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vigil dec 11 2007
Visited Isaiah House a few blocks away on Cypress Street and cut onions and carrots.

It was part of an effort to bring the perspectives of left community organizations to the attention of a local politician I work with. I'm on her "advisory committee" and I wanted her to meet these amazing people in this devoted effort to model an alternate society, where directly addressing the problem of homelessness is a core value, based in a respect for the dignity of all people, regardless of status.

Lea and Dwight run the house for the Catholic Worker movement, a radical subset of the Catholic Church that was originally inspired by Dorthy Day. This was the third time I have visited Isaiah House, which is one of the best developed Catholic Worker Houses in the US.

Lea's advice on what government can do for Isaiah House? "Stay off our backs" she says in a friendly and firm tone. Isaiah House was forced to sue the City of Santa Ana to prevent discriminatory application of city ordinances a few years ago. Isaiah House won. But they had tried to negotiate first and they still want good relations with government. They want to be accommodating, as long as accommodating does not mean "cease to operate" and sweep the serious homelessness problem under the rug again.

Myself, another advisory committee member I had invited, and Lea stood on the third floor fire escape overlooking the Sunday crowd of homeless men, women, and children (many children) as well as volunteers distributing food and drinks. And we discussed the mission and needs of the house.

Isaiah House's purpose is not to find a governmental care-taker solution, but to model and live a Christian "love thy neighbor" ethos that refuses to abandon those who fail, falter, are victimized, or get unlucky and find themselves on the street, often with their small children. By modeling the example, they hope to change society.

I'm not Catholic and I'm not a Christian. If this is what religion did, however, the world would be a lot better off. This is a vision of religion that has been repeatedly submerged by governments, by corporations, and by the church bureaucracies themselves. St Francis of Asisi gave up all his worldly possessions and wandered among the animals and the poor to serve. But the Church gradually converted the order he founded into an extremely wealthy institution. Governments mostly manage homelessness as a moral or mental health problem--and underfund their weak programs. Large corporations and smaller-scale capitalist interests drive much of the homeless problem, parceling-out a small portion of their budgets to "community" and spending as much again trumpeting their contributions in expensive advertisements. Catholic Worker seems amazingly humble and effective in contrast. They simply open their house to all comers.

What amazes me about Catholic Worker is that it is not a government solution, and it is not exactly charity, either, though I'm sure lots of people who volunteer there pursue it as such. The core vision is really very radical, it is to model a society that is fundamentally different and in the end probably not capitalist.

Catholic Worker's vision will be viewed by some who might read this as simply pie-in-the-sky. But the irony is that such an attitude is part of the problem. You have convinced yourself that homelessness is inevitable. We regard that as common sense. Perhaps homelessness is sometimes inevitable, but what is the violence in us and in world societies that leaves people and families to freeze or starve in the street? There are many well-worn ways to dismissively answer that question as naive, but what I think all such "realist" or "cynical" answers demonstrate is that when solutions are found to problems such as these that do not rely on violent coercion then we will have had a real revolution in human history. And I can't help but write my bet that Catholic Worker represents what might one day be viewed--in an alternate future history--as a precursor.
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