The Wobblies’ slogan, “We are forming the structure of a new society within the shell of the old,” is a good description of the way the London Catholic Worker (LCW) creates space both inside and out, in which to carry out its work. Being an urban movement, that space could be domestic, a house of hospitality, or a shared meal on Sunday afternoons. Or that space could be on the streets, reclaimed temporarily for resistance, in Whitehall, the center of government, outside the head offices of a global corporation, or outside a weapons factory.
In this essay, I look at examples of LCW work indoors and out, followed by the way the in which the LCW has had to adapt to external circumstances. The pandemic restrictions on gathering indoors, for instance, have had a lasting effect on the way the LCW can offer hospitality. As a thread, I recount reflections of volunteers on the spirituality that sustains the LCW through fellowship, prayer, planning, and consideration of the questions thrown up by community life and practicing radical hospitality.
The LCW provides the physical space for the “daily practice of the works of mercy,” in which we, volunteers, learn to see the face of Christ in those we serve. It provides a space for encounters with people and ideas we had never heard of before, a space in which, as Peter Maurin wrote, “people learn to use their hands as well as their heads” (128). The LCW is a meeting point, a crossing place, where people from widely differing backgrounds come together. In this crossing place, they serve each other, find out about each other, discern their future, and perhaps move on.
It creates the gathering space for bible study while always, as Daniel Berrigan advises, keeping the daily newspaper close at hand. It is a place to learn about Christian Anarchism, with the help of writers and activists such as Ched Myers, Daniel Berrigan, and John Dear, while simultaneously drawing on our personal experience and awareness of the current political situation, at home and internationally.
The LCW grew out of and contributes to extensive Christian and secular, anarchist and pacifist networks. It has strong connections with groups working for peace, climate justice, and support for the homeless and refugees. The LCW interacts with informal networks, such as those that exist among people on the street and among refugees on the move.
Fr. Martin Newell CP, a founding member of the LCW, lists as his influences Pax Christi UK, the Simon Community, the Liverpool and Oxford Catholic Workers (both now closed), and the copies of the US Catholic Worker newspaper he found at the back of a parish church. When Fr. Martin was imprisoned for six months after a Ploughshares action against Trident in 2000, a group formed to support him from the outside. It called itself the London Catholic Worker. The LCW has continued with this work, supporting prisoners such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and the Kings Bay Ploughshares, and campaigning against deportation and detention of refugees.
The LCW first founded a house of hospitality and community cafe in Hackney in 2005. It then moved to Haringey in 2010 when the Archdiocese of Westminster made a disused church and presbytery available. The London boroughs of Hackney and Haringey are both home to culturally and socially diverse communities. They have a centuries old tradition of political and religious dissent. Despite being just a few miles from the City of London, visible signs of increased homelessness and destitution caused by austerity and harsh immigration policies and now the pandemic are present on our high streets.
Giuseppe Conlon House is run by a community of volunteers and relies on donations and grants. It offers accommodation to twenty men who cannot work or claim state benefits because of their immigration status. Individual community members practice voluntary poverty and live in solidarity with the guests while volunteers from the local parishes help with cooking, driving, building maintenance, preparing a newsletter, and organizing events.
It is a space for living alongside, in various degrees of closeness, individuals who are among the most vulnerable in society, with all the challenges that entails. The physical sharing of space forces us to question the differences between us: owning a passport or not, having a family nearby or not, being allowed to work or not. Ghazal Tipu told me, “While I was working, I made a conscious decision to speak to the guests when I got home from work. But I’d come knowing that my life with a job is the life the guests want.” She added, “There is something about bricks and mortar”. Giuseppe Conlon House is a place which past volunteers and friends return to again and again while activists use the space to rest and organize, broadening networks and building community.
The Catholic Worker is unique in combining resistance to state violence and the care work of radical hospitality. As Sr. Katrina Alton CSJP writes, “I love the incarnational nature of the CW; the call to community, hospitality and resistance. [..]I learned more about myself and my relationship with God in that year living in the LCW than at any previous time in my life. I can’t imagine I would have ever discerned my call to religious life without my time at the LCW.”
The LCW is not confined to a particular building or location. For example, on Good Friday, we follow “Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love,” around Westminster. Our stations are the government departments that create inhumane immigration and welfare policies and the arms companies that fuel endless wars. We create a tiny church with our bodies, our voices, some home-made placards, and candles.
Many times over, resistance against climate injustice and state violence leads us to the places where we can see and understand reality. In 2011, I joined the LCW and other faith groups in a blockade of AWE Aldermaston, the nuclear weapons factory. Lying on the road, very close to a police horse’s hooves, I had my first encounter with the imaginative, meditative experience of participating in nonviolent direct action. I slowly grasped the reality of the factory behind me and my own tax paying complicity. It was an act of penance and with it the mysterious love that comes when, as the Psalm says, “mercy and truth shall kiss”.
“The world in which our communities are trying to carve out a little space is marked by oppression and alienation,” Nora Ziegler, volunteer, writes in an unpublished letter to the Giuseppe Conlon House community.
Br Johannes Maertens founded a LCW sister house, Maria Skobtsova House in Calais, France from which to offer hospitality to vulnerable refugees. When I visited Calais, I found oppression and racism written clearly in the paraphernalia of the UK hard border, the riot police and towering fences. Ever since the Jungle camp was destroyed in 2016, refugees have been camping in the woods. Their possessions, sleeping bags, and tents are routinely confiscated and NGOs distributing food are harassed. When I last visited in 2018, Maria Skobtsova House lent its own domestic space to groups of young people on the move to cook, shower, wash their clothes, and pray.
Through this work, the Catholic Worker offers a way in which to respond to the Gospel that goes far beyond humanitarian work. As Br. Johannes told me, “I’m not just washing your clothes because they’re dirty. I’m not just cooking for you because you’re hungry. I do this for you because you are my brothers and sisters.”
The anarchist roots of Catholic Worker tradition make the LCW well placed to adapt to changing conditions and to serve mobile networks, however hard it is to sustain this work in the long run.
As the authorities fenced off the areas of industrial wasteland where migrants gathered, volunteers shifted locations, and went into the woods to hand out boiled eggs, bottles of water and bread, even firewood. Similarly in London during the pandemic, the LCW had to react quickly.
With churches and church halls closed, the pandemic restrictions have created a situation where the LCW has had to disband and regroup. Sam Hickford wrote during the first lockdown, “The Catholic Worker stays indoors.” But, in fact, outdoors is where it is possible to meet our friends, have chance encounters with past guests in the street and on the underground, and persevere with the work of hospitality.
The old schoolroom of the Roundchapel, Hackney, is the space for our weekly Sunday meal, Urban Table, where volunteers prepare and share a meal with street people. Since the beginning of March 2020 this venue has closed its doors to all community projects, but not commercial ones, forcing the LCW to question how it does this work. Not being able to encounter friends from Urban Table in the cozy hall over a cup of tea, and with vulnerable people being told to stay at home, has meant food hand-outs and distribution networks instead of sharing food. It has meant increasing the gulf between volunteers and guests.
In practice, this has meant cooking twice as many meals and teaming up with a local foodbank and mutual aid group. It has meant taking food out to people who perhaps don’t want it and handing out food in places where we would rather not go, such as the close atmosphere of betting shops. It means working with new volunteers who might have never heard of the LCW. It has meant asking what I can do as an individual, taking water, cereal bars, boiled eggs to the team of beggars that take up position on the high street.
“To build a new world within the shell of the old therefore requires continuous struggle, self-examination, periods of stagnation and renewal.” Nora Ziegler writes, “Mounier wouldn’t want us to be rigid in the roles we take on.”
To comply with COVID rules on social distancing, most of the guests at Giuseppe Conlon House were moved into hotel accommodation provided by local authorities. The community had to ‘let go’ of the structures of their daily life. Meanwhile, they undertook a visioning process during which they asked what kind of hospitality the house could offer while improving the experience of guests and volunteers. With the end of restrictions, the wider community is beginning to regroup with the desire for fellowship, bible study, and reflection.
The London Catholic Worker gathered together out of the double broad strands of peace activism and work for the homeless. As it adapts to outside and internal changes, it remains both a welcome and a challenge to people of faith. My own and other volunteers’ experience of Giuseppe Conlon House and Maria Skobtsova House is evidence of a resource that has made space for transformational encounters, inspiration, motivation for action, and opportunities for discernment that far outstrip the opportunities generally available to lay people.