Soup With a Smile

It's a cold Friday evening in Denver, and 100 people have gathered at the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen for a free meal. Steamy bowls of cream of chicken soup sit next to servings of tossed salad and slices of apple pie; a friendly volunteer walks around the room, pouring coffee and chatting as amiably as any waitress in town.

Some of the "guests," as the Catholic Workers call the people they serve, sit and talk to themselves, lost in their own world. Others look like they're just coming out of a binge of one sort or another. Some are new in town and are simply getting together the money to rent an apartment but have found themselves homeless while they wait for that first paycheck.

The Catholic Workers have strung multicolored lights across the room; a volunteer is passing out Christmas cards and offering to mail them. But the Christmas spirit seems far away from the dinnertime conversation at one table. Someone has been murdering homeless people in Denver, and everyone at the table fears they will be next.

"The way the murderer sees it, he's doing the world a favor by getting rid of useless people," says Ericka Lear, a young woman who was recently married and just came to Denver with her husband, Len.

The couple was shocked by the cost of renting an apartment here, and both have been working to raise the money. They spent a few days on the street before meeting someone who let them stay in a room at his house for a few days. Ericka, who comes from a middle-class family in Pennsylvania, says that being homeless has been a revelation.

"This country is based on material success, and there's no room for failure," she says. "People see not having a home as a failure, and they don't want to be confronted by it. This is the first time in my entire life I'm not spending Christmas with my family."

Across the table, a man who says his name is Tyrone nods in agreement.

"You've got to be strong, sis," he tells her. "At Christmas, you have to be strong."

Tyrone has spent the last fifteen years traveling from city to city, hitching rides on freight trains. A veteran who served several years in the Army, he wears a dirty down parka and a knit ski hat. Tyrone says that people need someone to look down on, and the homeless fill the bill. "The homeless are the new black man and the new American Indian," he says. "Society has to have somebody to shit on."

He believes that right-wing talk-radio hosts have made it okay for people to despise the homeless. "A lot of people listen to the radio and think they should hate the homeless. But it's a hate crime. It's like picking on a cripple for these people sitting in their large, warm homes to hate homeless people."

The $100,000 reward offered by an anonymous donor to anyone who finds Denver's killer of the homeless makes Tyrone suspicious; he wonders if it's a fraud. "Nobody cares about the homeless that much," he claims.

Except for the Catholic Workers, that is.

"It's only the Christians that feed and clothe the homeless," says Tyrone. "If it weren't for the Catholics, the homeless would be exterminated."

Thousands of Coloradans will go to church this week to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and most of them will probably give little thought to the people huddled along downtown streets or camped out along the Platte River. In a booming economy where one of the most popular game shows is called Greed and employers beg people to come to work, it's hard for many to understand why some people can't make it.

There are 100 different stories on any given night at the soup kitchen. Listening to them makes the usual stereotypes of the homeless as lazy drunks and drug addicts seem empty. Many are here as a result of abusive families, mental illness or just plain bad luck. Some of them do abuse drugs and alcohol, but the Catholic Workers insist that even a drunk is a human being who needs to be fed.

"Serving a meal is really about building a relationship, " says Byron Plumley, who has been involved with the Catholic Worker for the past twenty years. "It goes way beyond serving soup. When you learn to love people without judgment, you understand why they are the way they are. This society doesn't work for some people."

One of the ironies now facing the soup kitchen is that it, too, may soon be homeless. This spring it was evicted from its longtime home at 2412 Welton Street after the owner, Peter Moore, sold the property to Northeast Denver Housing, a nonprofit group that plans to turn three buildings into a mixture of expensive condominiums and affordable housing. The group received a $468,000 interest-free loan from the city.

The Catholic Archdiocese allowed the Catholic Worker, which is not formally a part of the church, to open in an empty building that it owns at 18th Avenue and Logan Street; the building formerly housed the Catholic Central High School. But residents in the Uptown neighborhood complained to the city, which issued a cease-and-desist order. The soup kitchen has appealed that ruling, and a hearing will take place before the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals on February 15. The soup kitchen has been allowed to remain open during the appeal process.

After years of decline, Uptown is suddenly one of the hottest residential markets in the city. Hundreds of upscale apartments and condominiums are being built just across the street from the soup kitchen, and Plumley believes that many of the neighbors think the soup kitchen will be detrimental to property values.

"How do we serve the poor in an area that's becoming increasingly affluent?" he asks. "That's the challenge for us."

Denver's Catholic Worker organization is one of dozens across the country that have set up shelters, newspapers and soup kitchens to serve the homeless. Many people associate the Catholic Worker movement with caring for the poor, but the group's greatest impact over the last sixty years may have been to bring a radical social and political message to mainstream Catholicism.

The Catholic Worker was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York City in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. They opened a soup kitchen and shelter in the Bowery, and from the start, they made it clear that their project was a challenge to mainstream Christianity, which they viewed as complacent and deaf to the suffering on the streets. They raised a radical proposition: Could the man living in the cardboard box and yelling at passersby be Christ himself? When you turn away from the grimy man who asks for change, is it possible you have just rejected Jesus?

The Workers take Christ literally when he says the poor are closest to God.

"We have to care for the most vulnerable," says Plumley. "That's the compassion Jesus demonstrated. That's the radical challenge of the Gospel. As long as one person is hungry or without medical care, we can't be satisfied. As a church we've soft-pedaled that. If it challenges our benefactors, we may not be able to build that building. But we have a Gospel that calls us to voluntary poverty; that's what Dorothy taught us. Anything we have beyond what we really need belongs to the poor."

You don't have to talk for long with anyone involved in the Catholic Worker before Dorothy Day's name comes up. Until her death in 1980, Day was the spiritual guide and taskmaster for the Workers, and her presence still resonates throughout the entire organization. Day's remarkable life story has inspired a Hollywood film, Entertaining Angels, and several biographies. Even two decades after her death, she continues to generate controversy: Last year Cardinal John O'Connor of New York -- one of the church's most prominent conservatives and a former chief Navy chaplain -- proposed her for sainthood. Many of the Workers who were most deeply moved by her life question whether that's a good thing, fearing the church will turn her into a "plaster saint" whom people honor but don't emulate.

Regardless of whether or not there is a Saint Dorothy, her influence on the Catholic Church is clear. While the media usually focuses on the church's conservative positions on moral issues such as abortion, what's often overlooked are the stands the American church has taken on social and political questions, with calls for redistributing the wealth, guaranteeing health care for all and backing the rights of labor over business. The church has also become skeptical of military action overseas. In her life and teachings, Dorothy Day never questioned the authority of the church hierarchy, instead targeting her anger at the secular society that overlooked the anguish of the poor. Her example had a huge impact on Catholicism -- some have suggested she almost single-handedly created the American Catholic left -- and her radical interpretation of Christianity is still stirring up the church.

The daughter of a journalist who covered the horse races for newspapers in Chicago and New York, Day was a rebel almost from the start. In her twenties she became involved in radical politics and was arrested for demonstrating for women's suffrage in front of the White House in 1917. After dropping out of the University of Illinois, she worked as a reporter for a socialist daily in New York and launched a successful writing career that saw her byline appear in several national magazines. In her remarkable memoir, The Long Loneliness, Day recalls interviewing Leon Trotsky and attending a huge rally at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the Russian revolution.

Day eagerly sought out the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, drinking and partying with Eugene O'Neill, John Dos Passos, John Reed and Hart Crane. In his book about the New York literary scene in the 1920s, Exiles Return, Malcolm Cowley wrote that "gangsters admired Dorothy Day, because she could drink them under the table." In her own book, she remembers stumbling home early in the morning from parties and sneaking inside a cathedral to pray. Most of her friends were atheists or agnostics, and she felt that none of them would understand her growing spiritual hunger. For a woman of her time, Day led a remarkably free life, taking on a series of lovers and even having an abortion in 1919. Later she moved in with Forster Batterham, whom she called her common-law husband, and gave birth to a girl in 1927.

The birth of her daughter, Tamar, catalyzed a dramatic change in Day's life. Raised an Episcopalian, she became a Catholic at age thirty and had her daughter baptized in the church. That prompted Batterham to leave her; she also lost many of her radical friends, who viewed the Catholic Church as a bulwark of conservatism and privilege.

For several years Day floundered, wondering how she could reconcile her newfound faith with her outrage at the misery she saw on the Depression-era sidewalks of New York. The meeting with Maurin -- a French man who had heard of Day -- was one of those encounters that echo through history; together they vowed to build an organization that would challenge the church to live up to its own teaching. The first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper -- which is still published monthly and still sells for one cent -- was sold in New York's Union Square on May Day in 1933. The core beliefs haven't changed: that capitalist profit-mongering in the face of poverty is a sin; that war is evil; and that "I was a stranger and you took me in" is not a Gospel piety, but the only way to live a Christian life.

Day spent the rest of her life building the Catholic Worker movement, crisscrossing the country to open "houses of hospitality" (others would call them shelters), march with farm workers, picket with strikers and get arrested in demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

She came to Denver in the late 1970s and met with several Catholic nuns who were interested in the Catholic Worker. "She had deep and wonderful values," recalls Sister Anna Koop, who brought together Denver's first Catholic Worker group in 1977. "Somebody offered her a glass of wine and she said, 'I don't partake of that which makes my brother stumble.' Some people felt like she was stern, but I found her to be disciplined but incredibly caring."

Sister Anna believes that Day has had a huge impact on the church. "I think Dorothy Day is a very important person in American Catholic history. Her creation of a movement focused on solidarity with the poor is a beautiful contribution to Catholicism. She developed a philosophy and theology that considers people who are struggling as part of your family."

The Catholic Worker house opened on Welton Street on July 8, 1978, with room for about twelve residents, and its doors have never closed. Sister Anna and the other Workers live in the house along with the guests; part of the Worker tradition is that there is no hierarchy and no professional staff. Everyone in the house is among a community of equals.

"I've always said that the Catholic Worker is where the far left meets the far right," says Sister Anna. "Republicans love the idea that a lot of money isn't going into bureaucracy when they give a dollar to us."

Plumley's journey into the Catholic Worker movement began in the 1960s when he came to Denver to attend St. Thomas Seminary, intending to become a priest. The son of a Wyoming petroleum engineer, he grew up in an oil camp called Sand Draw and attended a one-room school. When he came to Denver in 1965, he had never seen a black person. As part of his training at the seminary, he began volunteering with the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor. He vividly remembers tending to an elderly African-American man named Mr. Tolliver. His job was to give the bedridden man a shave and a haircut every week, a daunting task since the irascible Mr. Tolliver had a reputation for throwing out his nurses. But the nineteen-year-old Wyoming boy soon struck up a friendship with him.

"We talked about baseball and got along famously," recalls Plumley.

In 1968 Plumley decided he didn't want to be a celibate priest and left the seminary to enroll at the Iliff School of Theology, a Protestant institution. However, he still wanted to be a Catholic, and he wound up studying moral theology at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school. It was the early 1970s, and the Jesuits were heavily involved in the anti-war and civil-rights movements. When Plumley returned to Denver in 1974, he threw himself into social justice efforts, working as a volunteer on several different projects to help the poor.

The Catholic Worker house attracted a community of Christians -- not all of them Catholic -- who wanted to work with the destitute. Many of the Workers look back on the 1980s fondly, remembering a close-knit group that prayed once a week at the gate to Rocky Flats and studied topics like the nuclear arms race.

Shirley Whiteside had come to Denver in the late '70s from Iowa as part of a Mennonite service project. She had never lived in a city before and had never been exposed to homelessness.

"The Catholic Worker house had just started, and somebody told me they were involved with Rocky Flats and I should meet them," recalls Whiteside. "I volunteered often at the house and worked day labor, then wound up living at the house for a year. There was a strong sense of community and purpose. I became a coordinator at the soup kitchen after the person who was doing it, a nun, put up a flag at Rocky Flats and went to prison for two years."

Whiteside has been involved with the soup kitchen for nearly twenty years; she also plays a large role in the Denver Voice, a monthly newspaper for the homeless. She says the core group of people who run the soup kitchen come from several different Christian traditions, but they share a commitment to the "personalist/ anarchist" approach advocated by Day. That philosophy says that if Christians followed the Gospel and tended the wounded human beings in their midst, there would be no need for public or private institutions to warehouse people.

"If we all be the best we can be, we don't need hierarchical models," she says. "This is the best way to respect people and get things done."

"The heart of Dorothy's work is sometimes characterized as corporal works of mercy, to clothe the naked," says Plumley. "It made sense to me. This is what it means to be a Christian."

Like the other Workers, Plumley volunteers part-time at the soup kitchen. He also teaches at Regis University and works for the American Friends Service Committee, where he's currently coordinating a project to deliver medicine to children in Iraq. He makes it clear that the Workers see themselves as radicals. He relishes quoting Dorothy Day's description of capitalism: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

Christians have to face up to the fact that they're living in a society distorted by selfishness and materialism, says Plumley. He wonders why a country as wealthy as the United States can't seem to find the money to treat the mentally ill or house the destitute.

"The Catholic Worker is not just about charity, but about justice," he says. "Beneath the surface is the question: Why are people without food or medical care or housing? Gandhi said there is enough for everyone's need but not enough for everyone's greed. I'm terribly disappointed that in our Christian churches we don't hear Christ's message of compassion and love in the most radical way. Martin Luther King said he would be an extremist for love. We need to allow that to stir in our soul."

The Catholic Workers may not believe in bureaucracy and regulation, but the City of Denver does.

In September, Denver said the soup kitchen was in violation of zoning laws and would have to close. The Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen immediately appealed and will remain open at least until the zoning hearing in February.

Kent Strapko, city zoning administrator, says his department received a complaint about the soup kitchen almost as soon as it opened. He says the city considers the kitchen a commercial enterprise, so it's not permitted under the zoning rules. The Catholic Workers never contacted his office to see if the soup kitchen would be allowed, says Strapko.

"A soup kitchen, by ordinance, is called an eating place," he says. "They either have to be in a business district or an accessory to another use. Basically, they need to find a place where they're automatically allowed."

Strapko adds that Denver is opposed to locating most soup kitchens and shelters in any one neighborhood and would prefer to see those facilities scattered around the city. "We don't want concentrations of social service uses in one place," he says.

That's exactly the problem, according to the leader of the neighborhood association that is trying to close the soup kitchen. "This area has been ghettoized by soup kitchens, shelters and facilities for the poor," says Ted Freedman, president of the Enterprise Hill Homeowners Association. "I think it's irresponsible to bring drug addicts and drunks into a residential area."

Freedman says his group has seen an increase in illegal activity in Benedict Fountain Park since the soup kitchen opened nearby. "There's been fighting, drug use, drinking and public urination," he says.

There are already dozens of outfits serving the poor within ten blocks of his home, he adds, like the Denver Rescue Mission, the St. Francis Center, Samaritan House and the Salvation Army. He believes Uptown could have a bright future as a residential neighborhood that's close enough to downtown for people to walk to work. But if new residents are scared away by the street people, the neighborhood renaissance now under way will be crushed.

"The area around downtown is where we should be encouraging residential development. Instead we're concentrating poor people here."

Freedman insists his group does care about the poor, but he says residents are tired of seeing their neighborhood used as a metrowide dumping ground for the homeless. "People know the homeless are a problem, but they want them out of sight, where they don't have to deal with them," he says.

The homeowners' association has been meeting with Shirley Whiteside but has been unable to reach a compromise with the Workers.

"Shirley is a very good-hearted person, but she sees those people an hour or two a day. We deal with them the rest of the day," says Freedman.

Whiteside says the objections to the soup kitchen are all about money and real estate. "I don't think it's really about too many soup kitchens or trash in the park," she says. "I think it's about wanting to create development. It's about property values. What else could it be about?"

For his part, Freedman admits that he'd like to see the former Catholic high school property sold and redeveloped into housing. "I'd like to get the Catholic Church to sell that property," he says. "They could take the money and buy the Catholic Workers a facility. I think it would be a win-win situation."

So far, the Archdiocese hasn't decided what it wants to do with the suddenly valuable site. There has been talk about using the building as a school again, but no decisions have been made.

"We're in the process of determining what the use could be," says Greg Kail, spokesman for the Archdiocese. "We're putting together a task force to look at it."

Kail says the Archdiocese leased the basement of the building to the Workers because "we feel we have a responsibility toward the most vulnerable of our population." He adds that the church made it clear the soup kitchen could only stay there temporarily while it looked for a permanent home. The Catholic Workers have been searching for an affordable location but have been unsuccessful so far.

While the future of the soup kitchen is up in the air, dozens of people still show up every evening, looking for a hot meal and a bit of companionship before heading back onto the streets. Sitting at a table inside the soup kitchen, all this talk of real estate development and zoning seems unreal. Simple survival is the daily special here.

Paul is a good-looking middle-aged man with flecks of grey in his dark hair; he could easily walk down 17th Street and be mistaken for an accountant. But Paul lives in his car. Intelligent and articulate, he worked as a property manager for a large company in Denver in the 1980s, then lost everything in the bust that brought down the company. His wife left him, the bank took back his house, and his life spiraled downhill. Unable to find a job, he sunk into depression. Since then, he's been homeless off and on. He's about to get a job working construction, but on this cold night, he'll be sleeping underneath a pile of blankets and a sleeping bag in his car.

"It's cold, but it's better than the street," Paul says with a shrug.

He showers at city recreation centers and takes meals here several times a week. Until September he was living in a duplex, but he got kicked out when he couldn't make the rent. "I screwed up," he says.

When Paul talks about his teenage son, whom he sees now and then, his eyes well up. "Do you have someone to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with?" he asks. "That's nice."

According to Paul, half the people who come to the soup kitchen are crazy. He thinks the rest are divided between those who don't want to work and others whose lives have been ruined by alcohol or drugs.

Across the table, a young black man with a kind face moans as he eats his soup. "My name is Charles," he says, hunched over the bowl. He grew up in New Mexico, then came to Denver a couple of years ago when he heard there was work here. He had a good job, an apartment in Capitol Hill and a girlfriend.

Then one day his girlfriend introduced him to crack cocaine, and everything went to hell.

He's lost touch with his family. Charles says two of his brothers are already dead, and he doesn't seem to think the others would want to hear from him. He has a young daughter in California and says her mother is a good, kind woman, but he doesn't want to call them, either.

Nobody wants to be around a crackhead.

Now he spends his days walking the streets, trying to decide if his life is worth saving. If he could give up the crack, the Denver Rescue Mission has a program that helps people restart their lives. But he doesn't know if he can.

"Sometimes I wish the homeless killer would kill me while I'm sleeping," says Charles. "If I had sleeping pills, I'd take them."

Your daughter misses you. She wonders where you are, says the stranger across the table. Don't give up -- you still have something to give to the world.

Charles smiles wanly as he bundles up to head back to the streets. "Thank you for thinking about me," he says before disappearing into the dark.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers