Where scholars become workers

Peter Maurin’s vision of scholars and workers written for the spring issue of the London Catholic Worker. The outbreak of COVID – 19 delayed the mail out of the newsletter so I am posting this editorial here. 

Peter Maurin

For this issue of the London Catholic Worker there is a theme: the work of our hands, or, indeed, just plain work. Peter Maurin, founder of the movement, had much to say about work and workers. Dorothy Day describes him as a ‘workingman’. One of 24 children, raised in a peasant family in France, he had tried homesteading in Canada, and joined work gangs in America before they met.

In Easy Essays, the series of declamatory poems he published over and over in the Catholic Worker newspaper, Maurin describes his vision of ‘scholars and workers’ living together and learning from each other, in farming communes and ‘outdoor universities’. The scholars would learn to use their hands and become ‘dynamic’ and a ‘driving force’ while the workers would learn — it’s not so clear what the workers would learn. Although he repeats this pairing many times, it takes a bit of imagination and further reading, to see who these scholars and workers might be and the work they’ll be doing.

Dorothy Day writes in her introduction that Maurin was wary of ‘class consciousness’ and didn’t like the use of the word ‘worker’ in ‘Catholic Worker’. He saw the houses of hospitality and farms as communities, that would build ‘a new society in the shell of the old’, a vision of equality that would benefit everyone. The scholars and workers will join communities, along with ‘down-and-out’ businessmen, academics, college professors. Perhaps in nineteen thirties New York these were the people who weren’t used to mopping the floor. ‘In the Catholic Worker/ people learn to use their hands/ as well as their heads.’ (See left hand column)

Day writes also that Maurin was ‘literal’. Through ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’, the scholars will become workers. They will be feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, literally by hand. Scholars will do the manual work and learn from the manual work. This remains the main business of a Catholic Worker house.

These days in London, the scholar and the worker could easily be one person. Scholars take menial jobs. Everyone’s a worker one way or another. College lecturers and pizza delivery drivers, catering staff and cleaners all struggle to get by on a zero hours contract. Employees forced to work such long hours they are unable to care for themselves, can install an app. that will summon a cleaner, a driver, a nutritious meal even someone to buy a birthday present, which creates even more precarious jobs.

At the London Catholic Worker, at least, this working with the hands and the head person is one and the same. When Urban Table first started, I remember a certain volunteer. He reminded me of a character out of Absolute Beginners, with a slightly greying quif and cigarette trousers. He did the manual work of the soup kitchen as if it was nothing, tossing the tables and chairs around, washing up and wiping down, all the while keeping up a stream of jokes, film sound tracks, and celebrity gossip. Being new to volunteering, I thought: here is someone who really knows how to make light work.

Over ten years later, all sorts of PhD students and businessmen come and volunteer at Urban Table. A few make heavy weather of chopping onions or avoid the washing up. But I’ve heard some say they learn something new every week: that carrots can be black or yellow, as well as orange, that potatoes are not a staple and that a meal is not a meal without rice. Nothing focuses the mind like hearing one of the guests outline his budget for the next two weeks under Universal Credit.

The ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’ is not just humanitarian work. Here I encourage you, the reader, to reflect on your own experience of working with your hands. In this newsletter there are several examples. Ghazal Tipu, an office worker, interviews an activist cobbler. Margriet Bos ‘looks into the kitchen’ at Giuseppe Conlon House and sees cleaning, fixing and building. While mending sleeping bags, Anne M. Jones, is faced with the injustice and cruelty of the refugees’ situation in Calais. Johannes and Nora both talk of the effects of this work on their own mental health.

For myself, waking in the small hours at the local night shelter, I discover fears I haven’t been attending to: fear of intimacy, of cultural misunderstandings, of humiliation – I’m sometimes treated like a servant – and awkwardness at my own house – owning privilege.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.’

The first Easy Essay is called, ‘Blowing the dynamite’. Maurin says, accusingly, that the ‘scholars’  – yes them again – have placed the message of the Church, ‘in an hermetically sealed container and sat on the lid.’

The next work for the works of mercy, then, is to teach us to love.

Where scholars become workers

Ash Wednesday 2017

 

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‘No nuclear weapons’ written in charcoal on the columns of the MOD

The Wednesday before last, early in the morning, I walked up the steps of the entrance portico of the Ministry of Defence, past the policeman on duty, into the entrance portico. I drew a stick of charcoal out of my pocket and drew a cross on column and then another. I walked in amongst the columns and then drew another and then another. The workers, their long coats hanging open, carrying their briefcases, were just arriving. One caught my eye and said, ‘What you as well?’ I wasn’t sure what he meant. It sounded like ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Men and women rushed past, as if they were late. It wasn’t even eight o’clock. Not that I was thinking about the time. I was trying not to be distracted by my surprise that no one was stopping me. I heard an iphone camera rattle. A woman was taking a picture. Was she going to write ‘This numpty…?’ Was she going to post it in MOD staff news, ‘This numpty thought she could tell us how dangerous nuclear weapons are.’ One woman tut tutted. And she’s the one tut tutting at me? It’s me who should be tutting. It’s me who should be kissing my teeth, as we say in Hackney.

The yoga teacher, a small neat man, with his neat beard and neat shorts who is as strong as a gymnast, well him, he said, ‘Examine which part of you feels made larger by your practice.’ That’s the way he talks this yoga teacher. On that occasion I would say it was my thighs.

After the action at the MOD, but also after Ash Wednesday in general, the part of me that felt larger was my heart. It seemed to have grown. St. Philip Neri had an enlarged heart.

Some of the participants in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, organised by Pax Christi, have been coming for over thirty years. They have been holding this problem, this sin, this collective, terrible transgression up to the light perhaps since the UK got nuclear weapons, or at least since the beginning of Polaris. At first I used to be a bit disappointed that not so many younger, or even middle aged people came, other than some school children brought by their RE teacher. But I’ve recently become a grandmother. So my perspective has changed. I know why it’s the older people who come.

Ash Wednesday is a good moment to think about these things. My whole day was devoted to Ash Wednesday. Having been told, ‘Well Done’ for the charcoal writing, by the policeman outside the MOD, I went home, and got marked with ashes myself in my parish church. ‘Remember you are dust’ says the priest. The smile on the familiar parishioners’ faces as they came out of church, the big damp gritty cross on their faces. It’s strange that being reminded I am dust is such a joyful occasion. All our wrinkled brows and wispy hair suddenly plastered with ash, brazenly showing our reality, that soon we’ll be ash. Or in the story of Nebuchadnezzar, when the three men walked out of the fire..

MOD remember you are dust. You have no rights just ‘bare existence’, when stripped down to it. Just a heap of Portland stone, carefully scrubbed of all the soot that you used to be covered with like all public buildings in London.

So as a peace activist, I thought it’s important to grow. As it’s about growing in love. It’s not so much about taking the moral high ground, saying something clever and devising a  campaign, or planning incredible jaw dropping nonviolent direct action, although that would be good. It’s that the next step is growing in love. This is why peace activists are old. They have grown in love, they have grown old on the job, they haven’t given up.

Strange to think that my Ash Wednesday would have made me think that. Yes I feel uncomfortable with the after effects of the action. It’s humiliating in a way. To make yourself momentarily vulnerable. To put yourself at the mercy of the police.

Fasting, weeping, mourning, sings the prophet. Gather the community, even the babes at the breast and the lovers in their bedrooms. No one can be let off . No one escapes. Love for babies, love for lovers, love for our community. This kind of love is bigger than all of it. This is the kind of love, the blessings that will come, you have to get better at as you get older. It takes a grandmother or an aunty to do this kind of loving.

 

Ash Wednesday 2017

Abraham, faith and the ‘dougar’

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The Jungle refugee camp as it was in October shortly before demolition, with traffic on its way  to the ferry port on the horizon

One last post from the Calais Jungle, soon to be published in the LCW newsletter.

I met a young man in the Calais hospital, His heavily bandaged hand looked painful, He was sunk into the bedclothes, his skin grey. How had he hurt his hand? ‘Dougar’ he said. As one of the volunteers, a refugee himself, chatted to him in his own language, he brightened up a bit, realised he was being offered food, clothes.
The road to the port crosses over the entrance to the Jungle camp and continually there is the skyline of the lorries trundling left to right towards the ferry, to England. Any picture of the camp taken from a high spot in the dunes has this line of traffic on the horizon. Between the embankment of the road and the camp is a kind of ‘maidan’ where people play cricket and football. But this is also the place where police throw tear gas to stop people running up the bank.
For me visiting the Jungle camp was certainly biblical. Every morning at Maria Skobtsova House community I listened to the scriptures read aloud in English, French and Farsi. The voices cracked as if the readers realised the poignancy of the words.
As the self determined nature of  the camp revealed itself to me, with its ancient seeming organisations and its communal nature, the bible readings became more and more alive. People there, I was told, were used to living in large groups. Even if they collected food aid in individual portions, they would put the food together onto one communal plate and eat it together, according to their custom.
While I deeply welcomed the daily readings and prayer in three languages, in the Jungle my faith was being tested, in the classic fashion. How can there be a god while such things happen? It was a nudging doubt in my head, that I’d never heard before.
Shortly before I went to Calais, I attended the refugees welcome rally in Parliament Square, with my daughter, my husband, friends and relatives. It is our moral duty, the rally said hopefully, to care for each refugee or indeed each person who comes to us in need. At the same time the media reported the death of an Afghan boy who already had permission to come to the UK, who was killed on the ‘dougar’, the traffic jam of lorries lining up for the port in Calais. I was shocked at the vitriol and anger on social media that followed both the rally and this incident, It made me think people are afraid. They are unable to cope with the idea of their duty to each refugee. And so they should be. People are afraid on both sides of the channel.
This is when Abraham, the father of faith, sprung into my mind. God told Abraham to take his only son Isaac up Mount Moria, with a knife, fire wood tied to a donkey. Many writers, Bob Dylan, Kierkegaard, Derrida have looked to this moment for truths about religion, faith, sacrifice. Derrida, in the Gift of Death, spends a lot of time looking at the moment when God stops Abraham from killing his son. It is an impossible moment, he says, neither present or future, not graspable. It is the moment when there is no longer an exchange. Abraham leaves oikonomia, the normal relations of home and existence, work, to take his son up the mountain. His son in which all his hope for the future of his descendants lies. God tells him to.
Simon Jones, a Baptist minister, who has been visiting the Jungle for many years, tells me people in the Jungle don’t think in terms of an individual life and death, or of searching for a better life for themselves. Instead it is a moment of seeking for life itself. It is survival for them but also for the future of their family, their descendants. Families or communities in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, places where existence – not daily life/job/mortgage as we think of it, but the very existence for them and their family – has become impossible.  They see that there is no future. They send their children to Europe, send money, stay in contact through Whatsapp, just as Abraham collected the firewood, took the knife, loaded up the donkey to climb Mount Moria.
When Abraham lifts the knife, God stops him. Then God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky.
Abraham was travelling looking for a place for his people. His only son Isaac represents his hopes for the future, for his people’s very existence. In the moment of sacrifice, when he raises the knife to sacrifice Isaac, he is following God’s orders. God speaks to him.
This is the terrifying moment when God speaks to us. An impossible moment of right now this minute, neither past nor future, according to Derrida. God is speaking to us. There is the moment between climbing on a lorry and not being on the lorry, falling. Through the deaths on the Calais ‘rocade’.
God is speaking to us from the ‘dougar’ and from the jungle camp. If we listen we will save our sons and daughters our brothers and sisters. Like Abraham we can stay the knife. This is Isaac on the ‘dougar’. God is telling us to sacrifice Isaac and rescue him both at the same time.
No wonder we are frightened. No wonder the tabloid press have debased themselves. I’ve spent enough time on the street handing out leaflets to know that when people come and abuse me, say ‘get  a job, lesbian hippy’, it’s because they are frightened not of me but of the reminder that we collectively are doing something very, very wrong. They are just turning away their faces from what God is telling us, or not even God, but what the situation is telling us about ourselves. We are not welcoming; we are vain and greedy and selfish and lazy. Worst of all we lack faith. We are so afraid our government is building a wall, another folly, the trucks loaded with spoil from building the wall trundling backwards and forwards near the camp. We have so many different ways in which to display our lack of faith!
I remember Luke’s gospel. Each sparrow is precious, no one is more or less. Each one is precious to God. I can’t meet all of them. For us weaklings, we can only speak to a few people at a time, meet a few people at a time, however heroic.
The young man in hospital with his injured hand, becomes precious, come out of the sky mist, become stars. But I can’t meet all of them, Secours Catholique can’t meet all of them. Instead we need to have faith like Abraham.
Abraham, faith and the ‘dougar’