I’m reading a book called Dorothy Day: the World will be Saved by Beauty (an intimate portrait of my grandmother (2017) by Kate Hennessy. It gives a pretty gritty perspective of the highs and lows of the Catholic Worker movement in New York during the 1930s and onward, and the struggles that happened in particular between Dorothy Day and her daughter Tamar (the author’s mother).
There was often conflict within the community and externally through their newsletter readers, and society in general based on whether or not there was a war happening or the attitude towards communism, etc. And the main players, like Dorothy sometimes felt that everything they strove for, to directly serve the poor, to live off the land and be humble in poverty, was a total failure. In hindsight, the Catholic Worker movement is very impressive, but in the day-to-day there was constant struggle.
And yet, there were moments of grace and perspective. Dorothy eventually “felt that people who came to their door needed kindness, courtesy, and acceptance, and most often just to be left alone to rest and recover mentally, spiritually, and physically. ‘Who knows what is in their hearts and minds? Who knows their pain?’ she said. It is hard to do nothing, and yet often that is all you can do – do nothing but listen and give the person a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup… ‘Failures are inseparable to a work of this kind, and necessary for our growth in holiness'” (p. 185).
The book reveals that this was a hard lesson to learn, to simply listen and wait, since initially there was a lot of assumptions made that one could easily lead a broken person from soup line to spiritual retreat and total transformation through indoctrination and community. Perhaps this happened on occasion, but there was still the reality of alcoholism, abuse, theft, mental illness, division and controversy among those who claimed to be aligned with the Catholic Workers. But if they didn’t step up to attempt to help others, who would? Effort is required, and people in all their messy-ness with all their baggage are still worth it.
I can see many parallels today, with the situation in the Downtown Eastside and the variety of service models, religious organizations and activist groups that try to initiate change. These small acts of effort, mercy and justice may seem insignificant and even pointless, but if only a few people feel cared for, it is not in vain.
Over lunch the other week, one of my library patrons called J.D., a local poet explained that when he was a little boy his grandparents ran a soup kitchen near Oppenheimer Park called the “Rainbow Mission.” This particular mission had started in the 1940s by a Rev. Robert Brown and his wife Joyce. J.D. would go there for Christmases to take part in the services, as well as his sister (who happened to be a librarian that worked briefly at the Carnegie!). The Rainbow Mission closed in 2007, but from various findings online it sounded like a place of care where people could enjoy coffee, soup and sandwiches, and worship. I’m curious to learn more about this mission, and if it found inspiration in the Catholic Worker model.
These days, Oppenheimer Park continues to be a place that draws those who are homeless but it has seen some transformation. The park staff from the Carnegie provide coffee, lunch, art programs, entertainment, and companionship to those who call the space “home” throughout the year. They also organize the annual “HomeGround Festival” in February, and Aboriginal Day event, which is usually the week before the big party over at Trout Lake for Aboriginal Day, so as to not compete but still offer something special for the locals. It’s great because there are no big corporate sponsors, no official City Hall presence or Government proclamations. It is simply people who want to be there.
Whenever Aboriginal Day at Oppenheimer Park comes round I’m reminded that another year has passed, since my first week at the Carnegie Branch included this outreach event. This year was equally as festive with pow wow dancers, drumming, bannock, artisans, tipi-raising, musicians, and the usual wildness of this somewhat notorious park. The library table was popular since we had loads of great books to give away, library cards to register, fines to waive, and some interactive elements, like a communal poem in the works.
A crew of regular park dwellers in varying states of sobriety set-up shop at our colouring table. One guy scored a most beautiful Aboriginal carving book from our stash. It was actually a new book at the library, but someone had torn out three pages so I could no longer circulate it. After removing the cover, I managed to salvage the book and this guy was delighted. He exclaimed that he had wanted to return to carving, and needed the inspiration. It was especially cool when he shared it with his friend, and when his buddies took off he respectfully cleaned the table explaining how he liked things to be in order. It was a simple gesture, but so kind and gentle. I don’t know his story, but I hope good things for him to come.
Some of the highlights were watching three elderly women in their regalia dancing with such dignity and grace, followed by a solo teenager (perhaps he was 12 or 13) stepping up to perform, and then some really powerful words of wisdom from Elders. One man explained that he was hesitant to come because he was still in grieving. His daughter had died of overdose the previous year. He sang the most mournful song with his drum, and the crowd was silenced. Everyone stood, and a few people gathered round this man. My heart broke and I wanted to openly weep. Many people, myself included could not understand the words, but they were still understood.
The park is a strange place. It has beautiful trees, a garden, open grass field, totem poles, a clubhouse, and even a playground. There is also a kind of “community” even though the regulars are folks struggling from addiction, living a transient life, and battling their demons. I have great respect for the team who work there daily, providing connections to services that could be life-saving, and otherwise just being a stable, trustworthy presence trying to maintain the peace.
It was good to feel that deep ache, being reminded that there are those in my community who are suffering and grieving, while also being witness to celebration, and to see such beauty and hope. While the daily battles continue, I think it’s appropriate to continue believing that “the world will be saved by beauty” – a classic Dorothy Day quote. Oppenheimer Park is beautiful, and hopefully more people will continue in the footsteps of the Catholic Worker, and the various missions that have come and gone, recognizing that the people in this neighbourhood are worth the effort.