The most important thing in my life and in my spirituality is service. I was born and raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. But there was a time in my 20’s when I was a bit disgruntled with the institutional church.
A series of events brought me back to my faith. I was living in Chicago and having a difficult time. I remember one day I decided to take a break from myself and focus on others who were in much worse shape than me-some people I knew on the streets of Chicago. I distributed some food, just on my own. At the end of the day it felt so good to have focused on the needs of others and not on myself. From that day forward I started to come back to my faith.
When I moved to Los Angeles I found the Los Angeles Catholic Worker on the internet. I started to come to the kitchen regularly, and it became a deep experience for me.
I love the fact that the Catholic Workers are, by and large, focused on serious social justice issues. When people at work ask me about the kitchen I tell them that I love how the community is like radical Christian communities at the time of Jesus. They are a wonderful group of people who put themselves on the line. Sometimes I come and someone is missing-they are in prison for protesting.
I have wonderful experiences with the guests here-their eyes light up, there is so much warmth and so much love. On the flip side, sometimes people come in with so much anger. You can have negative experiences too. One of the prayers that we say to begin the kitchen day has lines I remember: “The more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.” Once someone became very angry at me on the serving line. I remembered that prayer; and at the moment I remembered it, I felt a certain peace. The kitchen isn’t just about people coming in and smiling and saying “thanks” like you might have at Starbucks. This is about all of the pains and joys. This is a wonderfully intense environment where you see Jesus in both the beautiful and difficult sides of people.
I met Dorothy Day back in 1955 when I was a seminarian. I was a Josephite and so I got to know Phil Berrigan very well over the time I was in seminary and for my two years in the priesthood. He and his brother Dan were very close to the Catholic Worker. And so I had a background that gave me admiration for the community, but also I was a bit afraid to get involved. I was fearful of facing poverty and the kinds of things the Catholic Worker does. I thought I wasn’t strong enough.
My wife nudged me into bringing bread down to the kitchen on Thursdays and then, when I retired, I had no excuse not to go work at the kitchen. Now I find it is a highlight of my week. It’s the one place where I feel most Christian, and I think that is because this is where the poor are, whom we are called to serve.
The community and volunteers are people who are seriously committed to Christianity and gather to do simple tasks while engaging in a kind of conversation on deeper issues. I’ve developed a wonderful sense of friendship with community members Jesse and Martha, and have been out to dinner several times with Catherine and Jeff. I’m especially fond of young Arnal, who washes dishes. He brings up conversations about what he reads that surprise me. There is a strong feeling of connection and love that is a spiritual food to me as we feed physical food to the poor.
The people who eat at our soup kitchen are the anawim of Jesus’ teaching-the poor who are completely dependent on the love of God. I cannot see how this crazy country can claim to be Christian when so many people despise the poor. The heart of Jesus’ message is to seek, serve, and help the widow, the homeless, and those who are in prison. This is the heart of our faith.
I first did community service in high school, and to be honest with you, it was meaningless to me. Now I am older, and I am working at the kitchen as part of a college class called Liberation and Solidarity. It is very different from what I have been studying the last three-and-a-half years in college, Business.
The class and my work here have been a tremendous experience, where I see I have an obligation to society-my beliefs and my actions affect everyone. We’ve been studying Romero and Sobrino in my class and applying their words to our service work. It has opened a whole new world for me. It not only affects those I serve, it changes my life as well.
I never paid attention to the poor before. I wasn’t exposed to poverty, but poverty is all over the place. There is a Third World here around the corner from home. I grew up in a very sheltered home and was taught the poor are dangerous. But now I understand that the poor are not something you should detach yourself from-they are a part of our society. We need to understand why things are the way they are and how we’ve directly or indirectly contributed to the marginalization of the poor.
One of the guests I was talking to told me he had been eating here for a very long time and it made him sad that people were so open and got along really well at the kitchen, but then once they leave and are back on the streets it is completely different. They come to the kitchen and they leave their battles outside and it is a kind of oasis, but then when they leave the kitchen, it’s back to the same old thing. I just figure maybe I could be the one who takes the Catholic Worker tradition out to the streets. I don’t live on the streets, but I think this applies to everybody. It isn’t just the poor who don’t know how to get along. We need to incorporate this harmony in our own lives.
I think we have a strong calling as Christians to serve others. But I really feel I get more out of it than the people I serve-it is so rewarding. The conversations I have with people have opened my mind and broadened my horizons. It has been a real learning experience for me. It has helped to break down stereotypes about why people might be homeless. I just talked to a man outside who has a college degree. You can’t judge people for the situations they are in. Things happen and you are not always in control.
In college I study Liberation Theology. It is my area of interest. It is clear in the Bible and in the teachings of the church that there is a call to preach the gospel without using words. That is what Jesus came to do-he came to serve people and to be in solidarity with the poor and most vulnerable and marginalized. Everything in scripture from Genesis to Revelation tells us that that is what God calls us to do.
I love to serve my community as much as possible, and I know that hunger is one of the biggest problems that our society faces. The environment of the kitchen is so amazing. It isn’t just about serving food-it’s about serving love and serving community with what you have. The kitchen gives what it has, and it gives everything. Being a part of that really makes me feel a part of something great.
I see many “regulars” going through the line and I’ve come to know some of them. One man in particular-he said that he used to be an engineer. He was talking to me about my major (I am a sociology major) and how we need to respect one another and be open to one another. He has been homeless and on the streets for seven years, but he has an optimistic attitude. There are people who have everything but don’t have that attitude of optimism and openness. He really touched me. I appreciate all of the people who eat here. Some are just unlucky and their situation has nothing to do with who they are. It is just bad luck.
Sister Dina Potter
It is very life-giving to work at the kitchen. I look forward to coming each week. My favorite thing is to be outside among the guests wiping tables and sharing in conversations, some of which have given me a lot to reflect on, especially when we discuss the scriptures.
One day I was talking with a man and he was sort of aggravated with me. I apologized to him but I got the feeling that he was still angry with me. He said to me, “Why are you so worried about how I feel? You said you’re sorry and you know God forgives you. So why does it matter if I forgive you?” That made me think of how important it is to have unity in our relationships with other people.
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