Catholic Worker Houses of Refuge
By Martin Newell
Living in the Catholic Worker House with our guests, who are refugees, is always an education. News comes to our dinner table of personal connections with bombs in Baghdad, fighting in Libya, drought and famine in Eritrea, of friends trying to cross the Mediterranean or the English Channel from Calais. The effects of wars, climate change, and poverty come close to home, as does the real heroism and reality of people who struggle hopefully against the odds to find and work for a better life. It is a daily reminder that we in Europe have been, as one of our guests has said, ‘living in a dream’ over the years. But reality is coming home.
We try to see Christ in each other, in our guests. But it is far from always a rosy glow, with the usual tensions of communal living- who leaves a mess, who cleans up afterwards, and more. Many of our guests are depressed from trauma, inactivity and lack of money due to not being allowed to do paid work. They worry about friends and family back home who cannot understand how life can be hard in this land of milk and honey where the films and TV show streets paved with gold, or at least luxurious homes furnished with everything a person could ever possibly want or need.
This is life in a house of hospitality. It is also fixing things up when we can, making do, begging for donations, finding things in the street that our more affluent neighbours have thrown out, collecting and sorting donations, writing and speaking of the living faith that makes us do these things. Catholic Worker communities are based in houses of hospitality as places for the practice of the ‘works of mercy’: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless. In doing these things we welcome Christ, as Jesus said in Matthew 25. In Europe, we mostly host destitute asylum seekers.
The Catholic Worker movement is Catholic pacifist, communitarian anarchist, and ecumenical in the widest sense of that word. We try to live as if we are already living in the 'Kindom' of God, where there are no national borders, where food is shared not wasted (not to mention homes and lives), where weapons are disarmed and blockaded, not traded, where work is done because it needs doing, and a simple life makes possible shared joys as well as chores, where the earth is respected, nourished and made beautiful, not exploited and left as, in Pope Francis’ words, ‘an immense pile of filth’.
We started the London CW in 2000. Supporters gathered around prison solidarity for me and Susan van der Hijden as we spent 6 months in prison awaiting trial for the ‘Jubilee Ploughshares 2000’ disarmament action. We had enfleshed the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah ‘they shall hammer their swords into ploughshares’ by hammering on a Trident nuclear weapons convoy vehicle, and were charged with over £30,000 ‘criminal damage’ for our efforts to plant a seed of the reign of the living God among us.
That seed grew into a group of us meeting, building community, praying, sharing, studying, and ‘acting up’. In 2005 we started our first hospitality project, the ‘Urban Table’ drop-in soup kitchen. In 2006 came our first small house of hospitality. The seed has grown into Giuseppe Conlon CW House in Harringay, where 20 male destitute asylum seekers are hosted by a resident community of seven mostly young Christians, and the Catholic Worker Farm in Hertfordshire, which hosts a similar number of women and children. And there’s also Martha House, a sister house in Tottenham, north London. The non-violent witness, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, continues. We have protested the arms trade, military drones, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Libya. We have vigilled outside Home Office reporting and detention centres, the Foreign Office and the Home Office itself, outside army recruitment centres, military bases and the world’s biggest arms firms... among others.
Two years ago I moved to Birmingham to start Austin Smith House of Hospitality with a friend called John. We are members of the Passionist Catholic Religious Order, seeking to combine the genius of the CW with our Passionist charism and tradition. We host six men here, and have made the concrete wilderness of a garden into a composting, veg growing (spuds, onions and garlic) slowly-materialising haven.
Together, we have vigilled outside the Israeli-owned drones engine factory to the north of the city, as well as participating in the liturgy and action at the Ministry of Defence. I’ve also been part of the actions and growth of the ‘Christian Climate Action’ group. Recently, a new Catholic Worker house started up when Br Johannes from London CW moved out to Calais to work with refugees in the camp. The Catholic Worker Movement seeds that we plant spread fast- as they have ever since the beginning of the movement started by Dorothy Day last century. There are now over 200 CW houses of refuge around the world.
Fr Martin Newell is a Passionist brother and Catholic priest. He lives with refugees in the Austin Smith House of Hospitality in Birmingham.