Plan For the Revolution, But Keep Everyone Washing the Dishes: A New Year’s Update

December 31st, 2014

Dear Friends,

I started the Center for the Working Poor in 2006. I donated all my money and my car, and slept on the floor of my shared, cramped apartment with our first full time volunteer, Clayton Perry. We ate a 3 dollar-a-day diet of rice, beans, and salad, and all our services were run out of the back of a beat up Toyota Corolla. Things have changed. I still live simply off of $200 a month, room and board, and the basics of my expenses paid for by the Center in exchange for a full schedule working in the community. But I now have the cushy comforts of my own bed, my own room, and a beautiful 4 bedroom Victorian house with a small office, even though it is filled to the brim with people and activity. Now we have communal meals with a variety of great home cooked food that includes fancy kale salads and tofu. It is sometimes hard to believe that now I have a beautiful girlfriend who loves me in spite my style as a poor man who commonly forgets to pull the pant leg of my donated baggy jeans out of my socks.

Life at the Center for the Working Poor is nothing like what I expected at first. My initial plans for massive growth, fundraising, and taking over the world with a non-violent revolution of love has been—depending on the metaphor—humiliated by God, or crucified, or pruned, or weaned, or replaced by more nourishing fruit. Great and miraculous things have come to pass. This is more than just my girlfriend. We have been part of many great projects, protests, and relationships. Regardless of this, it is just amazing to me to have a community of 5 people living together, who sometimes also share meals, meditate, pray, and protest together.

New interns in our community often pull me aside with a sense of urgency after their first few weeks in our midst. They ask me, “Paul, it feels like you guys are going to do something big and historic. It’s like you are planning the revolution. But I don’t understand exactly what you guys are going to do or when you’ll do it.” I say, “It always feels like that around here. I hope you don’t get disappointed when you realize we are always planning the revolution. The reality is that it is hard just to keep everyone doing the dishes.” After a few months the excitement wears off a little, and they say, “What?!? I thought you guys were going to launch the revolution next week!”

Don’t get me wrong; we have been a part of some historic moments from the immigrant rights protest in 2006, to the occupy movement in 2012, or even founding a new organization—99Rise. But if you are here for a few years you get used to people going to jail, going on hunger strike, planning big protests, and homeless people occasionally showing up in our backyard. We have cycles of getting excited planning the next big protest, getting lots of people arrested for a social justice cause, then going back to the routine of weekly meditation, community social events, cooking, and service of some sort.

This year is no exception. In this newsletter, you can read about our new service program– Get Empathy. You can read about the house, and what we have all been doing in our community in our house journal. We have a small article from a new member of our community, Rebekah, about our meditation and centering prayer group. And we have an update from 99Rise, a program we started after Occupy to fight for social justice.

Our services have changed over the years. Although running our house, training, writing, social events, and advocacy for social justice causes are our primary work, community services, whether delivering food to the needy or my work at a mental health center, help “keep it real.” It helps me actually see face to face those hurt by the “dirty rotten system.” Hearing the stories of people you know, and occasionally receiving emergency calls in the middle of the night helps you to remember what you are fighting for.

When I first started the Center, I found a special group of screwed over people that no one seemed to be helping- low wage workers that were fired for standing up to horrible working conditions or for simply reporting an injury on the job. We had a network of needy families we visited every week for a while, and while Sam Pullen was running our food distribution program, families would come over every Labor Day for a BBQ, and we would hear testimonials around our living room table. All the families just loved Sam and still ask to see him by his nickname—Gringo Mariachi. Sam is still active in our community, but he has moved out with his wife, and with him leaving, our services have changed.

I went back to school part time and got a masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy 3 years ago. So instead of primarily delivering food, I put more time into providing mental health services for the poor. The Center for the Working Poor partnered with The Relational Center, a local community mental health center, so I could see clients in mental health as well as develop a few new programs. My favorite program was called Get Empathy. We would teach mostly low income students from LA public schools how to tell their stories and form supportive community.

However, a year ago our grant ran out and we lost some donors—so I was laid off of my part time job with the Relational Center, which I used to help the Center for the Working poor survive. In addition, our food program had been not functioning as well since Sam Pullen had left, and we lost our partnership with the LA food bank. So for months, I felt lost about how and what to do about the services at the Center. I felt like I needed the balance of the services with protesting, but did not know what to do.

In the legend of the Catholic Worker movement, when anyone would go to Dorothy Day (the famous founder of the movement, and saintly figure), and ask what to do about the complex and difficult problems of running the 300 or so houses each with soup kitchens and a variety of projects—she would often give a very simple answer. She would say—Pray. Sometimes she would give specific instruction as to how to pray. Pray?!? I was trained as a community organizer and researcher from a labor movement of low wage hotel and restaurant workers. We planned, and strategized about everything from how to most effectively get cheap coffee for meetings to plans for running nationwide boycotts. I have never ever been advised to pray. I needed a detailed plan.

The advice to pray felt frustrating at first. When I formed the Center, there have been many times when I felt the Center was on the edge of destruction, or even felt it was too high a mountain to climb just to keep it going, so I asked another Catholic Worker leader what to do, and they said pray. I am not saying that it works always in the way I would expect, but it has always worked. My plans were often laid to waste, and in their place was a wild ride of spirit led decision-making. The Center was run more by intuition, the heart, and prayer, than by logic and intellect. Then new often-unforeseen opportunities arose. So this last season, I prayed and prayed about what to do about our services and waited and listened for a while.

Two things happened. One: a donor came out of the woodwork and donated some money to the Relational Center to expand the work of Get Empathy. I am joining a core group lead by my old friend Cedar from the Relational Center and my training partner Carlos Saavedra to relaunch Get Empathy in the next few months. Two: another donor whom I never met called me and was interested in giving us a grant to start up our food distribution program again. This time we hope to make it smaller but more directed to non-union workers that need the help the most for the first 3 months after they get fired.

In the last month, we have relaunched our food distribution program with the help of Judi Esber. Our program is going to be small and more focused on the families where workers who have been recently fired for standing up to bad working conditions; I call them low wage whistleblowers. We visited the families that have been in our food distribution program for years to tell them we were no longer going to visit them with food and that we would be focusing on other families in need. I was expecting disappointment, but they just expressed deep gratitude for all the help we had given them over the years. Juana is the mother of Margarita a worker that had died of a stress related stroke that many said was due to overwork at a hotel near the airport. When we told her, she started crying and sharing with us how much it meant to her that we showed them that someone cared in the years after Margarita died. We were a godsend for her. I felt good that in the last 3 months, her family had been able to buy a new house due to a settlement from one of Juana’s grandchildren who was hit by a bus. He is in good health after recovering from some broken bones and started working last week.

We started a new era of our work, but we are still dependent on you. We have just a under a hundred or so people that each donate just a little to help keep our community going. So please give this season and send us some care bear energy! Or maybe remember the unconditional love of the Holy Spirit, and send some our way. Whatever metaphor suits you, when you feel it, the mystery of it becomes known, regardless of the metaphor. I have really felt it from you, and it keeps me going. I feel so grateful for your support over the years, and I really hope to keep this community going. We can’t do it without you. So please donate and support us here.

In Struggle,

Paul Engler

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