The Birth of The Burning Bush: The Center for the Working Poor
BY PAUL ENGLER
Our project is called The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor, and has a fancy new website which can be reached at: centerfortheworkingpoor.org. We take our biblical name from the unexpected signal God gave Moses to free his people from poverty and oppression— the burning bush that would never die. So now I am delivering food to local families living below the poverty line and editing a paper about poverty in America, also called The Burning Bush.
The Full Story:
It has been my dream to start The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor since I was a little kid. This may seem improbable, since we just came up with the name two months ago and, besides, who would dream of being poor when they are grew up? I know it sounds strange, but I did. Even before I knew anything about Saint Francis (the saint of voluntary poverty), I discovered and loved stories about Chinese monks and circus jugglers who would wander the world, spontaneously expressing their talents and living off the generosity of strangers.
In High School, just before graduation, members of my senior class were interviewed for the school paper about their dreams. Most of the seniors professed desires to go out into the world and become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Since I was a good student and the student body president, earlier in the year my classmates had voted me “most likely to be President of the United States.” The reporter was then befuddled when I professed that my dream was to be a guru bum, to wander into religious monasteries, join the traveling circus, or live with the poor. Many might think it would be easy to drop out, get paid nothing, and serve the poor. But for me it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Now, my dream has come true—I am really a poor man. However, my voluntary poverty is very different than the involuntary working poverty of those we serve.
On January 6, 2006, after lots of fasting and prayer, I founded The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor. I am now the “director” of an interfaith intentional community that serves the working poor and publishes a paper about poverty, operating in the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement. I donated almost all of my savings ($8,000 dollars), my car, and my apartment to the center. I sleep on the floor, eat some variation of rice and beans every day, and get paid a “stipend” of $200 a month. While the lifestyle may not sound appealing to most, it does draw in some. Two days after I started, another person joined the community.
I was a little self-conscious to tell the first family I delivered food to how I lived my life. After some confusion, and translation problems, the family showed a level of sympathy that both caught me off guard and touched me deeply. The mother said, “You are a warrior.”
What do you do?
Although I had my difficulties learning Spanish, I always had an emotional affinity with the low-wage, immigrant workers whom I served as a union organizer. In developing the Center’s programs I want to serve the same basic constituency—especially the single moms that are so common amongst the hotel maids in the union I worked for. Many hotel maids are paid $8.00 per hour which, in LA, means living in poverty.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, thirty-seven million people live in poverty in the United States. This is a shocking fact in itself, especially considering things are getting worse. In the last thirty years poverty has changed from something that had primarily afflicted the homeless, unemployed and jobless to something experienced by those who work, commonly full-time. Today, the majority of those that live in poverty also work. They show up for work and work hard, yet are not paid enough to support their families. When good church people or members of the public think about poverty, they think about bums and “welfare moms.” It is hard for most people to really understand the change that has taken place. “Hard-working poor people in America?” It sounds like an oxymoron., but often these are the people most in need.
Today, we need a movement for the new working poor. Instead of just soup kitchens that make people wait in line at noon, we need programs that can bring a bag of groceries to a hotel maid at 4:30 pm, when she gets back from work, before she cooks supper for her kids. Beyond efforts to expand welfare at the federal government level, we need to embrace a living wage movement that lifts all workers above the poverty line. Already living wage movements have appeared in a hundred different cities and an array of laws have been passed, lifting tens of thousands of public employees out of poverty. These living wage campaigns have put the issue on the political landscape. The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor will help to create a larger living wage movement with a combination of direct services and advocacy.
What do you really do?
We have just started, but we are in the process of carrying out the following:
1. We deliver food to working families that live below the poverty line.
2. We sit at their kitchen tables and talk to people about their kids, about free clinics, and about any other needed social services that they can secure.
3. We live, pray, and educate each other about how to eat with little resources, stay motivated to do this work, grow spiritually and fight against working poverty. We plan to share our homes with the young, the poor, and anyone interested in living in voluntary poverty. Right now we are only two of us, living in a small apartment, but more people are already interested in joining. We plan to move and grow soon and by the summer we plan to have 12 full time volunteer members.
4. We publish a paper called The Burning Bush. This paper is primarily a tool to inform church people about what we believe is the greatest tragedy in America—poverty—and to let people know about efforts to fight poverty.
5. We advocate for and participate in living wage struggles—campaigns to ensure that no one who works hard will live in poverty. Doing this political advocacy work in addition to offering services gives people hope. It establishes a long-term plan in working towards a better life and helps build a movement that can cure the disease rather than merely treat the symptoms.
The Story of Martha
I will tell the story of our first family in our program. Martha (as we will call her) is an immigrant from Mexico who worked as a hotel maid. She was fired for advocating a living wage and a union at her job, where she was paid about $8.00 an hour. Her husband is still working full time in the tourism industry. They live in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in what some call the “airport ghetto.” The rent is so high that they are only left with $600 dollars per month to provide for themselves and two kids.
A friend in the union that represents Martha called me, and asked if I could help her. I got some food donations together, and started bringing her family groceries. They always thanked us for the food we delivered each week, but this was only the beginning of our relationship. Over time and conversation, we got to know each other better and one day Martha told me that she had broken out in a stress-induced skin rash. She had had it the past and cured it with a simple prescription medicine. Now, however, she had no health insurance, no doctor, and no medicine. She also had a nagging fear that it would spread. I was able to give her some advice and some phone numbers for a free clinic.
As our relationship developed, she told me about her worries about her 10-year-old son, Oscar. Oscar had trouble at school, it was rooted in some kind of learning disability, possibly dyslexia. “We have tried so hard to get him to do his homework, but he lacks motivation,” she said. “The teachers say that this year he will not pass the fourth grade.”
It had taken me years to learn to share what I had felt was a very shameful part of my past: my childhood troubles with dyslexia and my difficulty learning to read. I told Martha and her husband my story. Although our cultural and geographical backgrounds were miles apart, we shared the common experience of what it is to be or have a child struggling to read and to be accepted in school with a learning disability. While I had difficult time reading growing up, I had a great talent for many things like juggling—just like Oscar had an amazing gift for the guitar. Martha and her husband feared the disability was a life sentence of failure and maladjustment for their son, so they were relieved to hear my story. I found great joy in the fact that my experience with dyslexia could have a potentially redeeming power for all of us.
With some excitement they asked me if I would talk to their son and I agreed. Sitting there with Oscar, I had a unique opportunity to confess everything I had felt for so many years. I wanted to speak to myself at ten years old. I wanted to explain how hard I tried, how it was not my fault, how I prayed to God to help me read. I told Oscar about how everyone thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, when no matter how hard I tried—more then my brothers or peers—I still felt cursed. I felt like a burden to my parents and teachers. Although Martha had told me her son had trouble concentrating on conversations and communicating his feelings, Oscar became still and silent during our talk. After I finished my story, there was a long pause. “I try too. I try really hard,” he finally said. His eyes were wet. . For a moment, I felt I had gone back in time. I saw myself carrying so much pain. Oscar told me how frustrated he got, how he felt no one understood. He told me about his dreams of being a punk rocker with a nice house, a wife and kids.
Martha said that her anxiety about her son more than the material poverty was the hardest thing she was going through. It was the reason it so hard for her to find a job: She wanted the afternoons free to help her son. We discussed some unexplored options and some ideas I had from my experience. In the end, I think she was more grateful for this than anything else.
I tell this story not because I could fix all the problems in the situation. I couldn’t. I tell the story because our philosophy of service is about more then just feeding the body; it is also about feeding the spirit. In a dramatic scene from the life of Saint Francis, the future saint was sued by his own father because he had donated some of his wealthy family’s money to the poor. In the public courtyard Saint Francis striped naked, gave everything to his father—even the clothing from his back—and walked into the wilderness. He proclaimed that from then on he would serve only God and the poor. The townspeople laughed at this crazy man. What would a beggar be able to give to beggars? Saint Francis had nothing to give but himself, but he changed the world. His philosophy of giving of oneself and one’s spirit was the cornerstone of his order of penniless wandering monks.
Only four decades later, there were thousands of them wandering Europe and serving the poor. Many believed they were instrumental for the renaissance in culture, religion, and human development that enveloped Europe and reformed the Christianity of the day.
What does your mother think?
For those of you who think that nice young Iowa boys from families of single moms are obedient to the wishes of their mothers, well… you’re right. After my father’s death in ’86, my mom was left supporting three rambunctious boys. Because I saw her struggle so hard to support us, I want to make her proud. My mom is a tough lady, but having a son quit his job, donate his money, and lose his health insurance is enough to shake up any mother. At first I thought this was probably going to give my mom a heart attack. It was right up there with the first time I juggled flaming torches. To most moms, the thought of your son turning into a monk and doing weird Gandhian religious experiments is akin to losing a child to the Grateful Dead.
But my mom was strangely calm and collected, unfazed by the idea of a son-turned-radical-religious-nut. No matter what I told her about my plans for voluntary poverty, communal living, and income-less service, I received unconditional support. “That’s great, honey,” she would say. I kept thinking, “What is finally going to push her over the edge?”
During my recent six months on sabbatical, I had some solid time at home with my mom. After I nagged her with questions, she started to open up to me more about her religious practice. And all of a sudden it hit me: Holy crap, my mom was a nun! Meditation retreats, fasting, eating strict diets, taking a vow of poverty—these things are old news to her. Underneath the exterior of a single mom, who while at work still occasionally calls me up to make sure that I am going to eat dinner, is a hard-core religious guru.
For 12 years before she left to start a family, my mom belonged to an order of Franciscans of Perpetual Adoration, known for their vows of simplicity, strict discipline, and community service. I learned recently her order was known for “perpetual adoration,” which means that this small community of nuns had someone praying to God (and for the community) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My mom occasionally woke up at 2:00 in the morning to do a four-hour shift of prayer, only to hand off the baton at 6:00 am to another tired sister. My mom then went to teach rowdy students in the morning. After learning this, I felt like a wimp. I realized I was talking to a spiritual heavyweight. At best, I was a young Luke Skywalker She’s Yoda.
I hate to admit that there have been times when I have disregarded my mom’s intelligence and strength. Growing up, I saw her struggle to be an imperfect, sometimes stressed-out single mom working in low-wage service jobs. I forget that this amazing woman was a teacher, a nun, and leader of the community in her own right. After a very long emotional conversation, I was touched deeply at how supportive and proud of this idea my Mom was. I will always be grateful for her support. “I knew you were always destined for a great and special life.” She said.
Please Help Us: Visions of Unpaid bills and the New Renaissance
I’ll be honest: I am uncomfortable asking for money. I’ll also say this: I am desperate. Part of this lifestyle is living day to day without financial security. But I do have faith. Even limiting my stipend to $200 a month, the project will not make it more than a few months if I do not get donations. I ask for you to be part of my vision and to be part of what I believe will be something special. If you cannot help with money, please at least sign up others to receive this paper, free of charge. This would help. We also need a larger house, food donations, and people to keep us in their prayers.
I ask you to imagine with me, the possibilities of what we could build? What if there was an Interfaith Catholic Worker for Quakers, Jews, Catholics, Methodist, and Buddhists? What if college students had an option to sleep on the floor for a summer and visit a struggling single mom at her home with a bag of groceries?
I wonder, what if we can build today something like the order of Franciscans in the Middle Ages, with thousands choosing to live lives of service? Peter Maurin, the visionary founder of the Catholic workers, thought that if enough people would live this type of life, a new Renaissance would envelop the world. I also find inspiration in the Civil Rights movement. In the movement’s years of great success, one of its most prominent organizations was called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC staffers worked for no wages, stayed in communal “freedom houses,” and lived in solidarity with the people they organized. Their work helped create a renaissance in the South that spread the philosophy of non-violent protest and advanced the cause of civil rights. Hundreds of SNCC volunteers entered the most impoverished and dangerous areas of the South, innovated methods of non-violent protest, and endured even physical beatings and jailings. In a decade, the movement they were a part of won the end of segregation and the right to vote for Blacks. Following the model of SNCC, I hope The Burning Bush can serve at the fore of a new living wage movement, one that will win the right of people to work and live in dignity.
Currently, I am preoccupied with our daily existence. Right now it is just me and Clayton. But already there are a few others interested in joining our community and adopting this crazy lifestyle. There are also more families we would like to help. We need money to support our meager existences, even if we are consuming primarily rice and beans and have no income for luxuries.
I have nothing to offer you except the knowledge that what you give will be used to keep me in poverty and to help us serve others. I have learned not to pray for money, but rather for knowledge of God’s will in my life. But money wouldn’t hurt either. Any contribution would be greatly appreciated. Just to get by, our rent for our community each month is $1,200, our living stipend for one volunteer is $200 a month, to provide emergency groceries for a family in the working poor is about $50 a month. If you can not send cash or check, we also accept rice and beans. Donations made payable to “The Burning Bush” are tax deductible. Send to 820 Laveta Ter. Apt 5. Los Angeles CA. 90026.
May the spirit be with you,
CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT
The Catholic Worker, a movement of Catholic lay people founded during the Great Depression, has since served as one of the most significant forces on the Christian left in the United States. Largely identified with Dorothy Day (1897-1980), its co-founder and leading voice until her death, the movement combines religious piety, a broadly anarchistic attitude toward the state, voluntary poverty, and a firm commitment to nonviolence. The Catholic Worker movement is known for its Houses of Hospitality, present in cities across the country, which provide food, shelter, and other material needs to the poor. Also well known is its newspaper, The Catholic Worker, published by the founding community in New York City. Catholic Workers have been influential in reviving the pacifist tradition in American Catholicism and have been leaders in the use of civil disobedience to advance struggles for peace, nuclear non-proliferation, labor rights, and social justice.
The Catholic Worker movement was born in December 1932, when co-founders Day and Peter Maurin (1877-1949) met in New York City. Day, a recent convert to Catholicism, was a left-wing journalist and veteran of Greenwich Village bohemian and socialist circles. Maurin, French by birth, was an itinerant laborer and public intellectual well read in Catholic theology. Having assumed a Franciscan embrace of poverty, he developed a program for the communitarian transformation of society through the implementation of Gospel teachings and Catholic social doctrine. He emphasized hospitality for the poor, regular study and prayer, and the development of agrarian communes. Day, seeking a more concrete way to integrate her radical convictions with the principles of her new faith, ultimately took responsibility for putting Maurin’s ideas into practice and administering the Catholic Worker movement.
The Catholic Worker newspaper served as the main vehicle for the early spread of movement ideas. The first issue was distributed at a 1933 May Day rally in New York’s Union Square Park. Publishing nearly monthly, with Day as editor, the circulation of The Catholic Worker grew from 2,500 copies of the first issue to 110,000 copies by May 1935, to almost 200,000 by 1939. The paper outlined the movement’s fundamental ideas in essays by Maurin and Day, as well as quotations from Church leaders. These appeared alongside articles on local labor campaigns and other current events. Over time, notable contributors would include Jacques Maritain, Michael Harrington, and Thomas Merton.
The movement was forced to relocate several times in its early years before settling in the Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan, where it established long-standing Houses of Hospitality. By 1936 Catholic Workers also founded their first satellite farm community. The movement grew rapidly, with communities formed in cities across the United States and Canada. By 1939, the Catholic Worker movement boasted 23 Houses of Hospitality, two farms, and 13 affiliate study groups in cities such as Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Portland.
Philosophy and Principles
Although contemporary activists debate which beliefs represent the fundamental tenets of the Catholic Worker movement, commonly noted principles include personalism, hospitality, voluntary poverty, intentional community, prayer, and pacifism.
Personalism entered the movement through Maurin’s study of French philosophy, particularly the works of Emmanuel Mounier. Although often invoked in a philosophically imprecise manner, the concept emphasizes the dignity of every human person, especially those most marginalized by society. Implicit in personalism is a critique of statist Communism and the treatment of workers as an undifferentiated social class. In accord with personalist philosophy, Catholic Workers focus on taking personal responsibility for social problems and evince an anarchist distrust of state welfare structures. Many Houses of Hospitality refuse to seek tax-exempt status from the government, arguing that the works of charity and compassion should not be regulated by the state.
Hospitality, voluntary poverty, and intentional community combine in the ethos of the Catholic Worker houses, where volunteers live in solidarity with the poor. There they perform what are known as the Corporal Works of Mercy, which include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and harboring the homeless. Christian hospitality draws inspiration from the monasticism of St. Benedict, who instructed monks to view those seeking help as Christ himself. Catholic Workers subsist without salaries, living communally on donations and shunning material acquisition. This has helped to create small, tight-knit communities of individuals unusually committed to their work; many adherents are willing to make extraordinarily personal sacrifices, including spending time in jail for civil disobedience, to advance social justice aims.
Amidst the prevailing secularism of the American left, the Catholic Worker movement’s distinctive marriage of political radicalism and orthodox religiosity stands out. Dorothy Day attended Catholic services daily and confessed her sins weekly. A controversial figure for decades, Day became almost universally revered by the end of her life, and supporters within the Church have since pushed to have her canonized as a saint.
Day’s devout Catholicism, which has carried on as a hallmark of the movement, frequently helped to dispel tensions between Catholic Worker houses and the Church hierarchy. Many Houses of Hospitality operate with open support of local Bishops. While stressing Church doctrine on peace and justice issues, many movement activists also take positions on abortion and sexuality that stand in line with traditional Catholic teachings.
Resuscitating a tradition of Catholic pacifism, which previously was virtually unknown among American Catholics, has been one of the movement’s foremost contributions, and likely its most controversial. In 1936, The Catholic Worker advanced an editorial stance of pacifist neutrality regarding the Spanish Civil War. The position cost the newspaper many subscribers, angering both leftists who supported the anti-fascist Spanish Republicans and American Catholics who saw Franco as a defender of the Church.
Resolute Christian pacifism proved even less popular during World War II, when Day led the movement in taking an unyielding stance of conscientious objection. Many supporters and subscribers grew increasingly alienated by Day’s antiwar position, and the circulation of The Catholic Worker dropped during the war years to 50,500. By 1942, over a dozen Catholic Worker houses had closed, and by the war’s end only 10 remained.
The movement began a gradual rebound in the 1950s, receiving renewed public attention after the 1952 publication of Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Through the era of McCarthyism, however, some attention was based on critical suspicion. The FBI closely monitored the group’s activities, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suggested that Day be placed in custodial detention in cases of national emergency.
From 1955 to 1961, in order to dramatize resistance to the nuclear arms race, Catholic Workers in New York began organizing civil disobedience against the annual air raid drills mandated by the Civil Defense Act. Day was arrested in several consecutive years for her refusal to take shelter during a simulated attack and served jail sentences as long as 30 days.
Another leader in the civil defense protests was Ammon Hennacy (1893-1970), a long-time radical who had been imprisoned for draft resistance during the First World War. During his tenure with the Catholic Worker, Hennacy also became known for his penitential fasts and pickets in front of tax offices and U.S. military installations to protest Cold War militarism. His example helped to inspire more militant acts of nonviolent direct action in the movement.
In the 1960s the movement experienced a resurgence fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War. Catholic Workers were represented among the first young people to publicly burn their draft cards. A new cohort of volunteers helped organize the Catholic Peace Fellowship to promote religious conscientious objection; Catholic Workers also helped to found Pax Christi, USA. The brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, two priests renown for raiding draft boards in Catonsville, Maryland and burning the draft cards as acts of civil disobedience, maintained close ties with the Catholic Worker, and movement activists were responsible for similar raids.
Renewed youthful interest in the Catholic Worker movement continued throughout the 1970s, even as Day, advancing in age, became more reclusive, limiting her writing and travel before her death in 1980. The circulation of The Catholic Worker grew from 65,000 at the start of the 1960s to near 100,000 by 1980, where it has remained. In the 1970s and 1980s, Catholic Workers were active in the Central American solidarity and nuclear disarmament movements, maintaining a particularly strong presence in the Plowshares civil disobedience actions inspired by the Berrigan brothers.
Today there exist over 150 self-identified Catholic Worker communities in the U.S., as well as a smaller number abroad, facilitating works of mercy and acts of resistance. Many of the communities produce their own publications in the tradition of the original Catholic Worker. Having no formal organizational structure and no clear leader since Day’s death, the movement’s autonomous houses exhibit considerable variety, especially in their relationships with the clerical hierarchy and their levels of emphasis on overt religiosity. Agrarianism has faded in importance for the movement in the decades since Maurin’s death. Many communities devote the bulk of their energies to providing hospitality for homeless populations that include individuals with serious mental illness and chemical addictions. Political action supported by the movement continues to tend toward individual acts of moral witness, often resulting in jail time, rather than the organization of mass campaigns.
Mark Engler, with research assistance by Jason Rowe
Anarchism, Anti-Nuclear Movement; Anti-Vietnam War Movement; Berrigan Brothers; Christ, Jesus; Civil Disobedience; Day, Dorothy; Draft Resistance; Nonviolence and Activism; Option for the Poor; Pacifism; Religious Activism; Spirituality and Peacemaking; War Tax Resistance
Further Readings and References:
Coy, Patrick, ed. (1988) A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker. Philadelphia: Temple.
Miller, William D. (1973) A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Liveright.
Roberts, Nancy L. (1984) Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Albany: SUNY Press.
Zwick, Mark and Louise. (2005) The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins. New York/Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press.
The Burning Bush is an Interfaith intentional community in the tradition of the Catholic Worker. I do not want to scare anyone who is not Catholic. Our community is Interfaith and open to all traditions. But we do follow many of the principles and practices of the Catholic Worker Movement.
December 19th, 2022
By Paul Engler Whenever I write my newsletter, I am afraid a subtle or not-so-subtle repetition will be noticed—I fear I write the same thing over and over again! Generally the theme has something to do with change, uncertainty, and … Continue reading
December 19th, 2022
Whether you’re in a midlife, quarter life, or general life crisis, the proverbial crap hits the wall. You break up with your girlfriend, your community starts falling apart, your movement dies, your organization goes bankrupt, you lose the political campaign. … Continue reading
December 19th, 2022
I’m happy to report that our community has stabilized at the Center for the Working Poor house. We haven’t had one person leave in the past year! A welcome contrast to 2021, when we had so many people come and … Continue reading
December 15th, 2021
There is a big debate among economists about a curious phenomenon unfolding right now called “The Great Resignation”. We have an immense labor shortage because people are not returning to work as the experts expected (common after a recession). There … Continue reading
December 15th, 2021
This fall, in one of my first trips to visit my coworkers from the Ayni Institute in Boston, I stopped by New York City to visit one of my closest friends, Eric Stoner. And I was sitting on his couch, … Continue reading
December 15th, 2021
The Center for the Working Poor was founded in 2006, but we didn’t move into our large Victorian house until 2007. Therefore, we have been in the house for 14 years now; and throughout this time, only Paul Engler has … Continue reading
December 15th, 2021
Over the last year, we have started beta groups for a new model of mutual aid counseling, called Community Counseling that has engaged dozens in weekly small group counseling practice and training. In November, I went to Boston to lead … Continue reading
December 17th, 2020
“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die …” — Ecclesiastes 3:1 “Surrender to what is dying, and become attentive to what is emerging.” — … Continue reading