Raising Children Within The Catholic Worker
When I approached my priest three years ago to discuss my intentions of practicing voluntary poverty, he first responded with a glance of confusion. Then, with a furrowed brow, his second thought was of my four children and how this would affect their lives.
Up until that point my husband and I were spending every last dime we had to provide our children with the very best, most elite, private Catholic schooling possible.
We had also been studying Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement for a couple years, slowly dipping our toes in bit by bit before that day when I officially gave myself over to the movement completely. But as I went, so went the rest of my family. They refused to be left behind in this journey and so we studied, planned and sacrificed together, serving the poor with the very last of what we had left over.
My children had their young feet stuck in two different worlds. By day they would put on their cute little plaid skirts and precious little loafers and spend the day bathed in knowledge, critical thinking, bagel breaks, catered lunches, credit cards and fashion labels. But at 3:00 PM they would return home to our cramped, two bedroom apartment, where we would begin to prepare dinner for the poor. Taking boxes of food four miles down the road from their well-manicured campus we would, as a family, spend the evening with an entirely different peer group. My 6 year old would stand next to me, comfortable providing hand-shakes and hugs to our friends who struggled with labels of a different nature: felon, addict, illegal, schizophrenic, dirty, smelly, worthless, ugly. My teenagers would stand with the eyes of eagles for anyone that was in need. They would return home and, having gladly given away their allowance, their shoes, their school jackets, they would begin the mentally exhausting chore of preparing for the next school day.
As any CW knows, you can begin by handing out leftovers but as you more clearly recognize Christ in the faces of the poor, you can’t continue handing out scraps for very long. It seemed every time we had tuition money in our pockets, some great need would present itself. I was playing games of trying to stay afloat; trying to maintain our family’s disparity between belief and practice, but whenever I had $20 in my pocket, someone would need $20. Looking back I can see it as a celestial joke. But it was not funny when my children began to suffer. My 5th grader began to be bullied, badly, at school for being the only kid who wasn’t wearing Nike. My son had watched a YouTube video about sweat shops and he empathized with the low wages and suffering the workers endured while making these fashion statements. I could only watch him being shoved into water fountains or isolated at lunch and pushed down at recess for so long before we broke down and bought a pair of $14 Nike socks. Thinking his suffering was over, I remember he was so peaceful getting ready to go to school that next day. Sadly the administration said the stitching of the socks was red instead of white and he was considered out of uniform. So we went back and bought more socks. Of course the socks offered no solution. My child was isolated and punished by his classmates. He began vomiting daily from the stress. Our parish priest did not understand the predicament. What is wrong with Nike? Our pleas for justice were ignored.
The inconsistencies glared at me like the sun in my eyes and were impossible to ignore for much longer. For instance, the parish began a $7 million campaign to build a new school building but refused to keep a food closet in the church for the poor. My frustration was growing and my ability to keep my mouth shut was wearing thin.
One winter day I dropped off my kids at school accompanied by a man we had picked up out of the snow. He was drunk on mouthwash and had hit his head and was bleeding. I thought briefly about taking him into the church to warm up but I knew that would never be allowed. And then my heart broke. This man, a stranger full of the failings of the world, wished my kids a good day at school. He was sincere and generous as he held our hands and wanted to pray. The irony that my priest was so concerned my children would suffer if they were not pampered with a luxurious lifestyle but here my son was being blessed by a man who had nothing. My children did not suffer for lack of, they suffered at the hands of those in abundance; they suffered at the pursuit of false idols.
The fight to try to fit into a culture that we were no longer a part of quickly came to an end. Divorce from the world of privilege was more drawn-out that it should have been, I guess. It was painful and full of tears.
I cannot say today that I have completely come to terms with the truth that I choose to give our money to strangers rather than provide my own amazing children with the best education possible. It still pains me every day. But there is salve for my wounds. When my son reminds me to wake him up early on a Saturday so he can help make biscuits and gravy for strangers who would otherwise have no breakfast. When my daughters would rather stand in the cold, handing out hot coffee and bread than go to the movies with their friends. When my daughter checks to see if there is an active CW near the universities she is considering after graduation.
There is no hesitation from my children to serve. They stand under the banner of Christ, out from the crowd, above the trappings of this world and alongside the needs and rights of the poor. We have all found a home within the Catholic Worker Movement.
Susan Hurtado is a member of the Catholic Worker, Tulsa, Oklahoma – firstname.lastname@example.org