Life at a Catholic Worker Community

Social worker community volunteers

This is the story about my involvement with the Casa Maria Catholic Worker community in Milwaukee, WI. It’s a story I find myself trying to explain to strangers and friends alike. It’s a story that probably isn’t over yet. So, I’ll try to make this easy on us all n try to answer the usual questions.

What is a Catholic Worker House?

Basically, it’s any house or group of people who identify with the CW Movement started by Dorothy Day back in the 1930s. You can read more about the historical details at the movement’s website. Suffice to say, each house is completely autonomous from the others. Some houses focus on environmental sustainability, others purely on protesting nuclear warfare. Still other houses focus on hospitality – typically revolving around the Acts of Mercy: clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, bury the dead….heck, here’s a pic:

Social worker community

Who can be a Catholic Worker?

Literally anyone. If you and your friends wanted to declare your apartment a CW, then have at it! Make a name, decide on a mission, maybe print a newsletter, and get to work building a community.

What I like most about the Catholic Worker Movement is the idea of personal responsibility. See something broken? Fix it. Don’t wait on institutions to take care of what’s going on in your community. That’s why each house is autonomous: they can decide what’s most important to the people involved, as well as what the volunteers can handle.

So, are you Catholic?

Actually, no. Most of the individuals at Casa Maria Catholic Worker (while I was involved) had no religious affiliation. Some were Wiccans, others atheist, and still others did indeed identify with Christianity. Some Catholic Worker houses do look to have a shared spirituality, but many others primarily care about your interest and involvement in the community work.

How did I get involved?

Back in 2010 I did a little volunteer work at Casa. The concept of living in community, living simply, living meaningfully…and admittedly, living under the poverty line, inspired a lot of curiosity. The community was kind enough to let me hang around and do a mini-ethnography (cultural study). Wasn’t long before I was volunteering for real. Usually as the last-ditch pick for the shift where I would simply sleep over n make sure the house didn’t burn down. Fast forward to 2014 and I had officially moved into the community.

So…volunteers live in the community? Who is in charge?

Not all volunteers live in the community. All the full-time workers, though, have rooms in one of the 4 houses owned by Casa Maria. We share the communal spaces and try to make space for additional hospitality when feasible. Decisions are made by live-in workers through a consensus-based process, which basically means really long meetings.

What did I do there?

Casa Maria focuses on housing women and their children who are facing precarious housing situations. Essentially a crisis shelter of just 4 rooms. Workers attend a meeting and take three shifts each week (4-5 hours/shift) to take care of chores, meals, laundry, donations, phone calls, and all the other things. I should point out that “all the other things” typically means a lot of emotional labor. Lots of children who want and need attention (inevitably while you’re putting something into the oven) and exhausted parents who are burnt out from struggling to survive the welfare office, job trainings, house hunting, parenting, and a slew of other crap.

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Actually, there’s a lot going on at Casa. Could you just visit the Facebook page? Thanks, peeps.

Sometimes we weren’t sure what to do with the donated items….

Social worker community volunteers
The volunteers

Wait. What about money?

Casa Maria CW is entirely funded through personal donations and the occasional grant. Additionally, many people donate their clothes, furniture, and time. Non-live-in volunteers often provide meals or assistance fixing things around the house. The needs are always changing and there’s usually a way to get involved…just saying.

What’s the best part about living at Casa Maria?

The community. The activism. These days, I often miss feeling like my life had meaning…not to be too existential or whatever. I have found it hard to adjust back to the working world. When your daily normal is telling mothers they have to sleep on the street because the house is full, it’s hard to care that the biggest mistake at work could be mistyping some data.

While the work could be emotionally and physically draining, there was always someone willing to watch a movie, go out for a show, or just chill. Always some type of camaraderie. I love my Casa Maria family deeply and I believe they have a capacity to understand several aspects of my life more than anyone else. I cannot fathom doing hospitality without being supported by others doing the same work.

Community members were often active in local issues: being present at protests, offering rides, making signs

If it’s so great, why did I leave?

Burn out. I want to be the amazing person who never gets tired, is always the best volunteer, can calm down an upset guest or handle babysitting for even 1 hour. But I’m not. After a few years, I realized I was becoming someone that was always angry (even if justifiably), didn’t have enough emotional capacity to care for my friends or family, and micromanaged the work of new workers without much empathy. I hope you know that’s not who I want to be.

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On top of all this, I knew how to feed 20 people and yet couldn’t rustle up a decent meal for just me. I knew how to listen to a person describing their depression, but not how to deal with my own. I’d forgotten how to live in the “real world” (read: capitalist work/rent world) and didn’t want to cave to the comfort of the house. Essentially, I left to figure out how to take care of myself.

Would I return?

The million-dollar question! Why do you think this blog is named what it is? If I’m in Milwaukee, there’s a good chance I’ll be hanging around the Catholic Worker. I’d encourage you to check the directory and see if there’s a house near you.

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