The Catholic Worker Movement Finds New Life in Rural America
Most of Joe and Michelle Sroka’s rural neighbors near Siler City, N.C., don’t realize that theirs is not the average small farm. Yes, the young family is raising cows, chickens, a range of vegetables, and three children on the 50-acre property, aiming to make a living off the land. But they’re also leaders of a Catholic Worker community, adherents of an effort to live according to the gospel, members of a subtly subversive American-born movement that’s been going strong for over 85 years.
Five years ago, the Srokas’ situation looked radically different. Graduate students in their 20s and early 30s from middle class backgrounds, they lived then in a series of ramshackle houses in the gentrifying city of Durham, N.C., feeding and cohabitating with the city’s poor residents — a pattern set by Catholic Workers over many decades.
But then kids entered the equation, and that chaotic urban model didn’t feel sustainable anymore. And on a larger level, the Srokas wondered if there might be a way to address society’s problems more fundamentally.
Today, they’re hard at work fighting to improve their farm’s mediocre soil and make an income off of their cows and chickens. They raise much of the food they eat, and sell meat and eggs to neighbors and members of their church. Three formerly homeless men accompanied them into the countryside; they’re integral partners in the effort, and are themselves becoming experienced farmers.
“There’s a lot of work in it,” says Larry Lee, Joe Sroka’s uncle and one of the three formerly homeless men. “I plan on staying here for a while, but I’m taking it day by day.”
It’s a very different life, but the Srokas say it fits naturally into the Catholic Worker philosophy. In the city, says Joe Sroka, “we were feeding people and clothing people, but not addressing deeper systemic issues,” like why poverty and exploitation are so rampant, and what a better system might look like. “But now we’re working with people who are learning to grow food; we’re connected to creation,” he explains. “It completely changes the vision.”
The Srokas are far from alone in making that shift. In fact, the rise of farming within the Catholic Worker movement is just one of several new elements of the network. Around the country, a large cohort of longtime members is aging and stepping back; in response, younger people are stepping up, bringing with them new ideals and activities. One of those is agriculture; another is a focus on community-building, both internally and with surrounding neighbors. And while activism has long been a hallmark of the movement, younger Catholic Workers are less interested in the antiwar efforts that gained popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s, and more engaged with climate justice and anti-racism work.
Change is hard, even for a decentralized movement that prides itself on its flexibility.
In some places, these shifts are happening seamlessly; in other areas, less so.
The Catholic Worker concept emerged in the early 1930s in New York, the product of radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day and French lay philosopher Peter Maurin. The two developed ideas about creating “a new society within the shell of the old, a society in which it will be easier to be good,” and issued a newspaper, the Catholic Worker. Their ideas were grounded in Catholicism, and gradually they and others established urban houses of hospitality around the country to help those on the margins: practicing the works of mercy not by giving charity to the poor but by living in solidarity with them.
Maurin wrote about “agronomic universities” — farms where people would live in communes and work the land — as a key element of the better society he envisioned. But the farms that sprang up in the 1930s and ‘40s as part of the movement were poorly run and often existed largely to serve the urban houses; eventually the concept faded away.
The main face of the movement has always been Day, who’s currently being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church and is the subject of a new documentary, Revolution of the Heart. Her opposition to militarization and the connections she saw between poverty and violence made peace activism a key element. But Day, who died in 1980, wasn’t rigid about the movement or what a hospitality house should look like; as a result, communities around the country have been able to respond directly to local needs and the issues of the era.
The number of Catholic Worker communities has always waxed and waned depending on current events, according to Dan McKanan, author of The Catholic Worker After Dorothy. Hospitality houses spread quickly during the Depression, but many closed during World War II, when Day’s pacifist stance was unpopular. The Vietnam War brought out new members, and more still joined in the 1980s, when homelessness became a widespread, visible problem and military spending reached new heights.
Many of those latter Catholic Workers and the robust communities they established are still around in central cities across the United States. That crop of leaders has been known for its theological orthodoxy paired with political activism; members developed plowshares actions, which usually involve the symbolic destruction of military equipment. For decades, their urban hospitality and peace activism were the face of the Catholic Worker movement.
But that’s changing now. In part, it’s due to the gentrification going on around the country. Thirty years ago, downtowns were still largely the province of the marginalized and unhoused, but today, they’re becoming playgrounds for young Americans with disposable incomes. Many Catholic Workers feel they no longer belong — or they simply can’t afford to stay. Atlanta’s Open Door Community closed in 2017 after 35 years in part because of gentrification; houses in New York, Denver, Detroit, and Cleveland are also facing challenges.
But the bigger threat in front of longtime communities is simply age, with some of the movement’s leaders retiring or dying without any real succession plans.
For example, Mark Zwick, an influential Catholic Worker who founded Houston’s Casa Juan Diego 40 years ago, died in 2016. His wife Louise continues to run the house alongside volunteers, and hopes her son and granddaughter will eventually dedicate themselves to it. But there’s no hard and fast plan.
“We believe in the providence of God — if it’s meant to continue, it will,” she says.
Several communities on the East Coast have failed to identify a younger generation interested in taking the reins. In Baltimore, members of Jonah House — not a Catholic Worker house, but one that’s always been very closely associated with the group — struggled unsuccessfully to find young Christians to take over the house. The nearby Viva House, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, has also been unable to recruit new members and may shut down.
To some East Coast observers, the problem is financial. “The increased cost of a college education makes it really hard for college educated people to live at the Catholic Worker,” said Joanne Kennedy, editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York. “Asking them to come and have a life where they won’t have a salary is a lot. The duty of debt makes it hard.”
And that may indeed be an issue, particularly in expensive cities like New York and Washington. But the number of Catholic Worker houses in the U.S. — about 175 — has remained steady over the past decade or more; communities that close are regularly replaced with new ones. Young people are, in fact, joining the movement, but the East Coast isn’t a target destination. Some are moving to the South, others out West. But more than a few are heading to the Midwest.
“I remember spending time on the East Coast and really seeing that aging reality, where a lot of the beloved matriarchs of the movement were aging,” says Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, 33, editor of Geez magazine who has lived in several Catholic Worker communities. “Then I went to a Midwest Catholic Worker gathering and it was exploding with young people. I was shocked to see young people and families with kids — easily half were under 30. It was amazing.”
Many are there because the Midwest is the epicenter of the new Catholic Worker focus on farming; the region is dotted with small Catholic Worker farms focused on regenerative agriculture. Nineteen farms are listed on the Catholic Worker website. Among the general population, interest in food and its sources has taken off in the past decade, and Catholic Workers are no exception. But for them, the work also has a deeper meaning. Like Joe and Michelle Sroka in North Carolina, many people see sustainable agriculture as a way to become independent of an exploitative system, and a route to a better society — one that fits within Day and Maurin’s principles.
“It’s significant that Pope Francis has in the last few years talked about caring for creation as a work of mercy,” says Eric Anglada, who started St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in Wisconsin in 2016 together with his wife and another family. He gravitated to a farm after finding urban hospitality houses too overwhelming. Others go that route once they’ve had children and need a sustainable life for their families.
It is, of course, hard work. Anglada points out that one reason Maurin’s farming communes failed was because the needs of the guests took priority over those of the farm. Most of today’s Catholic Worker farms don’t regularly host low-income guests, in part because the work demands a single-minded focus — and in part because not many people in need of basic resources tend to venture out to the countryside.
But Midwestern Catholic Workers have managed to build their own sense of community, something that’s important to many younger members. There’s an annual fall gathering and a spring Faith and Resistance retreat, as well as a farm meeting every other year.
“Every few months someone is doing something and everyone’s invited: a solstice party, a hog butchering,” says Maria Bergh, 31; she’s spent summers on Catholic Worker farms and currently lives in Su Casa Catholic Worker in Chicago. “There’s a sense that I’m not in this alone.”
That dynamism has affected the region’s urban houses as well, many of which are full of eager young people. It’s not only a Midwestern thing; at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, for example, a majority of the house’s permanent members are under age 40, and they fully participate in community decisions now that leader Jeff Dietrich has retired.
But in the Midwest, the younger generation is arguably playing more of a leadership role. Take Day House in Detroit: A year ago, three young women took over, allowing co-founder Father Tom Lumpkin, 80, to finally retire. He gave them the freedom to structure the house however they saw fit.
“He kept saying, ‘There’s a hundred ways to do this thing. We did it a few ways; you can do it whatever way works for you,’” said Kateri Boucher, 24, one of the new co-managers. She says the house will definitely do hospitality, but she’s also hoping to better connect with Detroit’s activists.
This younger crop of Catholic Workers is unquestionably interested in activism, but the issues they address are different from those of their predecessors. In February 2019, four Catholic Workers were arrested for attempting to shut off the valves on two pipelines in northern Minnesota. “We were all inspired by the plowshares [actions],” says Brenna Cussen Anglada, Eric Anglada’s wife and one of the four activists. But while plowshares actions have been directly opposed to nuclear weapons, this was about climate change and its effect on vulnerable people.
“A lot of it for me is rooted in the destruction of the earth, and disregard for the poor and marginalized,” says Cussen Anglada.
Anti-racism activism has also been a major focus, one that’s generated some controversy. In 2015, following Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis house invited other Midwestern Catholic Workers to join a discussion about race, kicking off several years of trainings and actions on the topic. The work eventually led to introspection, and in 2017, the Midwest Catholic Worker Faith and Resistance Gathering wrote an open letter to the broader Catholic Worker community, deeming the movement a racist institution.
The letter generated some tension. Among many younger Catholic Workers, it felt obvious that whites had always held positions of power in the movement. But older Catholic Workers disagreed that racism was a problem. The conflict was finally largely hashed out in 2018, in a roundtable discussion among young and veteran Catholic Workers at Maryhouse in New York.
Whether the two sides fully agree or not, the new emphasis on racism has influenced the movement. Some older Catholic Workers have said that taking part in anti-racism demonstrations with young activists helped them realize how fossilized their own styles of protest had become.
And a week after the roundtable in New York, seven Catholic Workers, all members of an older generation, broke into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Ga. They poured human blood on structures there, something that’s frequently done by plowshares activists to symbolize our shared humanity and the suffering caused by military weapons. Several members of the group had attended the Maryhouse discussion, and their mission statement seemed to reflect it:
“We repent of the sin of white supremacy that oppresses and takes the lives of people of color here in the United States and throughout the world,” read the statement. “We seek to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons, racism and economic exploitation.”
But it’s not surprising that Catholic Workers are adjusting themselves to reflect the concerns and outrages of the era. The movement has always been flexible enough to adapt to new ideas and practices. Perhaps that’s the ultimate source of its longevity.
Amanda Abrams is a journalist living in Durham, North Carolina.
Co-published with Sojourners.