Maybe Washing Dishes Was the Most Important Work We Did
In This Issue
Notes: Maybe Washing Dishes Was the Most Important Work We Did · In Other Words: The Liturgists Put a New Spin on Ecclesiastes · News: What I’m Working On · Postscript: A Meditation on Standing Still
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Maybe Washing Dishes Was the Most Important Work We Did
The state can give material help, but only personal relationships can supply the most basic human need.
Last week we said goodbye to the two families of Afghan refugees that our little community group has been sponsoring for the past four months: six children, ages three to ten, and four parents, including one pregnant mother. The houses where they were staying are only a block or two from here; I can see one of the houses from my window as I write this, and on the warmer of these spring days, you could tell when the children got home from school because you could hear them yelling to one another as they ran their scooters around the driveway. If I walked down the street and they saw me, they would call out, “Hello, Julie papa! Hello, Julie papa!” (they knew me as my daughter Julia’s father) until I waved back at them, to which they would respond: “Good morning, nice to meet you! Spaghetti! Pizza!”
Now the houses are silent; the families are up in Bloomington, living with relatives in a small apartment complex sandwiched between the airport and the Mall of America. Their departure was messy and abrupt, precipitated by miscommunication and pent-up frustrations, as well as their desire to be attached to a larger Afghan community.
To say that we “Americans” were sad to see them go doesn’t begin to cover it. A couple dozen of us have been “all in” helping them start new lives here. We plowed through mountains of paperwork, drove them anywhere they needed to go, sat with them for hours in the emergency room (more than once), took them to doctor and dental appointments, enrolled them in school, helped them find jobs, drove them to work in the middle of the night, and raised thousands of dollars to feed and house them. We gave them our time, but also our hearts. Every time we stopped by, they insisted we sit down for green tea and snacks: fresh grapes, dates, pistachios, spicy chicken (“Cooked eight different ways!” we were told), naan bread. We took them all sledding for the first time; and once the weather warmed up, we took the kids down to the big playground by the lake every other day.
Going into this adventure, we understood that any refugees who came to us might eventually leave for a larger Afghan community, but accepting that possibility doesn’t make it any easier to actually say goodbye.
In the wake of their departure, a friend kindly suggested that maybe we had been too generous with our time, our resources, and especially our hearts. Next time don’t get so close, was the gist of the advice. Keep your emotions out of it.
Certainly, that’s one way to do it. Social service agencies and many nonprofit organizations operate this way—at a safe distance, with rules and protocols in place to ensure efficiency and equity, and for the safety and welfare of all involved. Keeping a distance has its merits, especially in an institutional context.
On the other hand, keeping a safe and sanitized distance from those in need has its downsides, too. Not every human need can be charted on a spreadsheet. And not every human need can be supplied from a safe distance.
In the early autumn of 1993, I moved into the Dan Corcoran Catholic Worker house as a live-in volunteer. I was 23. If you had asked me then what I was doing, I might have told you that I was going to help provide food and shelter people in need, especially women and children.
That wouldn’t have been wrong. But a better answer might have been found hanging on the wall of the dining room in the form of a framed copy of Ade Bethune’s woodcut of the corporeal (bodily) works of mercy. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick—these are the things Jesus asked his followers to do (Matthew 25:31-46), and they are the bedrock of Catholic Worker spirituality.
What is the difference between giving someone food and “feeding the hungry”? What is the difference between giving someone a place to stay and doing the same thing as a work of mercy? The difference is that the work of mercy is an expression of love. The government can send someone food benefits, but as good as that is, it is not a work of mercy. A nonprofit organization can put a refugee family into an apartment, but that is not the same as the work of mercy that we call “welcoming the stranger.” There is an impersonal way of providing these things, and then there is a personal way, a relational way, that includes the dimension of love. By “love” I don’t mean false warmth—you don’t need to like someone to love them, thank goodness—and I definitely don’t mean gawpy sentimentality. What I have in mind is the classic definition of the virtue of charity (willing the good of the other), but with a little extra mixed in—a willingness to give oneself to the other, an openness to relationship. The work of mercy is an act of generosity, but also an act of vulnerability.
“Feeding the hungry” becomes a work of mercy when you not only give someone a hot meal, but stay to wash the dishes afterward.
On the first day that I ever stepped foot in the Dan Corcoran House, I shared dinner with Mary Farrell (a founding member of the Winona Catholic Worker community) and some women and children who were guests of the house. I don’t remember the details of the dinner, but I do remember that after we got up from the table, Mary pointed me to the sink and a kitchen full of dirty dishes; would I wash them, she wanted to know, while she went on a walk?
I think she only wanted to skip the dishes, but if she had intended it to be a teaching moment, it was a shrewd move. Over the next few years, I spent a lot of time in that kitchen (and later, the one at Bethany House), neck-deep in dirty dishes that needed washing. We had no automatic dishwasher: there is a long tradition in Christianity that washing dishes by hand is an opportunity for prayer. Also, so many dirty dishes required a team effort from everyone, and that hour or so in the kitchen gave us the chance to talk and tell stories; and in the talking and telling of stories, we found the chance to forge real relationships.
There are many ways to weave a new relationship over a sink of hot soapy water. Tell me the story of how you came to be here; tell me the story of where you are going; tell me where you stand, here and now. Make a bad joke, sing a song, hum, whistle; debate politics, movies, Harry Potter movies. Tell me your most embarrassing story. Scrape those dirty plates into the pig bucket, please—not the garbage and no, not the compost. Shout to the kids out the open window over the sink, the summer heat blowing in on the breeze. Complain about the weather; if it is winter, it’s too cold, if it’s summer, it’s too hot. Change out that dirty water, will you? Nothing’s gonna get clean in that. Now what were you saying?
Spend a month washing dishes with someone, and now you have some common ground to stand on. Now the castle gates are lowered, more or less, and there can be some kind of commerce between us, some exchange of goods.
These human connections matter no less than bread and water. Babies die when deprived of human warmth, even when their other needs are met. The rest of us might not die; but without the good companionship of other people, we don’t really live, either. Love, not rationality, is the beating heart of our humanity.
This is why I like to say that of all the work we did at the Dan Corcoran House, possibly the most important was washing the dishes, for the simple reason that the work not only gave us clean dishes, but the warmth of human relationships. And those relationships fed us, both guests and volunteers alike; and sometimes, they saved us. How many addicts avoided backsliding only by clinging to the single rope of some friendship? How many single mothers and how many refugees finally managed to climb the long, lonely mountain mainly because someone traveled the distance with them?
We had a party the night before the families left. We took the kids to the park one last time, and then we went back to the first family’s house, where we all sat on the floor ate broke bread together—warm, homemade naan bread. We teased one another, joking and laughing despite the gap of language and custom; we taught the children clapping games, and we shared stories. The next day, we said long goodbyes and promised to visit one another. Bloomington is only two hours away, after all. Our little community refugee sponsorship group still has plenty of work to do. We continue to sponsor four adults, three of whom have small children or spouses stranded back in Afghanistan. And our group is already talking about more families. We hear that thousands of refugees are still languishing in hotels; they have food and shelter, but not a home. Who knows? If we welcome the stranger by opening the door of our hearts once more, maybe they’ll find one among us.
IN OTHER WORDS
The Liturgists Put a New Spin on Ecclesiastes
You wouldn’t expect a song that begins with the lyrics, “Meaningless, meaningless; everything is meaningless” to come to a hopeful end, but the Liturgists deftly managed that trick in the nine-minute opening track from their 2014 album Vapor, which I’ve only recently discovered and have been playing on repeat all week. It’s a haunting riff on Ecclesiastes—you know Ecclesiastes, right? “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, / vanity of vanities! / All things are vanity! / What profit have we from all the toil / which we toil at under the sun?” Ring a bell now? Its deeply skeptical stance toward the world ought to make it the anthem of the Millennial and Gen Y crowd. “Vapor: A Meditation” and the next track (“Vapor”) fully embraces Qoheleth’s poem about the meaninglessness of human life, but punches through to a more hopeful conclusion. I’ve found it uplifting, and have been using it as a doorway to meditative prayer.
What I’m Working On
I’ve been asked a few times in the past two weeks what I’m working on now, so here’s a quick roundup.
I’ve once again suspended work on The Angeling, the young adult novel I’ve been working on for ten years—yes, ten years; I remember sweating as I worked on it in our hot apartment in Ukraine around this time in 2012. (For the uninitiated, it’s about a kid who dies and has to find his way home through the afterlife; think Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in a suburban mall.) It’s about two-thirds finished, and I have the last third pretty well plotted out. I’ve hit the pause button to work on projects with the potential for more immediate monetary compensation.
Speaking of which, I was recently invited to pitch some Catholic family resources for a new initiative in that space. Among the items I offered was the Catholic Family Hearthbook, the family journal with a liturgical element. So far, the response has been positive, but it’s early days yet.
I’ve also been adding a new services page to my LinkedIn profile and sending my calling card around to Catholic publishers advertising my availability for editing projects. Did I mention that I’m available for editing, or even consulting on your own book project? Well, I am. See the services page at my website for details about my availability and rates.
I continue to work on lots of new poetry. I was thinking the other day that people who like puzzles ought to like writing poetry, because as much as a good poem is the product of playfulness, it also requires a certain dogged persistence to make all the words line up and play nice. You might see some of these new poems in the coming weeks, but some I will be sending out to journals for validation by the high priests; my idea is that someday I’ll have enough published poems to warrant a collection.
Finally, I’m still working with Jim Allaire on transitioning the CatholicWorker.org website to a new, updated platform. We’ve got about two hundred pages down, with only another seven hundred or so left to go.
A Meditation on Standing Still
Speaking of poetry, here is a poem of mine from the archives:
A Meditation on Standing Still
Any square foot of Earth is worth
more than all the snow-white Moon;
why, this spot on which you stand
is crowded and crammed with the memory
of seeds and stones, blood and bones,
birth and breath, and yes,
not a little death;
and the footprints of those who,
like you, passed this way & paused,
blessing this sacred ground.
Stay warm, stay well…
Cover photo credit: Image by Ingeborg Kråka from Pixabay