In a pair of black jeans, work boots and a button-down flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Michael Baxter is right at home. Although for the casual observer it might be difficult to tell exactly where that home is.
Having spent the last 30 years sojourning across the country and living in all manner of places, from the Holy Cross novitiate in the mountains of Colorado Springs, to teaching and studying at great universities like Duke, Notre Dame and Princeton, to living in humble church rectories or Catholic Worker houses, most recently in a modest apartment across the street from the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker, a house dedicated to serving the poor and homeless of South Bend that he co-founded in 2003, Michael Baxter’s home is not where he lays his head at night.
When I first met Michael Baxter ’83M.Div., I was a freshman at Notre Dame and he was a Holy Cross priest and theology professor, living on West Washington Street in South Bend, the site of the original Peter Claver Catholic Worker. With its dilapidated front porch and haggard garden, the house was welcoming but in poor shape.
Baxter, as he’s often affectionately called, slept on a futon mattress on the floor, in a house with bullet holes still in the walls. His Notre Dame salary and donations helped keep the place running. While he didn’t seem to own much, he valued what he did have: his books, four sweaters, religious icons, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young records. Of course we, his students, counted, too.
He shared a bathroom, meals and common life with a revolving cast of homeless folks and student characters, and he didn’t hesitate to ask a kid who’d grown up in a nice house in a safe neighborhood and aced her SATs, to leave the security of campus for a few hours to help out and get to know some poor people, all the while giving her a hard time for not knowing how to use a hammer or a coffee percolator.
Baxter was just as at home sharing a meal with someone right out of prison as he was jogging around the lakes in front of Moreau or blasting the Lonesome Dove soundtrack in his pick-up truck. He was just as at ease delivering a paper at an academic conference as he was ministering to soldiers or saying Mass in Dillon Hall, where he lived in residence for four years.
Michael Baxter was a radical, even disruptive presence in the lives of his students simply because he attempted to live as if the gospel mattered.
He had a way of drawing people in. ND students came in droves every Thursday night for Milkshake Mass in Dillon Hall. They came to hear life-changing homilies delivered in the famous Baxter whisper, to stand around after Mass and ask him questions, to have their consciences pricked and prodded, to hear the gospel as if for the first time. He made us question all our stuff, and with it, our allegiances and priorities.
Michael Baxter’s radical Catholicism, hospitality, availability and sense of humor brought students together who ordinarily would have been strangers to one another. His classes attracted liberals and conservatives, the greatest doubters and the most devout. In one of Baxter’s legendary courses, “A Faith to Die For,” it was not uncommon to see kids from all over the political and theological spectrum, from Young Republicans, Campus Ministry and Children of Mary types, to the Progressive Student Alliance, Center for Social Concerns and Ultimate Frisbee crowd. His courses on war and peace attracted members of both ROTC and Pax Christi USA.
This is in part because Michael Baxter doesn’t call home one of the established theological camps. He’s worked to stake out his own position, which at best finds its home in the pilgrim community of the Catholic Worker. He is neither conservative nor liberal; in some ways, he’s both. He opposes abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia and all war. He is often lumped in intellectually with his friend and mentor Stanley Hauerwas, and yet his affinities with thinkers like Germain Grisez or Ralph McInerny, his good friend who is now deceased, betray openness to the natural law that would almost certainly make Hauerwas cringe.
And while he’s written scores of scholarly articles and delivered as many papers, his forthcoming book, God, Notre Dame, Country: Rethinking the Mission of Catholic Higher Education in the United States and other projects always seem to take second place to his relationships with people.
When I visited other professors’ offices as a student, it was always to ask a question about an assignment, but I often stopped by Professor Baxter’s office in Malloy Hall just to talk. He had a way of making you feel welcome, like he’d been hoping you’d pop in. His office was always a mess of books and papers, floor to ceiling, and on every available surface, and certainly he had work to do. But he always made you feel like you were his top priority. He’d be in the midst of writing when I’d knock, and as soon as I walked in the door he’d drop everything, shove some books off a footstool and offer me a place to sit.
How did he ever get any work done? If he was in a rush or on his way to a meeting he’d say, “Walk with me,” and listen to your problem all the way there. Other professors went home, but Baxter was always available to his students, friends and those in need.
After spending 20 years as a Holy Cross priest (he officially left the priesthood in 2006), 15 as a member of the Notre Dame theology faculty, and eight as a co-founder and resident of the South Bend Catholic Worker, the second Catholic Worker he co-founded — the first being Andre House in Phoenix, Arizona — Michael Baxter is moving on from Notre Dame this fall. Still, this pilgrim soul and master teacher will be in his element, as his home is ultimately wherever his students are. After more than 30 years of teaching, serving, scholarship and causing a commotion in the academe and elsewhere, his students are everywhere.
Mike Baxter’s legacy at Notre Dame and in South Bend ultimately resides in the lives he forever changed by giving someone a place to stay when they were living on the street with their children, or counseling a student in need, even in the middle of the night, or helping a graduate student with his dissertation. His former students are now moms and dads, priests and nuns, peace activists and fighter pilots, and yet they can each tell you what he taught them and how he challenged them.
Professor Baxter won’t be at Notre Dame this fall to implore another class of students to practice the works of mercy and to protest war and injustice, or to inspire them with the lives of such American Catholics as Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Yet, Michael Baxter’s remarkable life and sense of being rooted in God and the Church, despite his transience in space, reminds us that for the Catholic Christian, home is ultimately not a place at all but a practice.