"You Just Wonder About God's Call"


Author: Melinda Henneberger '80

The plan was that I could finish my newspaper story, be in the cab by 5 and still make my 6:30 plane to South Bend for the “Day of Reflection” about what the volunteer experiences many of us had after leaving Notre Dame mean later, 20 years later in my case. What difference had it made in my carpooling, deadline-crashing, tall-skim-latte guzzling everyday life?

Around 9 p.m., starving, grumpy, and of course — what had I been thinking? — still at my desk in D.C., I thought maybe the answer was: not much.

After graduation, I had joined Holy Cross Associates and taken a year to work with battered women in San Francisco’s Mission district. Five of us, all new grads from Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s College, had moved into a little house together in Hayward, across the bay from the city, where we were supposed to live simply, in solidarity with the poor — our new neighbors. The place was pretty ratty, with holes in the plywood walls and shag carpeting that was home to various tiny critters. Still, I didn’t find it that much of a comedown from the concrete block and rattan splendor of Notre Dame Apartments, and we did have a lemon tree in the backyard.

We all had full-time jobs — the other two women in the house taught in an inner-city elementary school, and the two guys did community organizing through Catholic Charities — and we all saw this work as ministry. But we pooled our token salaries to meet expenses, and each kept only a $50 stipend for the month. In the evenings, back at the house, we hoped to form a faith community, and do some thinking together about how to make the world more just.

Did it work? Well, I’m a journalist, not an advocate; I’m proud of what we reporters do, but it isn’t that. I gave up my last serious volunteer gig, teaching English to immigrants, when I left New York for Washington in 1995. After our twins were born that following year, I found it was all I could do to take care of our little community. Last year, while covering the presidential campaign, I even stopped taking Communion to the homebound because it just felt too selfish to take that time away from my family.

And, let’s face it, I had never been anybody’s ideal Holy Cross volunteer anyway. Certainly I loved my work that year at Quest Center — a small vocational training program run by nuns — where I listened, encouraged, wrote resumes and got to see women begin to lift their heads and their hopes again, usually after many years of abuse. The physical transformation that went along with the healing inside was remarkable, thrilling. They did find jobs, too, and when they’d run in to tell us they’d been hired, it was a party every time.

Simple living, on the other hand, was tedious. I never did see the sense that a couple of my more zealous housemates did in shopping for overripe, who-will-eat-it-if-we-don’t fruit and vegetables. Or in rejecting as too bourgeois the gifts of an ironing board and some used canisters that the sisters had sent over. (Couldn’t we press our clothes on the kitchen table? Wouldn’t old coffee cans hold flour and sugar just as well?) And I was truly puzzled by the passionate argument we had at one house meeting over whether the five of us were obligated, by virtue of our commitment to simple living, to share a single stick of deodorant. (That one we won, 3-2, voting along straight gender lines.)

I will probably never forget the prayer session that one of my housemates opened with, "Dear God, when I broke down and bought that Coke I really didn’t need yesterday, it helped me see how Melinda could possibly waste her money on something as trivial as mascara when there is hunger in the world, Lord, and that helped me understand her better, so I just wanted to say thank you for that.’’

My own silent prayer, I think, was “Dear Lord, spare us from violence here this evening, tempted as I am.” But not all of our differences were laughable; I was pretty hurt by the heated opposition to my plan to spend Christmas in Illinois with my parents, who were still grieving the death of my younger brother 18 months earlier. The poor can’t afford to hop a plane, they said, so neither should you. The poor won’t know I’m gone, I argued, but my parents will.

When I try to recall why I had joined them in the first place, I know it was less about standing in solidarity with oppressed peoples, or even about wanting to do good, than it was, for my own reasons, about simply wanting to be good.

My mom had been sick a lot when I was growing up, and — kids are such literalists — I had believed what I’d been told, that if I were good she would get well and come home from the hospital. I was this worrier, with ulcers by the time I was in third grade, but my refuge, and the place I could always take my fears, was the church next to our school, where I’d slip off during recess. It was quiet, empty, a little dark even in the daytime, lit with the candles, and I was at home there, kneeling and talking to the Virgin, mostly. I felt that she looked kindly on me.

So I had grown up volunteering — at the hospital, the nursing home, a school for retarded children — to be good and also because I was good at it or, at least, completely at ease with people who were any kind of hurt. By the time I was in high school, my mom was saying we needed a second phone line for the de facto suicide hotline I was running.

In some ways, a service year after graduation was the comfiest choice I could have made. Anyway, I had always kind of liked the fasting, guitar-playing type. Recently, one of my editors made this observation: “You were probably one of those girls who went for the really altruistic guys.” And I had to answer, “Gerry, you have no idea.”

After six months, though, I left the Holy Cross house and moved out on my own, into the city, where I finished out the year at the battered women’s shelter, as planned, before heading off to Europe for graduate school. Always, when I looked back on that time in the associate program, I feel glad I went and glad I left. A couple of summers ago, several of us from the house in Hayward got together at a Holy Cross-sponsored retreat and laughed about some of the stuff that went on there. So maybe a couple of the guys had been a little too hard-nosed, and maybe I hadn’t taken our mission quite seriously enough. The real question was, what had we done since? And what had all of our incredibly sincere, flawed efforts taught us?

After missing the plane to that day of reflection, I called each of my former housemates, along with a couple of other friends who were Holy Cross volunteers that year, to see if they knew.

First, I found Tim Beaty ‘79, whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years, literally a block away, working as deputy director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO. Maybe I had passed him on the street and failed to recognize him in something other than the Army fatigues he had worn every day in Hayward; I’d once secretly thought that that uniform made the sacrifice of an ironing board rather an easier matter for some of us than for others.

When he joined our group of volunteers, Tim had already spent an undergraduate year in Peru “that was much more intense, where we were around poverty every day,” he said recently. Certainly he didn’t see our working class Hispanic neighborhood in Hayward that way, and often complained that it wasn’t nearly as poor as he’d expected.

But now, there he was in his gleaming office a block from the White House, wearing a tie and a Saint Patrick’s Day button that said, “Kiss Me, I’m Union.” “Bush has us on the run,” he said by way of a greeting. He no longer seemed inclined to pray that I might change my mascaraed ways. But he did volunteer that he thanks God he has not had to compromise his principles the way some other people have.

“I have not felt the contradiction other people have who work for corporations,” he said. “I’m playing a role building democracy. I’m not sure I could live with myself selling insurance. Not that there’s anything wrong with selling insurance, but the pursuit of the maximum income I can make doesn’t square with what I think I should be doing in life.”

He is frank as ever, too, in voicing doubts that fellow Domers would want to hear about him or another of our former housemates, Charlie Kenney ‘70, ’97M.A., ’98Ph.D., who had also been in Peru. "People at Notre Dame would probably read about Charlie and me and say, ’Radical &%#s.’ They’d rather hear about charity versus justice."

He’d spent the last 20 years organizing laundry workers, had set up three worker-owned construction companies, helped create a credit union for farm workers and trained teachers in collective bargaining.

But a dozen years ago, while organizing farm workers in South Florida, he met his future wife, and at that point, “started thinking that I needed to get a job where I could make enough money to actually have a family.” So he has made some concessions, then?

“Because of my Notre Dame education, because of the resources and time my family invested in me, I can make a contribution at this level, at a national level. And yeah, there is a dissonance with the simple living part of what we were trying to do in Hayward. Now I have to wear a tie because I have to go up to the Hill or meet with an ambassador. When I came here in May with this hot job, my concern was, ‘Where can I find the best education for my kids?’ So I live in an upper-middle-income neighborhood, I’m not at this point working with workers every day, and those are contradictions sometimes. I’ve taken an easier route.”

I can’t help wondering whether his wife has to hear about why jewelry is bad, like I used to, but he says simple living is no longer a burning issue. “I don’t think about it so much lately. My kids have a lot of stuff. My wife grew up in a low-income situation in Mexico, so we go visit her family, and they know what the other side is. They come on protest marches, they visit in Mexico.”

Still, he did note that not everyone has been fortunate enough to make a living without selling out: “I absolutely don’t think you have to be a union organizer or a community organizer or in a job where you do social justice work. People teach in a lot of different ways, people have an influence in a lot of different ways. You teach when you write,” he said to me, “and depending on what’s in your heart, that can have an effect.”

“But,” he continued, “I imagine sometimes you wonder, ‘What does The New York Times covering this issue really contribute?’ And I don’t have that so much.”

The next morning, I got on the phone with Mary Monnat ‘80, my dearest friend then and now, who spent the year after we graduated volunteering in an alcoholism treatment center in Portland, Oregon. It was supposed to be just a quick detour before law school, but Mary never went back to Kansas. First, she wondered why the center never had more than a couple of women in the drunk tank at any one time; weren’t there any women on skid row? That led to her master’s work on women and addiction — she ended up starting a women’s program at the center. And that led to her life’s work. These days she is the CEO of a large not-for-profit mental health and addiction social service agency — and married to a former co-worker at the center where she had volunteered that first year. He now counsels high-risk sex offenders and murderers coming out of prison.

So for her, obviously, the line between that year and the rest of her life is pretty straight. “I’ll always believe divine intervention was going on,” she says. Not that it seemed so at the time, though. When I ask her to think back, the first thing that comes to mind is how one guy in her house, "was always waltzing off with his guitar to entertain the co-eds and I’d be left with the dishes. We were supposed to share the chores, right? So one day when he was leaving I said something about that and he said, ‘Mary, you wouldn’t feel that way if you were really rooted in Christ.’ I had a fork in my hand, and I said, ’I’ll root you in Christ.’

“Another time he came down to the center for lunch to have this big talk with me. He was all upset because our policy was that when folks showed up drunk, to get in they had to go to detox. He said, ‘Mary, are you telling me that if Jesus Christ came up those stairs drunk you’d turn him away?’ And I said, ‘No. I’d send him to detox.’ There was just a lot of that kind of naive thinking. The whole notion of throwing six young people with these ideals in a house together is great in theory, but in practice it’s a whole other thing. Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t think community really happened in our house.”

Sometimes, we talk about how we both chose roads that, while satisfying and clearly right for us, are not necessarily the glide path to summers on the Vineyard.

Another friend of ours who was also a volunteer our year, on the other hand, has done very well — Mary sometimes affectionately calls him Mr. Big — with a company that probably considers Tim Beaty’s union the enemy. But he says he is much more sensitive to issues of global poverty than he might have been had he not spent that year volunteering. He seems to think a lot about improving the lives of poor workers in places where many of those hired by his company otherwise might not have jobs at all.

He’d even like to volunteer again some time, in another season of life, he said when I called him recently. “It was neat to be poor,” he said, only half ironically. “I sometimes reflect on that when I think I don’t make enough money; I was pretty happy that year with $50” to spend every month. “Of course, you knew it was temporary.”

A couple of years ago, he told me that his goal was to get either a Mercedes or a BMW, I forget which, by the time he was 40. And I have to say that one of my reactions was to think he was brave to tell me that.

I am not an ascetic or anything; I like to be kept in good shoes and theater tickets. Mary wishes she could afford a bigger house. “Do you think simple lifestyle messed with our money mojo?” I ask her on the phone that day. “Nah,” she answered, and was right.

“I want to believe that by choosing to do this work rather than seeking greater rewards I stayed truer to myself” she says, “but I’m by no means living a simple life as I drive down the road here in my Volvo, talking to you on my cell phone. I hope I’m modeling something for my kids in terms of what we give back to the world. … And God help me, if I was an attorney, you know I’d be a public defender. It’s part of me. It’s part of you, too. That was always going to be the way it was.”

When I reach our other former housemate, Charlie Kenney, at the University of Oklahoma, where he teaches Latin American studies, he talks about what radicals he and Tim had been back in Hayward.

Charlie’s whole life had been upended, he says, after becoming aware of the problems of injustice and poverty through a girl he’d dated at Notre Dame. Her sister had spent time in Latin America and had some dramatic experiences there.

He ended up topping her, though.

Then he, too, had spent a year in Lima, on a now-defunct Notre Dame program, and never got over wanting to go back. “I felt I had to respond to what I’d seen, but the priests said, ‘Maybe what you’re drawn to is working with the poor. You’ve never really done that in your own country.’” So he’d joined Holy Cross Associates to figure out whether he should go back to Peru.

“The Peru experience was extreme, and that’s why we were extreme,‘’ he says, the “we” meant to include Tim. "That’s why some of those lifestyle issues came out the way they did."

And Charlie did go back to Peru, where he again worked for the church, as an organizer in an extremely poor parish, and met his wife, Caridad, only a few weeks after arriving.

Marriage prodded him, too, to look for something closer to gainful employment, and he signed on with a kind of think tank, only one where the thinkers regularly went out and talked to parish groups. It was run by Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation theologian. Eventually, Charlie became their resident expert on the Shining Path and began publishing and giving speeches against the Maoist terrorists.

His work was hardly theoretical, though; it put him in real danger. The terrorists, he says, saw the Catholic church “as a competitor. . . . in ‘89 they began to focus on us and to kill priests and nuns specifically. That’s when I started applying to grad schools” back in the United States.

At one point, a note was slipped under his door. It said: We’re watching you. “I ended up living two or three years in which I’d walk a different path every day to my house. I’d see people and think, ‘Which one of these is a Shining Path person following me?’ It was paranoid, but that’s what they were trying to do, so you’d have nightmares all the time and think, ‘Okay, if they come over the wall, I’ll do this . . .’”

Yet only when Cari was expecting their third child did they move out of a neighborhood with no running water or sewer system. “That meant washing diapers by hand with no running water, and it was terrible. Finally, I realized I didn’t have good relationships with my neighbors because I didn’t go talk to them. Remember how Tim used to go talk to that old lady next door? That’s his personality; I never did that. So I don’t know what good our living there was doing, but it was exposing our children to all these health risks. We finally moved to another part of the parish.”

The terrorist attacks not only continued but escalated. Once, a bomb went off near where Charlie was driving with his young son in the car. “So he knew what a bomb sounded like,” he says. The morning their family left the country, in 1991, the parish van en route to pick him up for the airport was surrounded by an angry mob and engulfed in flames, and the driver barely got through. “You’ve seen those movies where they’re on their way to the airport and somebody gets left behind? That’s how I felt, like we were fleeing a war zone.”

We talk, on and off-topic, for quite a long time. I couldn’t help thinking that if we lived nearer one another now, we might become the good friends we never really were in community. And that it is not inconceivable that all of us, mismatched and maddening as we are, might be a gift to each other still.

At the very least, we seem to judge each other less harshly, and if we’ve all softened to some degree, it’s in a way that I cannot see as a bad thing.

After getting his doctorate at Notre Dame, Charlie shipped out to Oklahoma, where “as an assistant professor who needs tenure, I’m just overwhelmed with what has to be done.”

Though the situation in Peru has eased considerably, he’s decided not to return there to live. “It was hard not to go back, but it mostly had to do with lifestyle stuff and our children. We would have pretty much been impoverished, and I didn’t like the chances of what that would do for the kids.” That decision did make him feel guilty, he says. “But another thing I’ve come to grips with is knowing my limitations.”

As it happens, both of the other women from the house in Hayward, Susan Claus Muller and Rose Calandra Sterr, both SMC ‘80, did make it to Notre Dame for the day of reflection. They’d gone on the spur of the moment, Susan driving in from Toledo, where she teaches English to high school freshmen, and Rose from Downers Grove, where she is home with her four kids and teaches college math a couple nights a week. We all squealed in frustration to learn we’d missed each other, but the three of us did get together in Washington recently.

After a couple of hours, they’d skipped out of the planned program at the Day of Reflection to go catch up.

Sue said it had bothered her when the main speaker for the day repeatedly harkened back to her time as a volunteer in Chile, a time when she saw herself as “on mission.” “I thought, ‘Do you think what you did in Chile is more on mission than what you do here?’ We’re all ‘on mission’! It’s like Mother Teresa said, ’It’s not how much you do, it’s how much love you put into it.’”

“I teach in a public school now, and this place! There’s cussing up and down the halls,” she went on. "You just wonder about God’s call. . . . I’m no Sidney Poitier, but there are little circumstances where I think, ‘Oh, maybe that’s why. For this one kid.’

“This one acted like he hated my guts upon arrival. He wouldn’t do the work, spoiled the class period and drove me crazy. Of course, he failed the class, and sure enough, come August, there he was again. I had to do something, so I really for the first time faked liking him. I’d say, ‘How are you today?’ In my heart, I’m thinking, ’Didn’t you ever hear of a virus? Why are you here?’

“Finally, I said to him, ‘The I-hate-Mrs.-Muller thing we’ve established. Let’s think about what we have to do so you can get this credit.’ In the end, after the exam, he wrote me a letter that said, ‘You taught me I don’t have to be a grouch every day.’ Before my eyes he transformed! He didn’t go from jail to Harvard, but to see warmth where there was none? It’s the best I can offer. I used to think of saving the world, and now I just try to be kind to the next person who’s driving me crazy.”

I tell her I’m awed, and I am. She reminds me of an older African-American woman in our parish in New York, who said she made a point of doing something kind for a person of another race at least once a day — her own little program for easing the city’s racial tensions.

Which makes me think, I guess because I’ve been reading the new Tip O’Neill bio, that maybe more than just all politics are local.

When Sue asked about my work, I say, “Well, I’m not feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, you know?”

She laughed. “I think it’s clothing the naked and feeding the hungry to smile at Thomas, who makes me want to puke. Do you want one of my T-shirts? I have this Ralph Kramden idea for making a million dollars. Here it is: I’m going to make these T-shirts that say, ’I’m doing the best I can; I’ll bet you are, too.’ That’s it, right? ’I’m doing the best I can; I’ll bet you are, too.’”

Melinda Henneberger is the editor of PoliticsDaily.com.

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