. It is our desire to live together in peace, harmony and cooperation with each other, but that does not always happen, because making good community is like making a good marriage–it takes much hard work.
Our forty-four year experience has taught us that the most difficult thing that we do is not serving the poor, living in voluntary poverty, or resisting the powers. No, the most difficult thing that we do is living together with other committed Christians–without killing each other. To do community at all is difficult, because the values of community are at odds with the values of our era: extreme individualism, rampant materialism, violence between the sexes, races, and generations all work against the formation of community. Despite this, we believe our co-founder, Dorothy Day, when she wrote, “We are made for community.” We further believe that it is precisely the power of community that will heal the wounds of our era.
Each year, late June through early August, the L.A. Catholic Worker extends an open invitation to any adult interested in joining us for a period of six weeks during the summer. It is an opportunity to live and work with a gospel-based community, to discern one’s vocation, or just simply deepen one’s social justice experience on a first hand basis. By the way, the weather here in Southern California is great too.
For further information please contact:
Los Angeles Catholic Worker
632 N. Brittania St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033-1722
Phone: (323) 267-8789