Vox Nova is pleased to present the following guest post by Ben Johnson.
When I joined the Catholic Worker movement it was very easy to believe initially that my task was to aid people in finding the stability offered by the governmental and economic systems we currently have. Find a job. Get a car. Get an apartment. These are the things that many expect the Catholic Workers to be encouraging our guests to acquire.
I have found in my time here, that this goal is entirely misplaced. For one, Catholic Workers have solid criticisms of the current economic/governmental system; so, it would seem odd to try to fit more people into it. The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker mention nothing about helping others find economic stability under our current structure. Also, the last thing we want others to believe is that their value lies in how useful they are to that structure. That view has blinded its believers to the world inhabited by those in poverty. In this world, to those who have the eyes to see it, we find that what the wealthy consider charity, the impoverished consider normal everyday caring for others.
There is so much talk about “poverty culture” including the violence, the scarcity, the drug abuse, and the danger. Those aspects do exist and should be given careful honest attention; however, we do not see the other side of this culture. Within it, many are acting as conflict mediators. Many are giving food to and protecting others. Also, it is a very normal thing in this world to offer your home to a friend (or even a person with whom you are only somewhat familiar) for an indefinite length of time.
Every time I have seen these acts of loving kindness play out, I believe I have seen the world Dorothy and Peter saw. It is the world they hoped to make easier to see through the Catholic Worker movement. It is the world promised us by Jesus. It truly is the kingdom of God.
In my time at Hope House, a Catholic Worker house in Dubuque, I have made many friends. I have seen my friends go to extraordinary lengths to help each other. It seems to be an unwritten expectation amongst these friends that if you have a place, and someone gets thrown out on the street, you offer them your home. It doesn’t matter that this act is illegal to do if one receives government assistance, nor does it matter how small the space may be. In one instance I watched a friend, without a second thought, offer to house a three person family (along with another buddy who had already been staying there) in his one-bedroom apartment. In another instance, my friend offered his home to so many people that he ended up spending most of his time at his mother’s.
In addition to offering support through housing, I have seen people show each other basic human respect. This is not something that happens all the time when you have less worldly wealth. Since wealth is perceived as an indication of power, those with less of it are generally shown less respect. So, there is a fulfilled need in which a person is respected without the prerequisite of power. I have seen a table of people stand up and tell one of the workers, here at Hope House, not to kick out a young woman who was being disruptive. These are the friendships we can rely on. These friends will show respect and stick up for each other when no one else will. This is the loving kindness which is the primary motivating factor in the kingdom of God.
It should be no surprise that those who have acquired less wealth have arrived at the kingdom first. This is how Jesus said it would be.
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
Wealth blinds us. When we have it we can pretend to have power over other people and over nature itself. In so pretending, we believe the farce and forget the truth of the situation we are in. We do not have the power to transcend nature and no human being has ultimate power over another. Wealth covers up the kingdom of God and replaces it with the idea that the works of humanity will bring control, stability, and ultimately salvation.
We do not need to build the “new society within the shell of the old”. We need to recognize it and encourage its growth. So, rather than “show people the way” I have found that I must learn the ways of those with less. When we have less, we are better at sharing, we are better at helping, and through this we become better at loving. The experience of this love opens our eyes to the truth that the kingdom of God is already among us… and has always been.
A native of Minneapolis, MN, Ben Johnson currently lives and works at Hope House, a catholic worker house of hospitality in Dubuque, IA.