When you do what I do, you end up in often nice hotels in cities that you are unfamiliar with and you have no car. Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to get out more when I’m “urban stuck.”
With it being Lent and all, and seeing as I’ve been so busy at work that have have not made it to even one Lenten meal at church or participated any Stations of the Cross, and in light of the fact that I worked a 16 hour day on Ash Wednesday and could never get any ashes... I was up for something radical.
I walked out the front lobby of the Marriott and into the street in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. I punched in the word “catholic” into my APP called “Around me,” and waited a few seconds. I saw the Catholic Chancery pop up, and then the Des Moines Cathedral, and then, there it was..., I had hit the jackpot!
The Catholic Worker Movement was started by a powerful woman named Dorothy Day. While she came to the Catholic Church through an amazing journey and much of her life found controversial, Day is technically known as "A servant of God," after John Paul II allowed her name to be put forward towards sainthood. She was also named, the first hippie," by peace activist Abbie Hoffman in the early 60's.
I called the number, talked to a guy named Frank and told him that I was in town for work and asked if I could volunteer for the rest of the day. He agreed and so I followed the little blue bouncy ball on my iPhone out of downtown, up a long hill, past a massive Mercy Hospital, over I-35, and into a sketchy neighborhood. I walked past a plasma donor facility, over a lot of broken glass, and I knew I was getting warm.
I turned left on Indiana Street and began to look for the Catholic Worker House. I followed the bouncy blue ball but I walked past where it thought the house was. I wondered if it had moved? Then I looked up the street and saw four people walking together laughing, deep in conversation. The first was a guy of about 25 sporting a mohawk and multiple face piercings. The second person was an Asian woman who was about four feet tall with painted on eyebrows and carrying a large bag. The third was a black guy of about 60 with a scraggly beard and a Cubs hat. The fourth was white woman of about 50 without a tooth in her head. I knew two things for sure about these four people: 1. Norman Rockwell never painted them, and 2., They would know the way to the house.
I approached them and asked them if they could tell me where it was. They laughed and said I had walked right by it, “but you can’t go in the front cause you have to use the back door,” said the lady with no teeth, smiling.
I walked with them into the alley and the mohawk kid told me that “you always have to enter through the alley cause the neighbors don’t like to see us on the street.” There were large picnic tables all over the back yard for eating at when the weather was good. I knocked on the door and the people waiting in line told me “you have to go to the front to get in; this is the food line, dude.” Sheepishly, I took their direction again and eventually knocked on the front door. It opened slowly and I was greeted by an older man named Gilbert. I told him “Frank sent me,” and I was ushered inside.
I’d guess about 50 people were served for that meal. We ran out of the tuna casserole and we had to give people vegetable quiche after that. Even after we ran out of the chips and salsa, no one ever complained. Cookies were very popular. One young guy of maybe 17 asked me, “why are you all orange?” I explained I was here with the Lady Vols and the basketball tournament downtown. “How did you get here?,” was the next question. I came on a plane and then a bus... “When are you going back to Tennessee?” We leave if we lose. “Will you be here tonight for supper?” “Yes,” I replied. “Can I have your shoes?,” the woman with no teeth asked me. They are these really cool day-glow neon green Adidas shoes that I wear so my kids can see me on TV at games. “What size are you,?” I asked. Women’s 8 was her size and I wear 12. “I don’t think I can fit into yours, I’m sorry,” I offered. She smiled and asked me for more veggie quiche.
After we cleaned up, I asked a group of people if they minded if I sat with them outside. They welcomed me with smiles. I met a man from Honduras named Norman who jumped off of a container ship filled with bananas from Central America. He told me he had two decisions back home in his village, “to carry an M-16 or an AK-47. I had to get out of there.” I read a great book a few years ago called “Bitter Fruit” which documented the massive land takeover of rural Guatemala by a railroad magnate and a business guy, both from the U.S. They started the United Fruit Company which managed to create and then corner the market on bananas world-wide until the late 1960’s when it came apart at the seams through their exposed illegal use of child labor, terrible treatment of their workers, and for perpetuating economic slavery of a whole country.
I thought I was a cool guy for reading that book. Now I was sitting with a man that lived through that time and as he told me stories about his life, I began to realize how sheltered I really am even after reading books and traveling the world to the extent that I have.
Later, one of the Workers told me that she was starting a new project and needed help. A big municipl truck had pulled up and dumped a massive load of mulch in the back yard. I was to help spread it along the paths where all the grass had become mud from the many feet coming and going for three meals a day for the last 30 years. Two French guys showed up about that time with an electric car they are driving around the world (seriously) and they pitched in as well.
I finally put my UT pullover on, set my cap on my head and walked out the back door to the alley. The woman with no teeth walked with me. I turned to her and asked, where are you going? She said, “I’m going to walk you back over I-35 until you are in a better area. No one will mess with you if you’re with me.” As we walked, she took out some perscription medication and asked me to read the directions for her. “I don’t like to have people see me with pills, especially for pain. I have a bad back and they give me pain meds for free but I had to promise not to take more it says on the label.” “Do you need glasses,” I asked her? She threw her head back, opened her gummy mouth and laughed hard as she grabbed by arm to steady herself.
When she finally calmed down and after she coughed for a while, she looked straight ahead as we walked and said, “I never learned to read, honey. My eyes are fine.” And so it was that evening as the sun set over Des Moines, that Jesus Himself walked me out of that neighborhood and over the interstate to safety...