It’s Not Just the Curtain: Crossing the Class Divide at the Bloomington Catholic Worker

Posted on March 28, 2018 by
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Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

Our short hallway is divided in the middle by a curtain that hangs from ceiling to floor. In front of the curtain is a door to our guest room and the full bathroom. Behind the curtain are the doors to our bedroom and our kids’ room.

Peggy lives in the guest room. She is a thin woman in her mid-50s, with long, curly hair that she dyes red to cover the gray. Her energy level is enviable, and as she sweeps the living room she recounts how a man at the overnight shelter took her aside to ask, “What kind of speed are you on?”

“I don’t do that,” she says to me, “I’ve just always had this energy. I like to work. I like to volunteer. Otherwise I just sit around feeling anxious.” So she swept the kitchen too and even under the rug by the front door where we leave our shoes.

Peggy had been staying at the shelter but due to a disagreement with a staff member, she decided to leave. She moved in with us a week ago, which means she is halfway through her “two-week trial.” Next Thursday, we’ll meet with her to ask how her time here has been. If all is going well, we’ll invite her to stay for two months, renewable up to a year.

Each family at the Bloomington Catholic Worker lives with people experiencing homelessness. These “guests” stay in our guest rooms, cook in our kitchens, shower in our bathrooms, and join us for meals throughout the week. Even as we live closely with these people, trying to form a bridge across class divides, we do not aim to live in intentional community with them. We make distinctions and create boundaries between the members of our community and the guests of our community. These distinctions, like the curtain dividing our hallway, can be problematic sometimes. They can inhibit our ability to form deep relationships with guests, and they mirror the class divide that already exists between us. Still, they are what allow us to share our homes with people year after year, to care for folks we might otherwise never meet. For example…

● ● ●

One Friday, a few months after Peggy moved in, I answered a knock on the front door.

“Can I speak with the owner?” asked a man in a gray t-shirt and baggy jeans. Big, round glasses sat on his squat nose and a brown ring of hair smiled behind his otherwise bald head. It was Michael. He’d been my client while I was working at the day shelter a year ago.

“The community owns the houses,” I replied. “But you can speak with me. What’s up, Michael?”

“I haven’t slept in three days. I’ve got 56 more days on parole and every time I put my head down to sleep, the cops wake me up and tell me to move. I get in trouble just once and I’m back in prison.” I was surprised how coherent his speech was. At the shelter, I’d most often seen him struggling to stand up straight, his words coming out thick and dry.

“Our guest beds are full,” I told him. It was a warm mid-October day. The leaves had already started to fall. The sky was a blue so deep it seemed infinite. “But I can sling up the hammock in the back yard if you want to take a nap.”

“Please,” he said. We walked around the house to the backyard. A picnic table sat in front of two tall black locust trees. My young kids, Alice and Leo, came out to join us and busied themselves with the soccer ball.

“Have you heard of Team Takeover?” Michael asked as I wrapped a black strap around a tree. “They’re a gang, a street gang. See my thumb?” He pointed to a thin, deep cut on his thumb joint. “RP did that. Said he’d take my pinky off if I don’t give him $300 on the 3rd when I get my disability check.”

“That’s insane,” I said as I hooked the hammock into the straps.

“Can I sleep here tonight?” Michael asked.

“I’m not sure. We don’t usually let people camp out. But let me run inside and talk to David about it.”

● ● ●

Would you let Michael stay the night in your backyard? Our community intentionally invites these situations and questions. We want people to show up at our houses while we are eating dinner, having a meeting, playing outside with our kids—maybe not every day, but definitely sometimes. We want our lives to be interrupted by the needs of others.

Michael’s situation was compelling: he needed a safe place to sleep. It helped that I knew him and that he was clearly sober. I ran the idea past David, who agreed, and went back outside. I found Michael already asleep. He passed the afternoon that way. It was early evening when I saw him swing his legs over the side and sit up.

“You can stay tonight,” I said, taking a seat at the picnic table. “Should I set up the tent?”

“Naw. That hammock was great,” he said. “Thanks. I haven’t slept like that in weeks.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “Is it alright if I run through the rules we have for guests?”

“That’s cool.”

“Our big rule is that this is safe and sober housing.”

“That’s fine,” Michael said. “I’ve been sober since I got out of prison a month ago, and I am done—done!”

“Great,” I said. “Because we won’t let you stay if you’re using. And are you legally allowed to be around children?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You want my D.O.C. number? You can look up my record. I don’t have no sex crimes, nothing like that.”

“Sure. I’ll check it online. So the other main rule is that guests have to be out of the house, or I guess the backyard in your case, from nine to five.”

“That’s no problem. I just need a place to sleep.”

“We’ll take it a night at a time. And we’ll have interviews on Wednesday afternoon. Peggy just found an apartment and is moving out on Monday.”

“Can I get an interview?” Michael said.

“For sure,” I said.

Later that night, I looked up Michael’s criminal record. There were a few theft charges along with some misdemeanors for public intoxication and trespassing, similar to the records of many people who stay with us. I got him a sleeping bag and a pillow. He went to bed at eight and was still sleeping when I went out at seven-thirty the next morning, drops of rain starting to fall.

“Michael! It’s raining! Grab your backpack and come inside for breakfast.”

“I slept the whole night,” he said sitting up. “I didn’t wake up once. Can I come back tonight?”

“Sure,” I said. “Come back any time after five.”

That night the temperature dropped to the 40s. I wondered if we should let Michael sleep on the couch. David was hesitant. He didn’t know Michael and thought we should wait until we formally interviewed him with other community members. Our guest room was already full, David reminded me. Michael said he would be fine outside, so we gave him extra blankets and said goodnight.

Michael stayed with us a few more nights. On the day of the interview, he called to say he didn’t need the bed. He felt safer being away from Bloomington, so he was going to camp out with a buddy in the next town over.

“If you’re sure,” I said, “but call us if you need anything.”

“I will,” he said.

And he does. We check in with each other every few weeks, so I know that he’ll be off parole in 20 days. In a month, thanks to a permanent supportive housing program, he’ll be moving into an apartment.

● ● ●

What is ideal when it comes to offering hospitality? Should we never turn away a person in need? We’ve learned that thinking we can help everyone is not realistic and not healthy. To be able to provide comfortable, peaceful places to live, we say no to some people in need. We say “no” to people with untreated mental illness, “no” to people actively using drugs or alcohol. We say “no” to people who are sex offenders. We say “no” because we recognize that we must also be hospitable to our children and ourselves, creating safe environments that further our well-being. We’re walking the middle road, and finding that even with these restrictions, our guest beds are full. I’ve learned that we do what we can. A hammock outside on a cold night is not much to offer someone, but it’s better than sleeping in an alley or under a bush.

Guests come to us because they need a place to stay, not because they are eager to participate in the shared life of our community. While our community is religious, we are not an evangelical mission. We want to offer our guests a place of respite and healing—so we do not require our guests to believe anything we believe or to participate in our communal activities, except for eating dinner with us on Thursday nights. They do not attend our business meetings. They do not contribute to our common bank account. They are not required to cook community meals or attend daily morning prayer. We also ask our guests to be out of the houses from nine to five daily, so that families have a break from sharing their space. We do invite our guests to eat and pray with us, if they are so inclined, but it is up to them. Some guests leave early every day and arrive back late in the evening. Other guests eat dinner with us every night, use the kitchen, read books to our kids, and take to sweeping the floors. Community members, on the other hand, contribute half of their income to the common account, participate in consensus-based decision making, practice confession and reconciliation, go on retreat together, attend morning prayer together, and share childcare duties.

These distinctions between guests and members mean that we have to work hard to make our guests feel welcome and to get to know them well. They move into a well-established community with a middle class culture, and that can exaggerate the feeling of being an outsider. In between caring for our children, working, and participating in community life, it can be hard for us to take time to be with our guests. When our family lives dominate, what we offer to guests is simply a safe place to live. When we are more intentional about spending time with our guests, our hospitality builds genuine, reciprocal friendships that endure even after a guest has moved out.

This way of living doesn’t eliminate class divisions, but it brings us closer to one another. Peggy and Michael, and all our guests, are an integral part of the Bloomington Catholic Worker. They connect us with the urgent and harsh reality of poverty. They keep us aware of struggle and injustice in our community, showing us where to take action. They remind us why we don’t aspire to build big houses and live in the suburbs. They ask us to share space and resources, reminding us that while we despise destitution we do desire to live, like them, with less. We rely on our guests to help us grow and to keep us grounded in gratitude.

Laura Lasuertmer is a member of the Bloomington Catholic Worker (BCW) community in Bloomington, Indiana. She enjoys writing collaboratively with people living in jail and on the streets.

Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.





One Reply to “It’s Not Just the Curtain: Crossing the Class Divide at the Bloomington Catholic Worker”

Carla

Beautifully and honestly written, thank you so much for sharing this. It really touched me and inspired discussion.

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