Two new Catholic Worker memoirs to inspire us

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Dorothy Day, as usual, had it just about right: "No matter how corrupt the Church may become, it carries within it the seeds of its own regeneration."

"As a convert," she wrote, "I never expected much from the bishops. In all history popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints that keep appearing all thru history who keep things going."

Two of the current keepers are Brendan Walsh and Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, though, like Dorothy Day, they would resist being labeled saints.

Both founded and run Catholic Worker houses of hospitality: Walsh founded Viva House in 1968 in scarred southwest Baltimore; Schaeffer-Duffy in 1982 founded the Sts. Francis and Thérèse Catholic Worker House in Worcester, Mass. Both studied at Jesuit colleges: Walsh at Le Moyne, Schaeffer-Duffy at Holy Cross. They are former seminarians. Both married up: Walsh to Willa Bickham, a gifted artist, and Schaeffer-Duffy to Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a University of Virginia graduate who majored in political and social thought and whose reporting has long graced the pages of NCR. Both are pacifists who have worked on one barricade or another to jam the gears of the American war machine.

And now the bracing news: Both are new authors, essentialists coming to us with literate and uplifting books that combine reportage, spirituality and heartfelt revelations.

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11182016p14pha.jpgIn The Long Loneliness in Baltimore: Stories Along the Way, Walsh recalls that for almost 50 years he, Willa and countless volunteers "provided more than one million meals for people; served as a temporary home to more than 3,000 women, children and men; and distributed more than 375 tons of food to neighborhood families (or more accurately returned stolen goods to them)."

Not that he downplays those stunning numbers, but Walsh cites his "hope that we accomplished more than these deeds. We tried to adhere to the spirituality and philosophy of the Catholic Worker. We endeavored to make Viva House a sacred place, a place dedicated to people, where weary people could rest and gain strength."

Another assessment: "We tried to be neighbor, not agency. Additionally, Viva House has been a place for discussion and clarification of local, national and international issues. It has been a gathering place where people talked seriously and made plans for acts of nonviolent resistance to the greed and violence so peculiar to the United States."

As the decades rolled on, Walsh's diligence included publishing a monthly newsletter -- titled Enthusiasm -- that carried his essays, parables, musings and "stories along the way." Gathered in seven chapters, they are the literature of peace. Beauty runs through the pages: Twenty-six displays of Willa's art, which include watercolor paintings and silk screens. The couple married in 1967 only months after they met. Long marriages are easily explained: Two people join not to be together but to do something together.

In the summer of 1982, not long after he earned a religious studies degree from Holy Cross in Worcester, Scott Schaeffer-Duffy came to Washington to volunteer at two Catholic Worker houses. There he would meet Claire. One of the first romantic dates of these two aspiring intellectuals was dumpster-diving at a food distribution center in nearby Maryland. It must have been true love, scavenging for still edible cabbage heads and corncobs. They would marry soon enough.

11182016p14phb.jpg"We were fresh out of college," Scott writes in Nothing Is Impossible: Stories From the Life of a Catholic Worker, "and full of crap and idealism in equal measure. They both can take you a long way."

As it has. In 1987, after moving to Worcester and successfully putzing around to raise money to buy a house for $85,000, the couple began welcoming the lost and lonely into their home, which became the alcohol-free Sts. Francis and Thérèse Catholic Worker House.

"We've hosted an enormous diversity of people," Scott writes, "folks with substance abuse, mental health challenges, or a lack of documentation as well as ex-cons, refugees, new immigrants, victims of abuse and those left homeless by fires. Many experienced homelessness for the first time -- folks laid off or fired. Others had slept on the street for years. Everyone gathered together at five each night for a communal dinner along with Claire, our growing family, an assortment of live-in volunteers, and me."

The pages of Scott's inspiring memoir run deep with stories laced with poignancy and humor. He recalls how he and Claire ran the Boston marathon in T-shirts saying "PEACE" on the front and with a Dorothy Day quote on the back. He writes of their travels to the world's war zones to offer comfort to the victims of American foreign policy.

Finishing up, I'm well short of doing justice to Brendan and Scott and their writing. Well, that couldn't be the first injustice these great souls have suffered.

[Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.]

This story appeared in the Nov 18-Dec 1, 2016 print issue under the headline: Two new Catholic Worker memoirs to inspire us .
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