Steve Baggarly is standing before a photo collage, musing about the people pictured. One man, he says, died in prison of AIDS; he was there for violating parole by stealing bread—“literally, a loaf of bread.” Baggarly points to another who was blind in one eye after having been whipped with a belt buckle as a child. A third man also died in jail, in this case because the dialysis machine he used there wasn’t clean.
It’s a heartbreaking litany, but Baggarly tells the stories calmly, almost fondly. He knew these people well. In many cases, he’d lived with them for months or even years. And he’s used to poverty, illness, bad luck. He’s been voluntarily surrounding himself with men and women on the receiving end of tragedy for years.
Baggarly, who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, is co-founder of a Catholic Worker house, a community that welcomes people who are homeless or sick or in transition—anyone, really. In their Sadako Sasaki House, Baggarly and his wife Kim Williams have been living in solidarity with the poor and suffering for almost 30 years, helping where they can while actively promoting nonviolence, and trying to align as closely as possible with Jesus’ teachings.
“The core love messages from Jesus—it’s a whole different way of life. ‘Love your enemies and do good to them; lend expecting nothing back,’” he says, paraphrasing the Bible verse Luke 6:35. “Just that one line turns our society on its head. Gospel economics is to give and share. Gospel politics is nonviolence. And it’s worth dedicating our lives to putting some of that into practice.”
Sharing almost everything they have, Baggarly and Williams are about as radical as one can be while still being a practicing Catholic. But their model is nothing new: The Catholic Worker movement has been around since 1933. It was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, a Catholic convert journalist and French lay philosopher, respectively, who were looking to create a society structured according to the gospel.
The movement promotes simple living, nonviolence, and doing the “works of mercy,” actions like feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. What that looks like in practice depends on a region’s needs. “Each house takes on a different character and emphasis,” says Benjamin Peters, a professor at the University of Saint Joseph who helped start a Catholic Worker community in South Bend, Indiana, near Notre Dame University. “But what they have in common is the idea that they’re practicing the works of mercy and resisting the works of war.”
Best known are the hospitality houses, where the hosts and those in need live together like family. There are more than 200 of the institutions around the world, and just about every big city in America has one. As a movement, it’s anarchic and not formulaic. Each community has its own structure and rules, and ever since Day died in 1980, it’s been leaderless. It’s also pretty fringe, as religious movements go.
But that might be about to change. Formerly consigned to a few sentences in Catholic school textbooks, Day is now en route to being canonized—a years-long process with an uncertain outcome, but one that underscores her importance to Catholic thought and action. She was one of four people mentioned by Pope Francis in a speech he gave to Congress in 2015.
Presumably many more people will soon know who she is and what she stood for. But despite it being a wholly homegrown movement, the Catholic Worker movement seems completely out of sync with today’s America—a place where billionaires who run the country are considering cuts to programs for the poor, where those who are financially comfortable rarely interact with those in need, and where blaming poor people for their circumstances has become increasingly acceptable. The biblical commandment to “love thy neighbor” doesn’t seem to have much significance these days—but it’s a prescription Catholic Workers aim to wholly embody.
“YOU’VE GOT TO UNLEARN what society teaches us and learn the gospel,” Baggarly says. He and Williams have spent their adult lives unlearning the individualism and materialism of American culture. Both were raised Catholic. They first encountered the ideals of the Catholic Worker movement in college and were immediately smitten. After a stint with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community, they moved to Norfolk and opened their own house.
A two-story Victorian in a low-income neighborhood, the place feels like a group house, with as many as seven rooms that can be used for guests. In the early days, says Baggarly, “we had all kinds of folks—disabled, farmworkers, people just out of jail or the psych ward, pregnant women.” The house isn’t far from one of the city’s main hospitals, so some of the residents were invariably sick, and the house often served as a hospice as well.
Some of that changed in 2003, after the couple’s second child was born. “It got a little overwhelming,” explains Williams. A number of the residents had untreated mental illness or substance abuse addictions, and the place could be chaotic. Plus, their oldest child was on the verge of adolescence, and they felt he needed his own space.
They bought a second house for their family but maintained the original one. Right now, there are four people living there, including a woman who was recently laid off and at risk of becoming homeless, and a Peruvian mother-daughter pair who have been in Norfolk for five years while a local doctor treats the daughter’s rare disorder.
Baggarly and Williams and an army of volunteers also provide breakfast to more than 100 Norfolk residents three mornings a week, and they have a food pantry in the house stocked with donations from local churches. They assist people in other ways, too, cleaning the houses of elderly friends who might otherwise have to leave their homes and helping former residents with their rent. They’re professional do-gooders, essentially, and their actions are funded by donations from supporters.
They also routinely protest violence and militarization. Pacifism is a key tenet of the Catholic Worker movement; Day opposed wars and violence without exception, and objected to public funding being used for weapons rather than to help people. Twice a month, the couple demonstrates in front of Norfolk’s military bases and defense contractors’ offices. Baggarly has participated in several “plowshares actions,” protests that symbolically damage military equipment to show opposition to war. The name comes from a Bible verse about beating swords into plowshares.
Both are motivated by outrage—Baggarly is fond of quoting the Oxfam statistic that eight men have as much wealth as half the world’s population—but it’s their faith that provides the backbone for their alternative lifestyle.
“The place where God dwells among us most intensely is where people are suffering,” explains Baggarly. “So living simply and with people who have nothing is our chance to learn what it is to be a human being. We can tear down the walls in our heart and be open to other people, to the messy work of accepting other viewpoints.”
Spending decades observing injustice up close and watching people struggle has got to be heartbreaking work. But Baggarly has a point: The effort is clearly transformational. Both he and Williams exude tranquility and warmth, with what seems to be a remarkable acceptance of life’s rhythms and our ultimate lack of control over them.
“I think educated white Americans feel, ‘If there’s a problem, I can fix it,’” muses Williams. “But not everything can be fixed. There’s a lot of problems I can’t help.” The question for her, she says, is: “How can I just be with someone, and be kind?”
Their approach to money is particularly unusual. In solidarity with the poor, Baggarly and Williams rarely splurge on themselves and would never consider vacationing in Paris, for instance. And despite being in their early 50s, they aren’t squirreling money away for retirement. They say they don’t think about it much, but are guessing they’ll inherit some money from their parents eventually, and will figure the rest out. It’s called walking by faith: simply trusting that things will come together.
WHILE THERE ARE fundamental similarities among Catholic Worker communities, the movement has a looseness that allows for a range of attitudes. That’s intentional. Dorothy Day in particular “made no attempt to police any of it,” says Harvard professor Dan McKanan, author of the 2008 book The Catholic Worker After Dorothy.
As a result, communities have waxed and waned and morphed over time, usually in step with changes in the country. They flourished during the Great Depression, and then collapsed during the economic boom and patriotism of the World War II years. Houses began to spring up again during the Vietnam conflict, and continued to grow in the 1980s in response to rising homelessness, the nuclear buildup, and Day’s death in 1980. That’s when plowshares actions, the kind Baggarly and Williams have engaged in, hit their heyday.
These days, the latest style is a theological orthodoxy combined with political liberalism, and a movement away from cities—where Catholic Worker houses have traditionally been located—to the land. When he was writing his book in 2008, says McKanan, “the new cutting edge was a swing back to the agrarian ideal by young idealistic folks.” The shift has only increased since then, and today there are Catholic Worker homesteads or sustainable farms in rural areas like Sheep Ranch, California; Lockport, Illinois; Cuba City, Wisconsin; and Louisa, Virginia.
The movement in general has grown. According to the Catholic Worker website, there are now 248 communities in the United States and around the world, just about as many as there have ever been. That’s probably an underestimate, given that Catholic Workers have never gravitated toward counting or codifying. And it doesn’t include the unofficial groups that may be evangelical or even nonreligious but are nonetheless inspired by the model.
Observers are heartened to see that twenty-somethings are still attracted to the movement. “Young people who’ve been exposed to the gospel and principles of justice and love in our world—they look at the Catholic Worker and think, ‘That’s what it looks like,’” says Michael Baxter, a professor at Regis University who has helped found two Catholic Worker houses, one in South Bend and the other in Phoenix.
Because of residents’ physical proximity, living in a community provides a deep education about people and hard times. “We’re all under the illusion that everything we have, we’ve earned, and it’s not really true,” says Baxter. “I remember meeting one guy. He’d watched his wife burn to death in a car accident, and he just went downhill from there. Who of us would be immune from that?”
JOE SROKA AND HIS WIFE MICHELLE are a couple of those young people Baxter was talking about. In their case, the community initially started in Durham, North Carolina, thanks to a handful of Duke Divinity School students who began inviting homeless people in. The Srokas moved the project out to the country in 2015, after most of the other students graduated and left the area. They themselves had married and had a child, and they thought the farming life might be a better fit for their family.
Today, they have two more kids, plus four men who live with them in a sprawling house they rent on a few acres in Chatham County, a mostly white, rural area in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, about 30 miles west of Durham. In that time, they’ve learned to take care of cows and chickens and vegetables; back in May, they slaughtered their first bull. “In two years out here, we have formerly homeless guys who can provide a meal without a grocery store involved,” says Joe, 33.
Living in the country is notably different from urban life because they spend so much time together. “In the city, the house was a place people came and went from,” says Michelle. “We’d have a house meeting and there might be more frustration and conflict. Now, we’re around each other so often—we’ve learned how to work with each other really well.”
The other residents are Larry, who is Joe’s uncle, another Larry, Gene, and Slim. None of them has anywhere else to go besides the streets. A California native who’d been living in the woods in Durham, Slim has been with the community for five years, longer than the others. “This house is about two things: love one another, and God first,” he says. He’s comfortable there, though living in the country means he’s more dependent on the others and their vehicles. “Living with people in a positive way started rubbing off on me. I started forgiving a lot of people, and I started seeing things differently.”
They all take turns cooking and washing the dishes, and with six adults tending to a small homestead, the chores get done without difficulty. The residents say the household functions with ease.
It’s going so well that they’re planning to expand. The Srokas have purchased 45 acres of land nearby and will move the operation there in December, with more animals and more residents, should they arrive. Right now, they’re supported by donations, but the couple envisions the farm eventually supporting everyone.
“Joe and I are just really committed to doing this,” says Michelle, who is 28. Their house, the Community of the Franciscan Way, is actually Episcopalian, but they fully consider it a Catholic Worker community, one that adheres to all of the common ideals.
Joe first started thinking about poverty differently while in divinity school. He was attending a local church, and panhandlers would ask for money before and after morning prayers; it wasn’t uncommon to give out $10 a day. “I asked the priest, ‘Is this right? This isn’t sustainable.’ And he said, “Yeah—when the poor ask of you, you give,” remembers Joe. “That was my first experience with there being no agenda to make the poor into anything else. Not ‘get a job,’ but just accepting them for who they are.”
He and Michelle have been on the same page since day one. Still, being part of a Catholic Worker community has been a huge learning experience for her. It’s fundamentally different from working in a soup kitchen, for example. “What’s missing is the relationship [there],” she says. “For me, one of the best things about this was getting over that fear of poor and homeless people. I have the same reaction as everyone does when they see a homeless person who smells. The point is to learn who they are beyond that, and see them as people.” That makes it more of a two-way exchange, she explains.
Like Baggarly and Williams, they have no retirement plan and little financial cushion. They figure farm work will support them long past retirement age. And their attitude toward material goods is also similar. When asked if they ever worry that a resident might steal something, Joe responds hypothetically, “Is a stolen bicycle more important than a person? If you really believe God created everything, it wasn’t your bike to start with. The poor are doing you a favor by reminding you about it.”
What a radical—and remarkably rare—concept.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer living in Durham, North Carolina.