I don’t categorize myself as Catholic or Episcopalian or Jewish, but I do have a feeling that we are all supposed to be treating each other decently; and you don’t see that every day in Los Angeles, or any other place for that matter. Coming to the kitchen is one of the few places where I get to witness that—I see volunteers and community members treating their fellow Angelenos like human beings. In the hustle and bustle of traffic and work and daily life, that is not something that’s easy to find.
I first came to the kitchen in 1984, I think. I was a student at Loyola High School at the time, and one of the things the Jesuits required was a certain amount of community service. A friend of mine, Kenny Gould, and I spotted the Catholic Worker off a list of potential service spots. My dad had some connection to the Worker, very tangential, I think, and always said it was a group we should explore one day. Kenny and I were lucky to make the right choice and come to the kitchen.
I was thrilled with the experience, but after high school, I went away to college, and I didn’t really come back to Los Angeles for about 12 or 13 years. But this year, volunteering at the kitchen felt like something I needed to do for myself. So, I’ve been coming here as regularly as I can on Saturdays.
I lived in Prague for about five years and in Hungary for a year. One of the big things that happened when I was away was the Los Angeles riots. I was with some other Americans, sitting in a cafe where they had a television set turned on, watching these riots in real time. And it was really shocking watching people beat up each other, watching police beating up people, this whole breakdown…It left me scratching my head, wondering what had become of Los Angeles.
There are certainly poor people in Eastern Europe, but there are a lot more working poor, and, to be honest, a lot more middle class people. That is ironic, considering how America prides itself on its middle class. There are fewer really destitute individuals who have nothing but the contents of their shopping cart. There are more people with very low-wage jobs, who still earn enough to keep a roof over their head, to keep them clothed and fed.
Also, a lot of the countries in Europe come out of a more social tradition, not Socialist necessarily, but a more community-supporting-community tradition. And while they aren’t as sophisticated, in terms of non-profits or non-governmental organizations as we are here, that speaks well for their society, because they don’t need such sophistication—the society itself works a little bit more in caring for their poor.
I enjoy the other volunteers at the kitchen. I love the diversity of people at the chopping block, which is one of my favorite places. The guy standing behind me designs engines for the space shuttle; there’s an intelligence analyst for the LAPD on my left; a person who is part of the Jesuit youth group or doing an internship with the Catholic Worker is across from me; along with a teacher doing volunteer work on the weekend. You get a real cross-section of America—a real diversity of people from different walks of life and backgrounds. Yet we’ve all found our way to the kitchen.
I’d like to interact a little bit more with the guests. I’ve always enjoyed serving main dish on the line and hope to do that more.
It all starts with the full-time community members—the Jeff Dietrichs and the Catherines. You guys set this example, which is, as far as I can tell, even more important than the actual food that is served: showing people how to be human. That is great.
I had wanted to volunteer at the kitchen for some time. When I was around ten, I asked my mom for the first time, but she thought I was too young, so she said to wait, that she’d take me down when I was older. So, over the years, I would keep asking.
We went to the Catholic Worker House when I was 11 or 12, and that’s when we first got the Agitator. I would read it, and I would really want to come down to the kitchen, and my mom would say, “Just wait until you’re older.” So finally, this summer is when we came down for the first time. I’m 17 years old now.
When I first came here, I have to admit, I was kind of nervous. I saw the area and I was scared. Then I met the people. What the Workers told me was that a lot of the time these were people who couldn’t meet up with their bills, and now they’re stuck, or that they have drug problems. I got to put a face on my own prejudice. It made me realize that a huge injustice is being done, and they are basically being forgotten. And how could I sit at home knowing that they were there? The people that I meet in the line motivate me to volunteer at the kitchen.
I think the second time I came here, I met a man, I didn’t get his name, he was telling me all about his wife, and he had gone to college, and he just had this amazing story. I remember thinking again, what I said before about putting a face on your own beliefs, and listening to him just really opened my eyes to everything. He was really an extraordinary man. Meeting him was an eye opener. I realized that these are real people. They are not just crazy homeless that you hear about all the time, or that my friends talk about, or the flippant remarks that people make about the homeless. You realize that there’s a lot more to it than just making easy comments about it; there’s a lot more behind it.
I have this idea that later on this might be something I really want to continue for the rest of my life, so I applied for the summer internship program. I want to get an idea of what really living the life is all about, all the hard work that I know I’m going to have to do. I want to really get a sense of, an idea of, how it all works. So far, I haven’t come across anything that I find difficult or challenging. I think once I stay here long enough, I’ll find something.
What I like best about the kitchen are the community members. We all work together; there’s not one job here that I’ve done by myself, we’re all doing it together, and it’s really nice to collaborate on something we all feel very passionate about. I really like the sense of community.
I think we should be Sermon on the Mount people. The Sermon on the Mount expressly tells us that we’ve got to be in community with the poor. There is no group I know of that lives that out like the Catholic Worker—serving the poor, caring for the poor, and living with the poor, as well.
It is a delight to work at the kitchen. I really believe that God’s hand brought us there. A teacher at the school where I used to work introduced my husband and me to the West Side Food Bank. He would bring bread to our public elementary school and leave it there to be given away to staff members, and also to poor immigrant families. But there was an awful lot of bread, and so I told Tom, my husband, that this bread should go to the most needy, and that’s how we got connected with the Worker. Tom knew about the Worker, but when he started bringing bread to the kitchen, we began to volunteer. Now, we look back on that and realize that was God’s hand gently pushing us where he wanted us to be. From the beginning, it just felt as if we were meant to be there.
I love the way we make a real effort to bring beauty to the people who eat at the kitchen, with the lush garden and the fountains…These dear people whose lives are so difficult…bringing smiles, serving them, giving a little bit of comfort, and especially giving dignity. To treat people with dignity…My guess is that folks just don’t get much dignity on the streets, and perhaps not in their relationships either. The kitchen is a place where people are treated with respect and where we can really touch the people who are most in need.
The hardest thing about working at the kitchen is knowing that this kind of poverty is completely unnecessary. I would like my taxes to go to facilities and services that would give these dear human beings dignified and comfortable lives, instead of building up the military-industrial complex. I would like to be able to say where my hard-earned tax money should go. We don’t care for the most needy of our society. People don’t seem to understand that when we take care of the most needy, we are taking care of ourselves. They are our brothers and sisters. That is the hardest thing.
I’m just getting to the point where I’m able to come to the kitchen regularly, and just beginning to recognize the faces that are there every week and they are beginning to recognize me. It was a real learning experience for me to be able to wipe the tables outside and to hear, and be impressed with, the conversations our guests have.
Ted Von der Ahe
I’ve known you guys for a long time. I wanted to go where folks who help poor folks are, and you have always been a beacon. I, like everybody else, have these intellectual gyrations about the church, about theology, about what ought to be done. But, when it comes right down to it, we are called to feed the poor—and that is what you do.
What does God want of me? Who am I? Where does all this lead? I think basically, what Jesus says is just to go and do it—feed my sheep and follow me.
It makes me think of this little anecdote about Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama. They got together one day, and they talked and exchanged ideas and were getting closer and closer to understanding one another, but Merton was preoccupied with the fact that he had to go through this Tea Ceremony. He had boned up on the way to do it correctly, when and how to lift up your cup, and so forth. He thought he had it right, but then he got kind of stuck, and so the Dalai Lama looked at him and said, “Drink tea. Just drink tea.” That’s the way I feel. You go through all these gyrations because you think you’re supposed to, and all of a sudden it is simple—feed the hungry. For me that distills the Gospels.
We have a little Bible study group that Ched Myers started, and we had a great reflection today on this gospel reading for Advent that says, “Be alert! Be alert! Be alert!” We have to stay awake. You try to be awake in the moment and be present there, and then you take time apart to reflect on it and be more awake to what is going on. You continue with the inner work and the outer work…the inner work and the outer work…and you keep going back and forth.
When you reach a certain age you know you’ve heard the command and you’ve put yourself in different situations. Now I just try to find out where God is the closest. It feels right to be at the kitchen, and the folks there at the kitchen are the right folks to be with. It is a great community and I love it. I love the give-and-take and the bantering. We focus on what we do, and yet we don’t go around thinking we’re all high and mighty or that we’ve got all the answers. We just help out because we think that is what God wants us to do, and we feel good doing it.
I love to do food flow, a job where I feel like a linebacker or a coach. I’m in the background, making sure that everybody can do their job. I make sure the servers have bread and salad and sporks. I stir the pots and clean the counter. Jeff and Catherine know the structure, yet there is great leeway to be creative on the job.
I came to volunteer here for a short time in the early 80’s. I think we met again in 2001. My local Fellowship of Reconciliation group was vigiling on the front side of the federal building, and the Worker was vigiling close to the jail on the back side of the building. I started going to your vigil, and Paul Benson said, “Come down to the kitchen!”
I was at the vigil probably about six months before I came down to the kitchen. You had me do the water flow. You explained to me how important water was to the customers, that it would be there for them, and be cool and pleasant, and I just completely loved doing it.
There are four water filling stations: two in the garden, one on the sidewalk, and another water bucket for people that are standing in line waiting to get their meal. The water comes out of the tap at about 75 degrees, so it’s warm and it doesn’t taste good. What you do is fill up the big bucket with a whole bunch of ice in it to cool the water down. So there’s cold water served to the people in line, and there’s cold water available in the water stations, and a whole freezer full of ice to keep the water cool.
During the summer, you use the whole freezer full of ice in a day. I think on a really hot day you can serve about a ton and a half of water. I think about 2000 servings, about two little cups per person, is what it averages out to.
This is a water planet: It is about 80% water and our bodies are 80% water. You can go for a long time without food, but you won’t live very long without water. Particularly on Skid Row, water is one of the hardest things to find. To give icy cold water in unlimited quantities is just a tremendous gift that I really enjoy providing. And they love it, the customers love it, and they walk around and say, “Hey, water man!” to me.
There is something about doing the water job that just feeds my heart and reminds me of Jesus. What I have found in my life is that giving people what they need and what they want, and giving from your heart, is the best thing to do. I think that’s the Christ spirit within me, that is within all of us. If we exercise that spirit, we have to actually go out and do something, or it tends to shrivel and die. So, this is a huge joy for me to do.
I am constantly amazed, and, again, have my spirit restored, by the quality of the volunteers and Catholic Workers. This place, perhaps, is the best place that I’ve ever worked. It’s really good to be around other people who care, and who remind me that I’m not really alone in the world, and I’m not completely crazy to feel the way I do.