April 2013

Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.  By Jeff Dietrich. Marymount Institute Press/Tsehai Publishers. 418 pages. $29.95.

In an age when a noted economist declares that the first day of sales of the iPhone5 will have a noticeable impact on economic statistics, when Target features doggy bowls specifically designed for Halloween, and when we hear that men can now choose between a sports pedicure and an executive pedicure, you just know that a book such as Broken and Shared is necessary. All of us not directly involved in the care of the poor — touching the poor, as Mother Teresa said — need the reminder that, for many, life is not about what we can buy or how we can pamper ourselves. We may not see or smell the indigent, the down and out, but they are not too far off, especially if our eyes are open. In Jeff Dietrich we have a man who believes and lives his life with the conviction that the Gospel is true.

What the leader of the Los Angeles-area Catholic Worker does so well is illustrate how one group of committed people, not all of them Catholic, have chosen to serve those whom the rest of us would rather not. He certainly knows whereof he speaks. After all, he and his wife, Catherine Morris, have been working on L.A.’s Skid Row for decades. His book is a collection of essays that originally appeared primarily in the Catholic Agitator, the paper the Los Angeles Catholic Worker has published for over 40 years.

Poverty is not the only issue the Catholic Worker has addressed over the many years since its founding by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The enormous expenditures on armaments that are a fundamental element in the U.S. economy have come under scrutiny by Catholic Workers since the early 1930s. Followers of Day, now a candidate for sainthood, have also been allies to farm workers and undocumented immigrants, the mentally unstable and the addicted. And their approach has always been hands-on, personal, and direct. Hence they demonstrate against the building of the new cathedral in Los Angeles (the “Taj Mahony,” as it has been called), protest at the Nevada Test Site, and endure repeated jail stints — Dietrich writes about all of these with insight and passion. His moving description of the last days of Eugene Fejnas is truly memorable. Fejnas was an archetypal Skid Row resident, except that he had the redeeming quality of gratitude, something Catholic Workers see far too infrequently.

Dietrich also writes about the sense of futility that is never far away. Governments continue to contract for new and ever more imaginative weapons, and at-risk people continue to drink. Roger Cardinal Ma­hony did build his cathedral and its plaza is not “cluttered” with the homeless like the old St. Vibiana. And Dietrich can seem to forgive some of his adversaries. The ones that stick most in his craw are the people like me, and maybe you — people who neglect to embrace his radical response. We are not allowed our ambivalence and outright doubts. To Dietrich we are the ones not hearing God’s message to feed the hungry and clothe the naked as clearly as the Catholic Workers do. And if we choose different issues to fight, sometimes with just as much passion as Dietrich, somehow we are called to a balance that he himself lacks.

Herein lies the weakness of his book: It is laden with hyperbolic language and an off-putting tone: “We believe that the ‘War on Terror’ is simply another name for the war on the poor throughout the world,” he writes. Pacifism has its convincing arguments, and surely no one fails to see the connection between over-consumption in this country and our willingness to engage militarily almost anywhere, yet on these topics Dietrich is often over the top. He assures us that he is not in favor of abortion nor is he a proponent of same-sex marriage, but he doesn’t like the institutional Church’s being so fervent about these topics while being lukewarm, in his mind, about the problems of poverty, racism, and war. He asks, “Why bother to remain in a Church that will probably continue down the road of the triumphalist Constantinian Papacy that continues to denigrate women, persecute free-thinking theologians, and reduce the Gospels to moralistic purity codes?” Huh?

I guess he sees a different Church than I do. I see a Church that educates tens of thousands of inner-city children, maintains hospitals that provide millions of dollars of uncompensated care for the poor, is headed by a Pope who consistently calls for peace and seeks fervently to preserve our orthodox Catholic heritage for future generations. I see priests and laymen who, while not practicing voluntary poverty, strive daily to serve the poor and the vulnerable in their midst. Dietrich’s way is not the only game in town.

There are, to be sure, many wonderful features in this book, especially if you are interested in what the Los Angeles Catholic Worker has been doing over the past several decades. Yet Broken and Shared would have been much better without the snarkiness toward Church leaders and the self-righteousness that was so notably absent in the work of Dietrich’s own inspiration, Dorothy Day.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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