Our Seemingly Small Gestures

JulianBy Julian Washio-Collette (right: with his wife, Lisa), on behalf of Casa de Clara, the San Jose Catholic Worker community (originally posted in the Fall Newsletter)

Everywhere in these days people have…ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the me, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Our friend Angie called this afternoon. She has been staying at a local shelter for the past couple of months and has been calling us regularly just to check in. Amazingly, she has been clean and sober since she arrived at the shelter, and has seen other remarkable health improvements. When I talk to her, her voice is clear, her mind is lucid, and she is in an upbeat mood. In other words, she seems like a completely different person from the Angie we know who comes to our door pushing her shopping cart, slurring her words, speaking incoherently, rambling about what to us sound like paranoid delusions.

Angie is one of our many friends in whose presence we feel pained by the limits of our ability to help. We are not equipped to provide housing for women with her degree of mental illness or range of addictions and other challenges. But we do give her what we can: food and drink, socks, underwear, a blanket, wet wipes. Perhaps most importantly, we give her a brief reprieve from the brutality of the streets, treat her with respect, and extend a listening ear.

Often, we don’t realize the impact our seemingly small gestures have on those we encounter in the course of our days here at Casa de Clara. Often enough, we are not at our best. We may feel grumpy, irritable, impatient, and it shows. Yet, for all our limitations, my guess is that Angie may not have anyone else in her life with whom she feels safe enough and comfortable enough to call regularly and “check in.” And this is a result of nothing extraordinary on our part, nothing heroic, only our willingness to see and respond to her humanity even when it’s obscured by illness, addiction, and years subjected to the violence of poverty and life on the streets.

My wife Lisa and I moved to Casa de Clara over a year ago because we feel called to a life of prayer and service in community. We aspire to live in a way that helps bridge the divide between people such as ourselves, who enjoy a wide range of social, cultural, and economic privileges, and those pushed to the social and economic margins. To this end, with our fellow Catholic Workers we submit to the disciplines of voluntary simplicity, sharing goods in common, and learning to live cooperatively with one another and our guests. We pray together daily as a community, opening to the Spirit breaking down the barriers within our hearts and minds that separate us from God and neighbor. With our lives, we hope to witness to a Gospel-shaped alternative to the competitive, acquisitive individualism, maintained through massive organized violence, that undergirds our collective way of life as USAmericans. And we long for a day when these unnatural separations and disparities will be no more.

Angie’s shelter stay will come to an end soon. We do not know what comes next. As much as we hope and pray for a different outcome, we nonetheless know that we may still see her again on our porch one day, drunk and disheveled, flinching from faces she sees in the leaves. Even so, we will continue to extend what care we can, and by our small actions participate in the re-weaving of the web of human solidarity to which our hearts and our faith call us. We thank you for joining us in this work.

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