Somewhere around 1994, I hooked up with the L.A. Catholic Worker. For years I hung around at the Worker, trying to make myself think I was holy, trying to get them to think I was holy. For those who don’t know, the Catholic Worker is a lay movement started in New York City in the 1930s by Dorothy Day, an ex-Communist and Catholic convert who began by opening a soup kitchen in the Bowery and printing a newspaper, heavy on workers’ rights, that volunteers hawked on street corners for a penny apiece.
The movement is still going strong, with communal “houses of hospitality” all over the country. The L.A. Worker runs a soup kitchen/garden in Skid Row, witnesses against such issues as war and the death penalty and, from its sprawling Victorian house in the Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, provides shelter and hospice care to the drug-addicted, the aged and the dying.
I volunteered at their soup kitchen, donated money, wrote articles for their newspaper, The Catholic Agitator. I even spent a week one summer living at their house, but all that social interaction made me feel so out of place that it was a tossup at any given moment whether I should be serving soup or shuffling along, plate out, receiving it. That was when I realized that, as deeply as I respected their passion, their philosophy, I wasn’t capable of being a Catholic Worker. That was when I was forced to admit that there is only one thing I am fit for on this earth: to sit alone in a room for four or five hours a day and write.
Now that I’ve settled that issue, I am able to enjoy their festivity, energy and truly great hospitality — nobody puts on a party like the L.A. Catholic Worker — in a whole new way. One night not long ago, for instance, I brought over a pan of coconut squares for their Wednesday night liturgy and potluck and found myself at a wake instead. Milvio, a guest in the house for the past year, had been murdered on a sidewalk in Skid Row a few days before, shot to death in a dispute over a $20 bill.
In the dining room, folks were setting up a makeshift altar and rows of folding chairs. Milvio was laid out up front in a gray metal casket, the foot of which was draped with a green-and-black striped serape. On top of that were two vases of pink and yellow roses and a blown-up photo of a young black man with a shining face; his chest, in a white polo shirt, puffed out like the Terminator’s. I wasn’t sure of the protocol — I had a feeling you were supposed to wait until later — so I didn’t actually go over and look inside. I took a seat in the back, from where I could see a patch of shirred white satin bunting and the turned-up brim of a black Kangol cap.
Catherine, the indefatigable ex-nun who has been a mainstay of the L.A. Worker for 25 years, began the service by lighting candles and incense and passing around a big glass bowl of water. After we had each blessed it with our breath, she sprinkled a few drops over Milvio’s body. Then several people from the house spoke. Jeff — Catherine’s husband, a rabble-rousing, charismatic activist and general PR guy — noted that people on the street often more closely reflect God than “our middle-class friends.” Someone else observed that Milvio, a poverty-stricken drug addict, had never been the kind of success story Catholic charities like to hold up as examples of why you should donate money to them, and in that sense had been precisely the type of person to whom Christ was most deeply attracted.
This was all true enough in its way, but it was Martha — who had recently spent seven months in the Tonopah, Nevada, jail for cutting the fence at a federal nuclear testing site — who provided a human detail that made me feel a real pang at Milvio’s passing. Martha told how she had always known that Milvio ironed his jeans but could never figure out how he got the creases so sharp until one day in his bedroom she’d spotted a pan of something that looked like “old, old rice pudding,” a kind of miracle, glue-like starch.
We sang “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “Amazing Grace” to the music of two guitars and a hammered dulcimer. Catherine showed us some of the things they had found in Milvio’s room: a holy card of the vera icon of Christ with a prayer on the back about the importance of carrying God’s message, and a Bible heavily marked with yellow highlighter. Someone read one of the passages, an excerpt from the Song of Solomon:
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in the blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away . . .
We passed around a loaf of bread and a goblet of wine and called out the names of other people we wanted to remember: “Uncle Jim,” “my husband,” “Matthew Hourihan.” The bread tasted good — I was starting to get hungry — and after “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Eric, who had left a Jesuit seminary in order to join the Catholic Worker, said the blessing over the soup. “The pintos weren’t quite done,” he observed, “and neither was Milvio.”
I ate my dinner a few yards away from the casket. Everything was delicious: salad with ranch dressing, a leg of fried chicken, a slice of the flan that Ashley, an inner-city doctor, had brought from a Cuban bakery. It was good to chat with people I knew: Dick, a computer whiz and soup kitchen volunteer; Lisa, a pediatric intensive care nurse; Isaac, who lives in a Skid Row hotel and was planning to take a Greyhound to Oklahoma City to visit his sister in a few days. There were 30 or 40 people there, eating, talking, laughing, and at one point I looked around and thought, who else but a Catholic Worker would have the creativity and heart to hold a wake in their dining room? Who else would have taken in someone like Milvio? How many people in my life had so generously welcomed me?
Before I left, I finally went over to pay my respects. It is always unsettling to view a corpse. Everything was a few degrees off: the skin grayer than any real skin, the body in a box you never see a live person lying in, the stillness infinitely more still than anyone sleeping. Even the parts you don’t think of as being much alive to begin with — eyelashes, fingernails — looked dead. A short skinny braid snaked out from the back of his neck, the part you couldn’t see, where the bullet had gone through. He’d been 35 years old.
I did not know Milvio in life, but I was humbled and honored to have shared in the communion of his death. His murder was an illustration of the forces of darkness the members of the Catholic Worker so courageously picket against and go to jail for, but driving home that night, as the moon shone silver above the skyscrapers downtown, I was not much thinking of the techno-corporate juggernaut of global economics or the contemptibility of my bourgeois life.
What passed through my mind instead were odd little images I had flashed on during the service — Sandy’s thumbnail, Donald’s sideburns, the way Jeff rolls up the bottom of his shorts. I thought of a God so tender that he numbers every hair on every head. I kept to the right, in the slow lane, and every so often my hand fluttered up to touch the back of my neck.
Heather King is a writer living in Los Angeles.