‘Family reunion’ unites Midwest Catholic Workers

Outside the Sugar Creek Retreat Center Sept. 17, Lincoln Rice talks during a discussion on the goal of the Catholic Worker movement. He is a member of the Casa Maria Catholic Worker house in Milwaukee. At left is Alice McGary of the Mustard Seed Community Farm in Ames.

By Celine Klosterman

SUGAR CREEK — At home, some of the Catholic Workers who traveled here last weekend give people in need a meal and place to shower. Some minister to Latinos. Others offer hospitality to women and children. Several maintain small, sustainable farms.

Many of those taking a break from their ministry at the Midwest Catholic Worker gathering were young adults. A handful of them have been Catholic Workers for less than a year; others have been serving those in need for decades.

But nearly 200 people at the annual event Sept. 16-18 shared a common goal, according to Chris Elam of the Bloomington Christian Radical/Catholic Worker in Bloomington, Ind. “We’re trying to transform people’s lives: ours first, others second. This isn’t just about providing meals — which is great, but transformation takes more work.”


For attendees, who represented 28 communities in eight states and Mexico, the gathering offered a place to share stories, tips and concerns with friends journeying toward that transformation. Midwest Catholic Workers have met annually for about 30 years at the Sugar Creek Retreat Center, where a Davenport Catholic Worker tended a garden decades ago, said Frank Cordaro of the Des Moines Catholic Worker community.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Brian Terrell said. He and his wife, Betsy Keenan, spent several years with Catholic Worker communities in New York and Davenport before founding the Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker farm in Maloy, Iowa.

“It’s really helpful for people starting houses to have the chance to talk with someone a year ahead of them, who’s going through the same problems,” Keenan said. “It leaves you feeling reinforced in your commitments and values, which are pretty countercultural.” Those principles include nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for marginalized people.

On Sept. 17, some Catholic Workers discussed how to carry out their ministry while working toward those ideals. Is technology necessary or a distraction? Does accepting donated leftovers imply you condone a culture of excess? How do you resolve issues that come with living in community?

For some Catholic Workers, a key challenge is serving the poor while working full-time. In a small-group discussion, electrical engineer Frank Bergh said the White Rose and Su Casa communities in Chicago have offered a balance to his day job. But coworkers don’t always understand his ministry. And it can be challenging to apply Catholic Worker values at the office, he said.

As a community organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, David Goodner said he’s glad to be able to embrace his values at work. He has also liked living in the Des Moines Catholic Worker community for more than two years, but wondered: “How do you not get burnt out?”

No one he posed the question to offered an easy solution. But the discussion itself helped Goodner. “I can feel the stress wearing away just knowing you guys are in the same boat,” he said.

Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA, who volunteers with the White Rose community, also appreciated the camaraderie. “These people desire the same world I do,” she said during a break Saturday before Mass, skits and a talent show. “I’m enriched by their wisdom and experience. This has been really valuable in my discernment of how I’m called to live the Gospel.”

Last year’s gathering helped Michael Gayman, who founded the Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker house in Davenport in 2010, discern how to approach his ministry. Keenan advised him to stay small; now he welcomes just a few guests to his home at a time.

“I’m the only Catholic Worker in my house, so this is my community,” he said of the Catholics gathered in Sugar Creek.

View a group photo from the Catholic Worker gathering http://www.catholicmessenger.org/shared-content/gallery/?galleryid=3&gallery_page=0&album_page=0&albumid=5&mediaid=476

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