Our final experience of driving in America was our journey from Philadelphia to JFK airport. Obviously, we got lost, and arrived at the car hire drop-off at literally 12:31, crossing the line into late by 1 minute; luckily we managed to get away with this terrible crime with no further charges.
My takeaway from a month and 3,000 miles of driving in America? After paying $16 to cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, I’m never going to complain about the Dartford Crossing again!
We took a taxi into New York, parting with $100 for the pleasure, and booked into our hotel. Located just two blocks from Central Park, it was in a great location, and was roomy enough that our children had their own rooms. By rooms, I do, of course, mean cupboards to sleep in that were just large enough for them to lay lengthways in.
Alongside taking the Staten Island Ferry (free), visiting the site of the World Trade Center (free), and hanging out in Central Park (free), we also got to do the thing that everyone visiting NYC simply has to do: spent a ridiculous amount of money on everything:
“Ice cream? That’ll be $6.”
“Broadway show? Don’t even ask, sir”.
9 months in rural Africa, followed by a month of living with friends in impoverished areas, led to a degree of culture shock in NYC. I grew up by London, but nothing prepared me for a place with such an astronomical cost of living.
Visiting the Catholic Worker homes was the perfect antidote to the glitz, glamour and pace of the Big Apple. Hunting down the address of St. Joseph House, we eventually found a building fronting on to the street in a condition that could be charitably described as “well used”, or, perhaps more honestly, as “rundown”.
When Mary House started, the CW houses were actually in the economically depressed end of Manhattan, surrounded by derelict factories, docks and homeless people. Nowhere on our journey across America did we see gentrification more exemplified that in that humble community hub, surrounded by skyscrapers in the heart of downtown Manhattan. One of the sisters was telling us that offers for their building have reached the tens of millions of dollars: there is no thought of selling, obviously.
We walked in to find ourselves in a friendly canteen, staffed by smiling volunteers. I mean it the greatest compliment when I say it was difficult to tell who was “staff” and who were attenders of the soup kitchen; service is at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement – “work” is right there in the name – and all are encouraged to participate and help, regardless of ability or appearance.
One resident grinned and said “We call this the madhouse! You have to learn to be humble, how to love and care for others”. Selflessness is definitely a message of madness when sillhouetted by the New York City skyline, built by the richest corporations in the world.
We were taken from St Joseph House to Mary House, where we met the vigorous Sister Jane. With an initially stern demeanour that cracked wide open as soon as she set eyes on our curly haired two year old, Jane showed us the community home around us. She commented on the existence of the houses:
“It’s a good thing, but a sad thing – you can’t romanticise the need for soup kitchens and shelter. Plenty of people don’t want to be here.”
Sister Jane has been working with New York City’s poor since 1972. Her position of stability over so many years of change around her has given her a firm perspective:
“The modern world is a social desert. It needs community.”
We were invited for dinner, and ate with the volunteers, Sisters, visitors and residents. On our table were a variety of interesting characters, describing the houses as “a wild and woolly and creative place; we are very marginal“. Certainly creativity has a home here; the walls are covered with challenging artwork, and cutting slogans betray a wildly subversive undercurrent.
Each evening has a time where the houses come together for prayer – Sister Jane interupted herself sternly here, “You have to pray” – alongside Bible study and Mass in the in-house chapel. On Friday evenings there is a formal talk to whom all are invited.
I mentioned our journey, and the friends from communities along the road who had recommended we visit the Catholic Worker family. Jane quoted Dorothy Day, “If they want an intentional community, visit the Quakers”
“Dorothy had a problem with people looking for similar people, to the exclusion of those least likely to be able to share in those dreams”
It’s an interesting point. Either you end up with an isolated social circle with a shared ideology, or a shared social circle, but disparate ideologies. I think all of our friends have struggled with this – when you really start to build relationship with those who see the world so different, whose dreams is it righteous to pursue? As he said in his classic book on community, ‘Life Together’:
The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.
I believe the commandment to love our neighbour, in the way we would want to be loved, also calls us to resist patriarchy. That resistance has been spray-painted on the hearts of so many we’ve talked to over the last year, from our mentors at CRM, the authors of Helping without Hurtings, the discussions about sensitive, shared, community development with all our friends in the US, and, of course, tattooed onto the arm of Steve, who we met at Koinonia.
Our conversation with Jane covered a lot of ground, given our short time together. As we said goodbye, I asked for a summing up of her thoughts.
Community life is very difficult… and its not. The thing about community is that if there is more than one person, you will disagree on some things. But, as a result, you get to share, and have a bigger family.
The rest of our time in NY flew by, with lots of $1 pizza slices, an opportunity to meet up with me cousin and his wife, and a memorable visit to a board game cafe one evening (obviously I lost every game I played).
Soon enough, our time was at an end, and we piled back onto a plane and returned to the UK for the biggest adventure so far: real life! I won’t leave you with a final quote: enjoy Joen’s impression of how being on the move constantly for a month felt instead…