One of my responsibilities at Catholic Worker Hospitality House is to keep the various buildings we use for our various service projects looking nice and in good repair. As we have been entrusted with bountiful resources to serve those in need, we have a duty to protect and maintain them. I have to admit I really like this aspect of my job as I enjoy the physical labor. It plays to what I feel are my strengths as I am task-oriented, like exerting myself and getting dirty, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment when a job is completed.
Why do I do the painting and other maintenance around our various buildings? Wouldn’t it be less demanding on my body and time to hire a professional? A big reason I do as much of the work as I’m capable of is that it saves CWHH a lot of money. Paying for painting a house can easily run five to ten thousand dollars. Calling an electrician or plumber starts at $300 and easily gets into the thousands of dollars. That’s a lot of money that could otherwise go to serving those in need.
But there are deeper reasons why I do as much of the painting and maintenance work around CWHH as I’m capable. One lies in the Catholic Worker belief in the basic dignity of working with one’s hands, of exerting oneself to create something useful and beautiful. We’re inspired by the Benedictine motto of “Ora et Labora” – “work and prayer.” Physical labor is seen as a necessary complement to a prayerful and reflective (or intellectual) life. Work makes us whole. This is further echoed in a favorite motto of Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, “the workers shall be scholars and the scholars shall be workers.” If we do one but not the other our life is out of balance and we are incomplete.
Besides the philosophical basis for laboring there is also the practical aspect that physical labor can unite us with those we serve and put us on more equal footing. These projects break down the dichotomy of server and served that often exists in the world of social service. And furthermore, this work humbles me. In our daily work at CWHH I’m the authority. I set the rules and determine how things should be done. My education, life experience, and position usually set me apart from those we serve. When it comes to maintenance or building projects I know enough to get started, but often it’s our guests who know how to do the project properly. I’m regularly humbled by my lack of ability and the skills of our guests.
This summer I took on the project of painting and repairing our house located at 672 Second Ave. Of all the buildings we use for our various service projects, the Second Ave house is the most challenging and time consuming to paint. It’s two and a half stories tall with shiplap siding (compared to stucco on the other buildings) and has a large front porch with lots of spindles. Adding to the “enjoyment” of painting the house this year was the discovery during prep that some of the siding was in bad shape and the porch had rot in the decking and framing.
But the painting of the Second Ave house became a great example of how work unites and equalizes. Mike, one of the residents of the house, was a painter before bad hips put him on disability. When we started preparing the house for painting he repeatedly corrected my slap-dash prep work: “Peter, you can’t just hose down the house and scrape off the big flakes of paint.” “But I want to start painting, gotta finish this job.” “Dude, if you don’t seriously scrape, sand, and caulk you’ll have peeling paint and leaks in two years. “ I learned to trust his knowledge and experience. So we took the time to properly prepare the house for painting. I may have the responsibility, resources and organizational skills to get the job done, but he has the skills to do it right.
The first day of painting was a joy, I was joined by three of the residents in painting the house. Besides getting most of the house painted in a single day, we had a good time telling stories, and teasing each other. At the end of the day when we were paint splattered and tired we stood back admiring what we had accomplished. It was a good time and we felt good about ourselves.
Regarding the questionable old siding, I turned to Mike for advice on what to do. Could it be saved or would it need to be replaced? He assured me that if I did proper preparation, it would be good to go. By now I knew enough to follow his advice, so I thoroughly nailed, scraped, sanded, and caulked the old siding before painting. It came out great.
When it came time to preparing the front porch for the new decking Mike and I rebuilt one set of stairs. I knew enough to have Mike do the “smart” work of cutting the stringers, while I did the organizing, shopping, and grunt work. Our stairs turned out great. Again, at the end of the day, tired and dirty, we admired our work and felt good about ourselves. We even strained our shoulders patting ourselves on the back.
The dry rot on the other section of the porch required more expertise than Mike and I could muster, so we hired Rick, a guest at the dining room who is a professional carpenter, to do the work. We sat back in amazement as he worked his magic, skill, and artistry. He did a much better job of repairing the porch than we ever could. Besides having an opportunity to earn some money and displaying his ample skills, Rick was able to give back to Catholic Worker.
Now fully painted with a refurbished front porch the house looks great (or at least better than before). It came about because of many people sharing their gifts. When we deny people the opportunity to engage in common work and share their skills we are neither helpful nor loving. A goal of the Catholic Worker Movement is to bring together people of varied talents and resources to make the world a better place – whether it’s through our dining room, shelter, or maintenance projects. Some people have money, some have time, and others have practical skills. Individually, we may lack the ability to get a job done or accomplish a goal, but together we are able to do a job and do it well.
As always we are able to continue our work and witness because of your ongoing generous support of our work with those in need. We give thanks for all your past support and hope that you will continue helping us help others.
In Christ’s Peace,
For all of us at Catholic Worker Hospitality House
Money for our ongoing expenses