The Small Things First: Guest Writer Lauren Adderly on Living and Working at Houston Catholic Worker House

Lauren Adderly grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ, and graduated from Camden Catholic High School before attending Villanova University to study biology, theology, and peace and justice. She spent three summers in college living with the SOLT religious community on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, where she learned to play the guitar and ride horses while helping to run a summer camp for reservation children and teenagers. She is currently a Catholic Worker in Houston, Tex.

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On retreat at the Romero Center as a freshman at Camden Catholic, I remember being drawn to the murals in the living room. I was challenged by the bold letters calling me out: “So you say you love the poor…name them.” I was captivated by the brightly-colored wall painting with the words of Oscar Romero claiming, “The preferential option for the poor is pure Gospel.” I was starting to see, in my own humanity and poverty, that my best option was pure Gospel as well.

As a student at Villanova University, I met another member of the communion of saints who would accompany me through the next stages of my life: Dorothy Day.

Dorothy’s words made pure, simple sense to me: The works of mercy – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, admonishing the sinner, visiting the prisoner – are ways to facilitate the meeting of heaven and earth. And whenever heaven and earth meet, transformation occurs. Each time an empty stomach finds a place at a banquet and a tired soul finds a place to rest, Jesus is incarnated anew and the veil between heaven and earth is torn again and again. When we allow God to be our Prince of Peace, justice will flourish.

Nothing about Dorothy’s ideas is abstract – everything she writes is grounded in philosophy, economics, and an intense familiarity with humanity. She never writes alone – all of her ideas are immersed in obedience to the Church, knowledge of Scripture, and friendship with the saints. In college, as I read Dorothy’s writings and researched the Catholic Worker movement, this vision of justice through hospitality, community, work, and prayer took root in my heart.

After graduating from college earlier this year, I moved into the Casa Juan Diego women’s house as a full-time Catholic Worker in Houston. Our house is a place of hospitality for recent immigrants, especially battered or pregnant women and families. Our other houses nearby provide hospitality for immigrant men, with special care given for those who are sick or injured. We operate a free clinic with volunteer doctors for the city’s undocumented population and host a major distribution of rice, beans, and vegetables to about 400 families each week. We publish a bimonthly newspaper with a large, international circulation to encourage transformation of thought by sharing stories and ideas. Our beautiful urban organic garden keeps the house full of fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs year-round.

Casa Juan Diego's urban garden

Casa Juan Diego’s urban garden

At the moment, we have about 20 women and children living with us from seven different countries. I live in the house, eat meals with the guests, speak Spanish to the best of my ability, and receive a small stipend for minor expenses. My days are spent mostly as an innkeeper, babysitter, gardener, taxi driver, master of odd jobs, and professional monster exterminator for kids afraid of the dark. The more intensely I commit myself to the work, the more deeply I know my weakness and my need for God in prayer.

The stories of how these women and families arrive at our door are varied, vibrant, and heartbreaking: A woman living with us now is learning to care for her six-year-old daughter while struggling with severe mental illness. We are accompanying a guest through the ups and downs of her pregnancy after she escaped a battering boyfriend and pressure to have an abortion. One woman from Cameroon is working through the legal challenges of being a victim of human trafficking. In recent weeks, we have received many Cuban families who arrive in the US after fleeing Cuba and travelling for months through Central America with small children and few possessions.

It is frustrating to feel sometimes that our work is doing little to combat the massive, systematic injustices of our world. Working for justice conjures up desires to end the production of nuclear warheads and reform the entire system of immigration. But often, responding to battles in our kitchen with peace and gentleness instead of frustration feels just as revolutionary. Facing the inability of my own tired heart to respond in charity to the needs of a guest feels just as ambitious. No doubt God works in great ways, but our great actions become inauthentic if we do not first recognize the need for our hearts to change in the small things first.

Building the Kingdom of God alongside the poor and the sick is messy work. But, according to the tradition of the saints, you would be hard-pressed to find holiness sheltered from that messiness. So here in this house, amidst the struggles and the laughter of the kids and women who live here, we are recognizing human dignity, sowing seeds of justice, and learning each other’s names. We trust that God will reveal to us our responsibilities and magnify our efforts until our work is perfected in the Kingdom of God. And so while I am no closer to answering the ever-present question of what I’ll be when I grow up, I am grateful for the chance here to offer my heart and hands in this work of the saints.

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