Tulsa is an incredibly generous community. Nonprofit charities and food banks are as common here as gas stations. There is actual competition for volunteer opportunities. My daughter once received an email from the Tulsa Food Bank requesting 50 volunteers to bag food on a Saturday: "First come, first serve!" Two Thanksgivings ago, I took my daughters down to Catholic Charities to put together food baskets and there were so many people they barely had a place to put us. People actually have to make reservations to come and help. Whew.
With all this explosive generosity, is there really a need for a Catholic Workers Movement -- I'll explain what that is in a moment -- in the Tulsa area? I think yes.
First of all, the CWM is not a charity in any sense of the word. We do not rely on United Way. We do not apply for private or federal funding. We do not create an extra burden by hiring employees and establishing overhead. On the other hand, Catholic Workers are also not volunteers. We are not people who take a break from our regular lives to spend a few hours a week giving back. Not that any of these things are bad, necessarily, it is just not what defines us.
Catholic Workers are a community of believers, following Christ's commandments, who choose a life of voluntary poverty. We choose to stand beside and advocate for those who have no power to escape poverty. We serve them with what we have in our own pocket, not with what we can get other people to donate.
Unlike a traditional charity, we do not require anything from those we serve. There are no hoops to jump through to qualify for our services. We don't care how much a person earns or whether they are married. We don't ask them to give up personal details of their life or attend educational classes to receive. It is a gift economy. Freely ask, freely give.
Though you don't have to be Catholic (or even Christian) to be part of the CWM, we have no restrictions on our expressions of faith. Because no government entity is looming over our shoulder, we are free to pray and praise. We thank God for his blessings and see his face in those we serve. God's light is placed high on the hill for all to see and the glory is his.
I believe the presence of charities, despite their pure intentions, actually does damage to our hearts. Jesus never intended there to be so many degrees of separation between the giver and the recipient. Being able to drop off our donations through a drive-through window or send in money online sanitizes poverty so that we are separated from the reality of it. When we allow our opinions of the poor to be formed only by the media and preexisting stereotypes, it becomes easier for us to judge them. We simplify the solutions to their plight and scoff because they do not follow our haughty advice. From far away it is easy to take credit for our status in life and to blame them for their status in theirs.
But when we remove the barriers between us and them, when we allow ourselves to experience the pain, the tears, the smells, the fears, and the hopelessness that accompanies poverty, we are consumed by a wave of compassion that can only come from God when we are doing his will.
Charities create the illusion that only some of us are called to serve full time. Sure, the Mother Teresas of the world are noble. We look up to them but we can't all be expected to live like that, right? Wrong. Christ never made this distinction. This is what Dorothy Day meant when she said not to call her a saint. She did not want to be placed in a category of good-doers who are held aloft for their sacrifice. She knew that all Christians are called to this same service.
Finally, we must ask ourselves, what happens if our fragile system of fundraising and tax write-offs disappears? If we have spent our lives buying in to the idea that it is someone else's job to do the dirty work, if our attitude continues to be suspicious of every stranger standing on a street corner, who will feed Jesus? Who will clothe him? We can't change an entire belief system overnight so we must begin now. We must see clearly what Christ has asked us to do. True Christian faith is as radical an idea now as it was when Christ walked this earth. We must embrace a life of servant-hood and take on the burdens of others as our own now, as a choice, so that we are prepared for when it becomes a necessity.
Susan Hurtado is the head to St. Zita Catholic Worker House in Tulsa. Find it on Facebook.
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