In keeping with the theme of celebrating Catholic Worker Hospitality House anniversaries in 2021, I would like to acknowledge my own Catholic Worker anniversary. June 19 will mark thirty years I’ve been a part of the Catholic Worker Movement. In this letter I would like to share my journey to the Catholic Worker and why I’ve stayed.
For the past thirty years I have been part of the Catholic Worker Movement, with the last twenty-five years being at Catholic Worker Hospitality House in San Bruno, which I co-founded with my wife Kate Chatfield. I feel thankful to have had the opportunity to live out my Catholic faith in this manner, but given my early background it’s the last thing I, or anyone who knew me, would have ever expected from my life.
I grew up in suburban Dallas, Texas in a conservative Republican family with a father who voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968. The only service talked about in our house was military service. While I was raised Catholic, we weren’t a devout family. My mother made sure we went to Mass every Sunday and that I attended catechism classes until I was confirmed in the Church, but we were neither active in our parish nor did faith play a major role in our daily life. When my parents divorced shortly after my Confirmation, we stopped regular Mass attendance, which as a teenager I didn’t complain about.
In many ways life in suburban Dallas in the 1970’s was idyllic with good schools, safe neighborhoods, and hordes of other children with which to play. As a white male life seemed full of opportunities, but in retrospect my career choices were rather limited. When I became a student at the University of Texas at Austin it was assumed I would get a business degree and work in the corporate world. The idea of devoting my life to voluntary simplicity and social justice with a radical Catholic organization was unimaginable. All that began to change when I embraced Catholicism as an adult.
Among my friends religious practice was frowned upon. This was due partly to youthful rebellion and partly to the perceived hypocrisy of churchgoers. The Way of Jesus espouses such high ideals of loving our brothers and sisters, serving those in need, and eschewing power and wealth. Yet his followers all too often seem more concerned with maintaining their own privilege and prestige than in embracing the radical ideals of Jesus. At least that was my experience growing up in suburban Dallas.
With this in mind I felt if I was going to be a churchgoer and maintain the respect of my friends (and myself), then I had to take my faith seriously and have it be the guiding force in my life. I wanted to live an authentic and sincere faith, but I was clueless as to how to achieve this goal, as my only experience of religious practice was the “one hour a week” variety. So I got active in my parish to deepen my faith life. I became a Eucharistic minister and lector, was an active participant in the student young adult group, attended weekly bible study, and the occasional retreat. I had the zeal of a convert and the idealism of youth, but was still a fairly mainstream Catholic. Then a series of events led me to begin making major changes in my life. First, a friend was severely injured in a motorcycle accident (I too rode a motorcycle at the time); then another friend was murdered in a drug related incident; then my father died at age 51 from cancer; and finally the space shuttle Challenger exploded on take off. All of these events made me think, “I could die at any time. How would I account for myself before God if I died today? I need to start living my faith now.”
The first thing I did was switch from studying business to history. After changing my major I was often asked what I was going to do with my life. “I don’t know,” I would respond, “but I’m not going to work in a bank.” Those who knew me thought I was overly pious and naive. I probably was, but I knew that I somehow wanted to have my faith be an integral part of my life’s work and studying finance wasn’t going to help me with that. So I started searching. I knew I didn’t need the answers immediately, but I did need to start walking the path to find those answers.
Once again, I felt somewhat lost in this search. I had no one to show me the way to a life of devoted Christian service, so I set off the best I could. I started reading lives of saints and holy people in an attempt to find a model of how to live a faith-filled life of service, but while admirable they didn’t show me a way to live my faith outside of vowed religious life (and celibacy and obedience have never been my strong points).
Then I read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. I was inspired by the story of her life: her pre-Catholic life as a journalist in the 1910’s and 1920’s writing about and participating in the struggles to create a more just society, her conversion to Catholicism and the years she spent struggling to find a way to combine her new found faith and ongoing commitment to creating a more just society. Then in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Peter Maurin showed up at her door with the answers she was seeking: publish a paper extolling the Church’s social teachings, open houses of hospitality to serve the needs of the poor, create “agronomic universities” (farms) to get unemployed workers back to the land, and host roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought. This was the model for what became the Catholic Worker Movement. For the remaining years of her life she, and those who joined her, lived in the lower East Side of New Your City in voluntary poverty so as to devote their limited resources to feed, shelter, and care for the outcasts of society. She continued challenging and writing about unjust social structures, as well as the solutions for them that could be found in the church’s social teachings. I remember saying to myself, “Boy!, if I could ever be a saint, that’s what I would like to do.” It felt so authentic, much closer to the way of Jesus than the “one hour a week” Catholicism in which I was raised.
While I was doing my literary research I was also volunteering at my local parish to see what sort of ministry spoke to me. I was involved in youth ministry and teaching catechism classes, but felt neither comfortable nor competent in either of those pursuits. Then I got involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where I made home visits to folks seeking food aid, furniture, or rental/utility assistance. This spoke to me. I felt called to directly serve those most in need as I thought this could be the way that I could combine my faith and life’s work. But I needed more experience to see if I was up to this task.
Peter during his time with the JVC working at a day center for mentally and physically disabled adults in North Philadelphia
I chose the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) for that year of exploration. The JVC is a yearlong volunteer program in which participants live in community with other volunteers, get placed in a job serving the community, and receive a small monthly stipend. I spent my year in Santa Monica working at a meal program on Venice Beach (if this is poverty, bring on chastity!). I enjoyed the work, liked living in community, and benefitted from the retreats where we deepened our spirituality and learned of issues of peace and justice. I enjoyed my year so much I signed up for another year, this time in Philadelphia, PA, working at a day center for mentally and physically disabled adults in a rough neighborhood of north Philly. My JVC experience confirmed my desire to continue working in faith-based social service. It was a life that made sense to me and now I knew I could do it. Unfortunately JVC is a maximum two-year experience, so I began the search for a place where I could continue this life and work long-term.
Peter protesting with Jeff Dietrich from the LACW
After my time in Philadelphia I traveled a bit, then settled in San Francisco, finding a job at a senior meal site in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco operated by the Salvation Army. A friend from Philadelphia who had joined the Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) encouraged me to visit there as she knew how moved I had been by the writings of Dorothy Day. My visit to the LACW fulfilled my expectations of the Catholic Worker Movement. They operated a free dining room on LA’s gritty Skid Row, lived together in a large house in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles where they offered hospitality to guests from their dining room, and regularly protested against war and unjust social structures. The Catholic Workers I met were serious about their faith, but not piously churchy; devoted to justice and service, but not afraid to have fun and get a bit rowdy, more akin to “reforming rottens” than “holy holies.” Being a “reforming rotten” myself, I felt right at home. I realized I didn’t have to be a saint to be a Catholic Worker and far from being severe and dour, the life of a Catholic Worker was usually fun and full of joy.
I soon quit my job in San Francisco and joined the LACW. I settled into the work and life of the Catholic Worker. Far from having a two-year shelf life like the JVC, the Catholic Worker encourages a life-long commitment. I felt I had finally found my spiritual and vocational home where I could live out my faith through the daily practice of the Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. My journey to justice could end here, but there was to be one more stop.
I fully expected to spend many years at the LACW, but three years into my time there I met Kate Chatfield who was doing a year of JVC and was also interested in the Catholic Worker. We started dating and quickly decided to get married and after her JVC year she joined the LACW. Shortly before we got married, we realized we wanted to operate our own Catholic Worker House, preferably in the Bay Area. On our honeymoon we met with Larry Purcell and Jan Johannson of the Redwood City Catholic Worker as Kate had read they were looking to assist a young couple get started in their own house. After a surprisingly short interview Larry and Jan offered us money to purchase a house to be used as a Catholic Worker house of hospitality. We quickly accepted their offer. (I mean, really, we’re not stupid. How could we not say “yes?”)
Present day in the kitchen of the shelter at St. Bruno’s Church.
Within the year we had purchased a large house in San Bruno CA that would be our Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, had started our own free dining room, and were expecting our first child. Twenty-five years later Kate and I are still living a life of faith-based social justice. Kate has since moved on to work as an attorney, initially as a criminal defence attorney serving the poor and disenfranchised, and now working on criminal justice reform. I’m still working at Catholic Worker Hospitality House. While one’s journey of faith and justice should never end, when I found the Catholic Worker I knew I had discovered my path, and when we started our own Catholic Worker House in San Bruno I knew I was home.
The aim of this letter has not been to draw attention to myself, but rather show that if I can do this, anyone can. There is nothing special about me, or my story. The only important thing is the commitment to love God and serve the people of God. To quote the Letter of St. James, “If you seek the way of God, then God will show you the way.” (James 4:8) Time and time again in my life I have been provided the things I needed to live a faith-filled life of service. All I had to do was take the vital steps to seek and keep seeking. I feel very blessed for all the opportunities that have been given to me, realizing all the good things in my life have come about because of this quest. I know I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, and, unfortunately, will probably make a lot more. Still, I strive to be a witness to my faith and make the world a better place in small and large ways.
In Christ’s Peace,
For all of us at
Catholic Worker Hospitality House
There is a saying popular with long-time Catholic Workers, “The gold leaves and the dross stays.” Whenever I start to get self-righteous about my years as a Catholic Worker I think of all the “golden” co-workers who have gone on to bigger and better things while I have remained.