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Casa Laura Issue 1 July 2020

Becoming a Catholic Worker

by Heather

1996. My own Catholic Worker journey begins in New York City. Working for the AIDS organisation, God’s Love We Deliver, as a volunteer intake assistant. We train up people to take on cooking roles, and phone roles, and delivery roles: the goal being to feed homebound people with AIDS.

Simultaneously, I begin a two-year seminary programme to become an Interfaith Minister of Spiritual Counselling. This leads me to discovering Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and the first CW house, St Mary House, in Manhattan.

I only visit two or three times. My first time, during the day, I see how it works, witnessing a sex worker looking for clothes. She asks me if I, too, work the streets. I feel so guilty with privilege in that moment.

Another time, I attend a Clarification of Thought meeting, about some aspect of faith and activism, maybe around Christmas time. Maybe there were carols.

I subscribe to the iconic newspaper, still just 1¢.

I buy all of Dorothy Day’s books and read them.

And it becomes a dream to start my own Catholic Worker house one day.

2015. Twelve years so far living in England. Working with universities on the Education for Sustainable Development agenda. Work has dried up. The refugee crisis, which is actually a racism crisis, is making headlines. Feeling helpless, I reach out to various organisations, telling them that we have a spare room in our small village in Lincolnshire.

At last, a woman with vision from City of Sanctuary suggests I offer respite to asylum seekers, a week away from the city with an opportunity to be in the countryside with easy access to the seaside. We speak a long time on the phone.

Eventually, at Christmas time, I attend an event at a drop-in centre in Leicester. The volunteers show me around. Then I am on my own to meet people.

Being from the United States, I am sensitive to what happens to young Black men. I look around the room and see the attention being given to families from Syria, to women. I go to the table with young Black men.

I meet A, 18 years old and from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Barely speaking English, I make him laugh by giving my limited French. A destitute man seeking asylum becomes our interpreter.

I show A a picture of my family and invite him to come spend a week with us, in the new year, to practice English. He says yes and we exchange phone numbers.

People ask if I wasn’t scared to invite a stranger into my home, especially with a 7-year old. But I say, I am not scared. Imagine how scary it would be, for him, getting a National Express bus in the middle of winter, on a cold, dark night, and arriving in the middle of nowhere, with strangers to welcome him.

My daughter and he play games together, we use Google Translate, we eat together. Lots of laughter. He comes every month for a week at a time.

I join local campaigners for Lincolnshire to take Syrian refugees. (It is not even a dispersal area for people seeking asylum.)

Others join and ask if they, too, can host someone. And so, what eventually became known as the Greater Lincolnshire Area of Sanctuary, is founded. A hosting and befriending scheme so that people in the county can show their care, love, and welcome to people seeking refuge within our borders.

My home hosts five people in total, two of them long term. The final one is destitute and lives with us every other week for five months until we move away.

2018. At long last, I visit the London Catholic Worker farm for an overnight stay. On a visit to my brother in Chicago to meet his newborn son, I visit three Catholic Worker houses: Su Casa, St Francis, and Emmaus House. During the launch of Extinction Rebellion in November, I visit the Giuseppe Conlon house in London. I also meet Twitter friend, Phil Wood, a Mennonite and Green Party member whom my daughter wants to interview for her politics podcast for young people in the UK.

2020. After a year of travelling and activism, my daughter and I find ourselves in Sunderland, a house that hosts a destitute person seeking asylum and other waifs and strays like us. We arrive in the middle of February, just as we know the pandemic is about to take hold in England. By April, our new Iranian friend is given housing (in a 4-star hotel far away in Huddersfield). By May, the other waif and stray has left to Ireland and we decide to leave as well for various reasons. I put this intention out on social media.

Phil messages me that the house he had told me about last year is still furnished and vacant. I say yes, please. Perhaps this is our chance to have a proper little Catholic Worker house. Or maybe this is just the house where the newspaper begins… We do not know where this pandemic takes us, as I am a migrant in this country and maybe I need to go home. But I plan for any home to be a Catholic Worker house from now on…

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