2001 June v.p. TWENTY FIVE YEARS – REFLECTIONS FROM A CO-FOUNDER… p. 1
BY FR FRANK CORDARO
“No one asked us to do this work. The mayor of the city did not come and ask us to run a bread line or a hospice to supplement the municipal lodging house. Nor did the Bishop or Cardinal ask that we help out the Catholic Charities in their endeavor to help the poor. No one asked us to start an agency or an institution of any kind. On our responsibility, because we are our brother’s keeper, because of a sense of personal responsibility, we began to try to see Christ in each one that came to us. If a man came hungry, there was always something in the ice box. If he needed a bed and we were crowded, there was always a quarter around to buy a bed on the Bowery. If he needed clothes, there were our friends to be appealed to, after we had taken the extra coat out of the closet first, of course. It might be someone else’s coat but that was all right too. “
Twenty five years ago Aug 23, 1976 our first house at 713 Indiana the DMCW community received our first guest. There were just two of us in the beginning, Jo DaVia and myself.
I first met Joe DaVia in the Fall of 1975. He was working at a Public Radio station in Cedar Rapids IA with Jacquee Dickey. At the time I was a seminarian for the diocese of Des Moines doing an internship at Center East, the Catholic Student Center for the U of IA in Iowa City. That Fall, the three of us spent a lot of time talking about our Faith, our lives, our hopes and desires to serve the poor and about the Catholic Worker movement. I had just spent the Summer living and working at the Davenport Catholic Worker. Jacquee had been reading the NY Catholic Worker news paper for several years and was in contact with the Catholic Worker community in Kansas City MO. And Joe ‘God Bless Him” was taken up with our enthusiasm for the Catholic Worker movement and was a good friend and support for Jacquee and my budding young romance.
In the Spring of 1976 I dropped out of seminary, falling in love and the lure of the Catholic Worker life was just too much to resist. I decided I wanted to start a Catholic Worker in my own home town of Des Moines. Jacquee was already lined up to join the Catholic Worker community in Kansas City MO. We both teamed up to persuade Joe DaVia to quit his job and come join me in Des Moines.
So in the summer of 1976 monies were raised to put a down payment on our first Catholic Worker house at 713 Indiana. In Aug Joe DaVia moved to Des Moines and on Aug 23rd we were hosting our first guest.
You don’t need to get the permission of your local Bishop to start a Catholic Worker community. On the other hand, it don’t hurt to have the Bishop’s blessings. This was the case with Bishop Dingman. On the same day I told Bishop Dingman that I wanted to drop out of the seminary, I also told him that I was in love and that I wanted to return to Des Moines and start a Catholic Worker community. Blessed Bishop Dingman did not hesitate in welcoming the idea and supporting me in the the effort.
Known as the Bishop of movements, Bishop Dingman welcomed all kinds of movements into the diocese. He had a special appreciation and high regard for the Catholic Worker movement and for Dorothy Day, its co-founder. He also put a great deal of trust and love in me. This was not unique with Bishop Dingman, for he trusted and loved many people. It was unique and special to me for I came to greatly value Bishop Dingman’s love and trust.
In the years and struggles to follow, that trust was put to the test. With a lot of hard work, a bishops who’s mercy and understanding knew no bounds and a mountain of God’s good graces, Bishop Dingman’s love and trust in me and for the DMCW community only grew and got better.
Bishop Dingman was one of our most faithful supporters, donating personal monies and resources to our efforts and projects. He celebrated Friday Night Masses at our houses on a regular bases and he officially blessed each of our first three house when they came on line.
In April of 1977, before Sugar Creek became the designated place for the annual Midwest Catholic Worker gathering, the DMCW hosted a Mid-West Catholic Worker gathering in Bishop Dingman’s residence. It was a big old beautiful mansion, south of Grand Ave in an old and wealthy part of Des Moines. Eight communities were represented at the gathering. The Bishop celebrated the Eucharist with us on Saturday morning. His hospitality for those who do hospitality for the poor was the thing I remember most about that weekend.
Even though there as yet no “Touch Down Mary” tradition started at that time, the Sat night talent show that year was “over the top”! Do any of you old timers remember who played Peter Maurin, Mother Teresa and Pope Dawn the First at that Saturday night talent show?
Bishop Dingman was not around to bless our fourth house so we acquired his blessing by naming our fourth house after him. The Dingman House is now the house where we do most of our hospitality, fittingly so.
“The hospitality offered at the DMCW has glowed with the colors of a real home. Not the cold institution where the unwilling are sent, but a home where friendship and concern are shared along with food, shelter and clothing.” Joe DaVia “On Hospitality” via pacis Vol 1 No. 1 Nov 1976
These were the opening words from Joe DaVia’s first column of “On Hospitality” in the first issue of v.p. From the very beginning the art of doing hospitality has played a central and defining place in the life of the DMCW. Over the years we’ve offered different kinds of hospitality to thousands of people.
We started by doing emergency housing to women and families. This was the type of hospitality that we’ve consistently done during most of our existence. In the late 70’s we specialized at times in battered women and run away teens. This was before there were domestic violence centers and run away shelters in Des Moines. Our efforts often helped early groups in Des Moines to start addressing the housing needs of battered women and run away children.
We varied between short term and long term hospitality depending on the guest and our communal and space limits. Our community help set up an over night shelter system in different Churches during the winter months in the early 80’s. This effort eventually grew into the current Church’s United Shelter in Des Moines. We offered housing and sanctuary to Central Americans through out the 80’s and 90’s.
Today we do off the street day time hospitality to needy folks in our neighborhood. Right now we have a weekly legal clinic going and a free food store. With the arrival of Richard Flamer our hospitality efforts have reached all the way to Chiapas Mexico and the Mayan Self Help Center we are helping to build and run.
What ever form our hospitality takes or what ever work of mercy we attempted to fulfill, we’ve tried to live up to the family qualities of hospitality that Joe pointed to in the first issue of the v.p. These are the same qualities implied in to the personalism that sets the Catholic Worker movement apart from most others. And the DMCW has its own distinct Midwest ways of doing things; like keeping it simple, small and at a reasonable pace. If we are anything, we are neighborly.
The DMCW picked up the spirit of nonviolent resistance to war and militarism early in our history. We call for our first public fast in Des Moines in Jan of 1977 to call attention to the growing military budget and the unlikelihood of the than new US President, Jimmy Carter doing anything about it. In Aug of that same year I attended a Jonah House two week seminar retreat and did my first act of civil disobedience with an Aug 9th blood spilling on the pillars of the Pentagon. I served a month in jail, my first experience of jail.
Since than our community has organized or supported a multitude of legal and illegal protest, rallies, prayer services, vigils, fasts, leafleting, sit ins, blockades, line crossings, fence hopping, street theater, marches and occupations, from NYC to Los Vegas NV, from Wash DC to Malloy IA. The list of issues addressed in these efforts include; war, nuclear weapons and power plants, the death penalty, family farms, the homeless, US foreign and economic policies, war taxes, abortion, the destruction of the environment and the registration for the draft.
Faith based nonviolent direct actions and resistance to flawed and evil producing systems and structures, what St Paul called the “Powers and Principalities”, is a well established charism of the Catholic Worker movement. We’re not afraid to call the Berrigan brothers Dan and Phil our Rabbis and Jonah House the Mother House of US faith based resistance to war and the ways of war.
You have only to look through a collection of back issue of the v.p.s to see how consistently and regularly these concerns and resistance ways are part of our DMCW tradition. In this issue alone, there are reports of friends in jail and friends going to jail, announcements of future protest at SOA and at the STRATCom.
Doing hospitality for the poor and nonviolent resistance are what the virtues of peace and justice look like in practice.
All of the hospitality and resistance that we been able to do is directly related to the measure of community life we’ve been able to sustain. In this regards, one of the best thing to happen to the DMCW is that it survived it’s co-founder, me. I was in the DMCW the first seven years before I returned to the seminary. I’m not sure I ever did community well during those years. And I’m sure there are a number of people still around who would back me up on this.
In our 25 year history over 150 people came through as community members, so there’s at least 150 different versions of what DMCW community life was all about.
Of all the things we do at the DMCW, living well in community is the hardest. Yet, without it we could not do the work, live the life style and be the personalist we claim.
The DMCW community of 2001 is the closest I’ve ever experienced of a true communal effort. We are 13 adults and three children living in three houses. We are an older crowd than most C.W.er communities with 10 of the 13 adult members being over 50 years old. We are a truly inner racial community with four African Americans. There are six military vets in our community. There is no single leader amongst us. We are a community where leadership is shown by doing, not directing. In this regard each one of us contributes something unique and of value to the whole.
Still, if the DMCW were an NBA team, Carla Dawson would have to be our Franchise player. She does it all; she’s raising her three boys in our community, she has a full time job at Head Start, she’s going to college, she keeps our books and does more than her share of hospitality. When it comes to the people we serve, no one loves them more and there is no one our guest respect more than Carla. Backing Carla up, one half step behind her is her sister Jackie Robinsin. Having these two women in our community is like living with Elijah and Elisha at the same time. We having a saying within the community these days, “We who live in fear of Carla.” ‘Fear’ in the best sense, like the fear of God, we know Carla loves us, that she loves the DMCW and that any words of correction and discipline are really words of love and concern.