Soup With a Smile

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"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."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers