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Jan 2003 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Breaking Dumpstered Bread Together
By Amanda E. Doyle

In truth, the sandwich might've been a little less appealing to me had I known its ingredients — and the glistening slice of cantaloupe beside it — were recently liberated from the trash.

But it was lunch time, and I was hungry, and engrossed in the story of the Dorothy Day Cohousing Community; only when I asked how the seven-household group supported itself financially did community member Carolyn Griffeth give me a sidelong glance and a smile as she said, "We try to live simply; for one thing, almost all our food, including what we're eating, is dumpstered." (If my taste buds are a reliable guide, I think a Bread Co. asiago cheese bagel formed the canvas for my magnificent veggie sandwich...)

Economical food choices (downright distasteful, to some) are just one aspect of the emergent cohousing community that subverts the individualistic, capitalist paradigm at every turn. But to know something of Dorothy Day Cohousing, you first need to know something of Karen House.

Dorothy Day Karen House is a Catholic Worker "house of hospitality," based on principles set forth by Catholic Worker movement founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s. Though there is no single, guiding doctrine or organization serving as an umbrella for the Catholic Worker (as the movement is known), all the various outposts across the world generally subscribe to radical nonviolence, personalism, living in voluntary poverty alongside the homeless and disadvantaged, and daily practice of the Christian works of mercy (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and so on). At Karen House, a core group of about eight Catholic Worker volunteers share the former convent with about 30 guests, forming a house of hospitality with homeless women and their children. The house runs only with the donated labor and resources of volunteers, as different groups volunteer to "take house" and do the necessary tasks of running Karen House on a daily basis.

Jenny Truax, a Catholic Worker at Karen House, sees her contribution this way: "It's a way to address the causes of things, to connect the suffering and woundedness we see on our streets with what we see happening in the world."

The comfort and hospitality found at Karen House paves the way for many of its guests to find more stable and fulfilling lives. However, it was never designed to be long-term living, and with a constant waiting list for rooms, women and their children soon feel themselves ready to move out and "move up," into more permanent housing, jobs and lives.

But it's not easy to make it in the rough-and-tumble world, particularly if you're a formerly homeless woman now looking for whatever work (at minimum wage) you can find, wherever it is (at the end of a long bus ride, probably in a suburb far from home), and coming home to whatever substandard housing your salary affords you, to find your children, left unattended while you worked all day, running loose and in danger — of drugs, boredom, violence and more.

So when some former guests at Karen House ran into that situation themselves, they figured there had to be a better way. Thus was born the Dorothy Day Cohousing Community.

"We had a group of people who were asking, 'Why can't we have community for life?'" remembers Carolyn Griffeth. "Why can't we find a place that provides the love and support and attention that we experienced at Karen House, but to last a lifetime?"

That vision appealed to Griffeth and her family — husband Terry and son Gana, adopted from Mongolia, where her sister works with abandoned children — as they were seeking an intentional community that would allow them to live as they wished, in intentional poverty and radical nonviolence. (Griffeth is possibly the only person who's ever seriously looked at a Starbuck's — one cropped up near her former Catholic Worker community in Chicago — and figured, "There goes the neighborhood.") And so, newly married and with a seven-year-old son in tow, Carolyn and Terry paid $7,000 for a home near Karen House and "honeymooned at Home Depot."

The experiment in community, now more than a year old, has been difficult and beautiful. Griffeth feels daily a "beautiful spirit of tolerance and love," but freely admits that living in community — true community — is hard. An up-close-and-personal experience of the daily grind of poverty, and the omnipresence of countless kids (two families in the cohousing community are composed of single moms with eight children each), the material sacrifice and the seemingly endless meetings can all take their toll.

"A lot of what brings us together is just the needs of life," says Griffeth. "Living in real community means some hard conversations and telling difficult truths about yourself and other people." The cohousing community pools resources to pay the rent for some members, and to cover other group expenses. One of the larger families just moved into a rehabbed three-story building completed entirely by volunteers from DeSmet Jesuit high school.

Darryl and Carolyn As with anyone living a life in St. Louis, there's also the constant backdrop of race. Griffeth is pretty upfront about the challenges that arise when whites and blacks try to live together; the cohousing group is evenly split between blacks and whites (with one Mongolian little boy), but the whites have all chosen to live in poverty, while the blacks are all the former homeless. Reminiscing with a neighbor's son about some of the early encounters among the families, Griffeth says, "I like to say that living in community is really all about my family giving Darryl's family something to laugh about." ("That's because some of what you do is just weird," explains Darryl.)

Despite the hard work of community, it's also easy to see many of the benefits. The community's children truly seem to be "owned" by the whole community; they play together, study together, make art together. Darryl, one of eight brothers and sisters, summarized one benefit this way: "My mom has eight kids; she wouldn't want to take just me somewhere. But in the cohousing community, I know that if I go find someone else and bug them long enough, they'll probably give in and I get to do something for just me."

Already, the cohousing community has proven a desirable model, and others in the neighborhood — as well as many other former Karen House guests — would like to be involved. However, what's next is anyone's guess. The Dorothy Day Cohousing Community is at capacity; "you can only have meaningful personal relationships with so many people," Griffeth points out.

And in the end, that's what it's all about for these community homesteaders. In an interesting twist on the notion of a global community, a world shrinking every day such that we are all meaningfully connected, the Catholic Worker in St. Louis has taken a decidedly telescoping approach. In a recent issue of "The Round Table," a newsletter published by the St. Louis Catholic Worker community, advice from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton was reprinted:

"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless, and even achieve no result at all...As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything."

To volunteer your time or make a donation to Karen House or the Dorothy Day Cohousing Community, call Karen House at 314-621-4052.

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