Serving up food and social justice: Catholic Worker House fights poverty and war with equal fervor

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The Thibaults were running out of options.

John Thibault, his wife Aurora and young daughters Sophia and Sjohna were shuttling among Redwood City motels and living in their old Toyota Camry while John tried to sell cars.  Sometimes, their monthly income reached just a few hundred dollars.

Somehow, they heard about the Catholic Worker House, a gray, Craftsman-style structure on Cassia Street, two blocks south of downtown Redwood City.  Among other things, its volunteers and two-person staff regularly hand out food to the hungry and homeless.  While waiting in line with her mother and sister for food, Sophia, then 8 years old, struck up a conversation about books with staff member Susan Crane.  At the same time, Sjohna was attracted to a doll on the porch, where people leave items that anyone can take.

Aurora told Sjohna she couldn’t have the doll because the family had to travel light.  Sjohna started crying, and Crane intervened.  One thing led to another, and before long, Crane and Larry Purcell, the Catholic Worker House’s director, invited the Thibaults to move in for as long as they needed.

That was just the break they’d been waiting for.  Aurora, who comes from Bicol province in the Philippines, says that, while living at the house, John was recently able to update his electronics training, which he had used as a military contractor in Afghanistan.  With that, he has found a new job, and the family’s fortunes are on the rise.

“It’s everything,” Aurora says when asked what the Catholic Worker House has meant to the Thibaults.  “We’ve made our lives straight.  Before we met Catholic Workers, my husband was in a lot of debt and was in a depressed state.  Now he’s more focused on working and the future of the kids.”

Founded in 1974 by Purcell, then a Catholic priest (he left the priesthood in 1980), the Redwood City Catholic Worker House is one of 203 such communities around the world.  It’s one of two in San Mateo County; the other, which Purcell also helped establish, is in San Bruno.

The house serves the very poor – those for whom, as Purcell says, “Food is a discretionary item.”  In addition to collecting and distributing around 10,000 pounds of leftover food each week from the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market (most goes to the Padua Dining Room at St. Anthony’s Church in Menlo Park), the house takes in the homeless, the addicted, troubled teens, and families such as the Thibaults.

It also currently offers a shower program for local homeless people, providing not just a chance to spruce up but also clean underwear and a pair of socks for folks who spend most of their days on their feet.  In addition, the Catholic Worker House has an English-language program where volunteers teach approximately 60 immigrants.  It also provides college scholarships for needy students.

No one is charged, and no one gets paid.  The Catholic Worker House takes no government money, and lacks tax-deductible status for donors, who frequently give in amounts ranging from $25 to $100.

Purcell, who lives elsewhere in Redwood City, and Crane, who lives at the house, are part of the larger Catholic Worker movement, launched in 1933 by a pair of activists in New York City named Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  Day and Maurin promoted the radical notions that people should live their lives according to the gospels of the New Testament, and particularly care for the poor and refrain from war.

Along those lines, Purcell and Crane – both 75 years old – have been arrested numerous times while protesting against the U.S. military and the Sunnyvale facility of defense contractor Lockheed Martin.  Despite their arrests (and four prison terms for Crane), they are unrelenting.  Both face a September 30 court date for recent charges of trespassing at Lockheed Martin, and Crane was detained overnight in July in Germany following an anti-nuclear protest at a joint U.S.-German air base.

“The problem with nuclear weapons is that if one or two of them are used, then we’ll be committing suicide,” says Crane.  “It doesn’t seem to be a good way to spend our money.”

In the Catholic Worker House newsletter, which reaches 2,000 friends and donors, Purcell lists current needs and also rails against “The Empire” and a “system of life” that includes a “war economy” that “creates winners (the rich) and losers (the poor).”

Asked about his political views, Purcell says, “I don’t know if I’d say it’s politics.  It’s an awareness that the people we deal with – the very poor, immigrants, day laborers, the uneducated, street people, people on the street that are vets, the teenagers that are homeless or are coming from dysfunctional families – we feel they’ve been damaged by the system.  We think there’s systemic violence going on.

“And so we address that.  I don’t know if that’s political, as much as feeding, clothing, sheltering and asking, ‘Why are these people in this situation?’  I’m terrified of the Republicans’ agenda in this country.  I’m not very impressed with the Democratic agenda in this country, either.  I’m very impressed with Christian values as they are articulated in the gospels.”

Those ideals are perhaps most famously expressed in the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Jesus says applicants to heaven will be judged by what did for the needy.  In particular, Jesus proclaims, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

“So if that’s political, then I’m political,” Purcell says.  “I would say I’m a communionist.  I believe we’re all one body, that we’re all one family.”

Purcell has experience with large families.  He grew up one of nine children in a wealthy, Catholic household in San Francisco.  His father, James C. Purcell, was an attorney who, working pro bono, successfully sued the U.S. government in a case that ultimately led to the closure of the nation’s World War II concentration camps that held American citizens of Japanese descent.

One extended-family member – and Democratic office-holder – who admires Purcell and the Catholic Worker House is Purcell’s sister-in-law, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of Atherton.  (Purcell is married to Eshoo’s sister, Ronnie, a teacher in the Redwood City School District.)

“It’s a story that’s nothing short of remarkable,” says Eshoo, who grew up in what she describes as a strongly Catholic family.  “Those that are not remembered, or not seen by so many people, they are front and center to Larry.  I often say he’s the most Christ-like person I’ve ever met.  But he doesn’t have his head in the clouds.”

In fact, Purcell can be downright hard-nosed in his expectations of residents at the Catholic Worker House.  The rules require a plan – for example, Aurora Thibault is working on community-college certificates in bookkeeping and payroll administration.  Those who don’t stick to it – teens who skip school or those who repeatedly return to substance abuse – are shown the door.

“You either do it, or we’ll find somebody who wants to do it,” Purcell says.  “This is too valuable to the people who live here to support crapping out.”

Besides Eshoo, other supporters include Jim Hartnett, chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Transit District.

“They live the talk of God,” Hartnett says.  “They believe there’s a core goodness of people, and in doing good things.  And they live that by what they do every day.  And Larry is a great example of that in what he does with the individuals and the families that live at or transit through the Catholic Worker House, or are helped outside of that.”

Dennis Pettinelli, a financial planner in Redwood City, has been active with the Catholic Worker House for 25 years.  He says his reason is simple:  “If there’s a situation where just a little boost can help somebody, that’s what they try to do.”

Adds Bill Somerville, a key supporter who heads the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in Oakland, “There’s a lot of trust, and it’s paid great dividends.”  Purcell has never written a proposal for the estimated $1 million that the foundation has contributed to the house over the years.  He simply has called Somerville and described the need.  From Somerville’s perspective, it’s been all about the house’s effect on the community.

“Impact is something positive happening for a better world,” he says.  “Larry is the impact.  Funding him is creating a better world.”

This story was originally published in the September print edition of Climate Magazine. 

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