Soup With a Smile

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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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers