What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
By PETER STIEHLER
What does a just society look like? In my opinion, it’s a place where all are treated with dignity and respect. Nobody is discriminated against because of skin color, national origin, or religious beliefs. People are free from fear of want and have the opportunity to maximize their potential to live a joyful life. It’s community, belonging, and acceptance. It’s people with skills and resources sharing what they have to help make the world a better place for all. With that in mind, a just society, to me, looks like a modest two-story house in a suburban neighborhood of San Bruno CA that is the home of Catholic Worker Hospitality House (CWHH) where I have worked for the past twenty three years.
In February of 1996 when Kate and I moved into the house at 672 Second Ave in San Bruno we thought it would be a traditional Catholic Worker house of hospitality. We had purposely gotten a large house so we could provide hospitality to those in need. We quickly filled the extra rooms with people in need of shelter. In April 1996 we started a free dining room out of a hall on the grounds of St. Bruno’s Catholic Church in San Bruno. For two years all went according to plan.
Then the parish started having issues with homeless people sleeping in the church at night. (The church is open all night as it hosts Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament). At a meeting called by the parish to discuss the problem, we offered to operate a homeless shelter out of the same building where we run our free dining room. In this way, the parish could honor and care for the body of Christ in their midst while adoring the spiritual Body of Christ. The parish accepted our offer and we now had the opportunity to provide shelter to more people. This helped Kate and I as well, for at the time we were expecting our second child and felt the need for a family space separate from our work. In 2001 Kate and I had the opportunity to purchase a small house in Brisbane, which proved perfect for our small family and made the big house on Second Ave. available for expanded work. So what to do with the Second Ave house? First we had a young family live in the house rent-free for two years while they saved money to purchase their own house. It was satisfying to help a young family find permanent housing just as we had been helped. After the family moved out we had the idea to offer recent college graduates an opportunity to live at the house and work with us. It would help us expand our work and allow these young folks gain work experience as we had in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Four years later that idea ran its course and we started thinking about what to do next.
Almost from the beginning of operating our shelter we had noticed the same folks cycling through our shelter because they were unable to find housing due to a severe lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area. For a couple of years we had been experimenting with subsidizing rent for a few folks with steady work or social security. When that became financially unsustainable we thought, “Why not use the Second Ave. house for permanent affordable housing?” So for the past thirteen years we have been using the house for that purpose. Of all the projects we have done at Catholic Worker Hospitality House and of all the uses of the Second Ave house over the years, using it as permanent affordable housing has been the least “charitable” and the most “just” project that we have done.
Now, I really like our homeless shelter. We treat our guests with dignity and respect, and do a good job of keeping it non-institutional. I also know it’s often a life saving community resource that our guests greatly value. But while a homeless shelter beats sleeping outside or in a car, by its very nature it’s not a nice place. There is no permanence, guests have to be out during the day and sleep in a big room with eight other people with just a flimsy divider for privacy. Snores permeate the night. Then there are the set meal, wake-up, and lights-off times. Even though we try our best, there is an inherent lack of dignity, freedom, and permanence in a shelter.
Contrast that with our Second Ave boarding house, which is not just a place to sleep, but a home. As long as they pay their very affordable rent and are a good roommate, residents can live there as long as they like. At this point most residents have lived there from five to ten years. Residents have the privacy of their own room, can come and go as they like, and eat when and what they want. These simple things provide the foundation for a dignified, secure, and happy life. Most of the residents of the house are grumpy old men who have not had the civilizing effect of women (wives) in their lives. They rarely cook and eat meals together, nor do they watch TV or sporting events together, preferring to eat and watch TV in the privacy of their own rooms. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of community in the house. Most of the daily socializing occurs on the smoking porch. There are the occasional backyard barbeques with friends and family to celebrate birthdays or whatever excuse comes to mind. One of the resident’s regularly has his son and grandson to the house for heated dominoes games. I know how much this means to him because in the years he was homeless he couldn’t “do the things a dad and granddad should do.”
A common fear we all have is who will care for us after a serious illness or during our final days. This is especially true for people estranged from or without family. I am moved by how these grumpy old men have repeatedly stepped forward to assist a roommate recuperating from a major medical issue or during the final days of a terminal illness. While they won’t normally admit to feelings of affection for each other, their care shines forth when it matters most.
I appreciate that the residents allow me to be part of the community of the house. I’m at the house everyday as the garage and basement serves as storage and office space for Catholic Worker Hospitality House. The guys welcome me on the smoking porch, invite me whenever there is a BBQ or party at the house, and occasionally join in the work of CWHH. While they often tease me about being “the overseer,” over the years as we’ve daily shared our lives and work, the relationship has shifted from one of landlord-tenant to friendship.
When I first dreamed of living out my faith by working at a Catholic Worker House I envisioned rough neighborhoods, grand actions, and dramatic background music. But after thirty years of trying to live the life, I see it’s about daily doing small simple acts of kindness to bring comfort and joy into the lives of others. Whether that’s by providing a hot meal, a blanket, a place to live, acceptance, or a corny joke. It’s about sharing what you have so all will have enough, maximizing prophetic witness instead of profits. It’s about living justice wherever you are given the opportunity to serve. Whether it’s rough neighborhoods or average suburbs, people still need to be loved, treated with dignity and respect, and given an opportunity to live the best life possible. Kate and I are forever grateful all for the resources and opportunities that have been given us to serve those in need in our community. We hope we have been good stewards of these gifts and a witness to our faith by our daily work. We give thanks for all of your past support and hope that you will continue helping us help others. With your ongoing support, together we can continue striving to make the world a better place in small and large ways.
In Christ’s Peace,
For all of us at Catholic Worker Hospitality House
Sugar and creamer
Soup bowls and spoons
Money, for our ongoing expenses