How the Center for the Working Poor began.
(Editor’s Note: My younger brother Paul is a dedicated organizer and a great thinker about nonviolence. He is also the rare kind of person who truly lives his beliefs. This year that has involved giving away all his money, vowing himself to voluntary poverty, and founding The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor in Los Angeles. Below he tells the story of how it happened and what the Center is all about. I can assure you that it’s an interesting and worthwhile read.
Paul would like you to subscribe, for free, to The Burning Bush’s newspaper, which he will publish once every few months. You can find more information at the organization’s website here. He also provides a street address for the Center at the end of the essay below. I’m sure he can also use any donations or words of support you can offer. —M. E.)
This year I have been involved in launching a new project called The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor. We take our biblical name from the unexpected signal God gave Moses to free his people from poverty and oppression—the burning bush that would never die. In my work here at the Center, I am delivering food to local families, living below the poverty line, and editing a paper about poverty in America, also called The Burning Bush. But that’s the short version of the story…
It has been my dream to start The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor since I was a little kid. This may seem improbable, since we just came up with the name two months ago and, besides, what kid would dream of being poor when they are growing up? I know it sounds strange, but I did. Even before I knew anything about Saint Francis (the saint of voluntary poverty), I discovered and loved stories about Chinese monks and circus jugglers who wandered the world, spontaneously expressing their talents and living off the generosity of strangers.
In high school, just before graduation, members of my senior class were interviewed for the school paper about their dreams. Most of the seniors professed desires to go out into the world and become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Since I was a good student and the student body president, my classmates had voted me “most likely to be President of the United States.” Thus, when the interviewer spoke to me, he was befuddled to hear me proclaim that my dream was to be a guru bum, to wander into religious monasteries, join the traveling circus, or live with the poor.
Many might think it would be easy to drop out, get paid nothing, and serve the poor. But for me it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Many years passed before I could realize my dream. Previously, I served within many more conventional roles within social movements—most recently acting as a boycott coordinator for the hotel and restaurant workers union in Los Angeles (UNITE-HERE). Coming off of a successful campaign, I finally felt the time was ripe to start anew.
On January 6, 2006, after lots of fasting and prayer, I founded The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor. I am now the “director” of an interfaith intentional community that serves the working poor and publishes a paper about poverty, operating in the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement. I donated almost all of my savings ($8,000 dollars), my car, and my apartment to the Center. I sleep on the floor, eat some variation of rice and beans every day, and get paid a “stipend” of $200 a month. While the lifestyle may not sound appealing to most, it does draw in some. Two days after I started, another person joined the community.
When I first went to deliver food to a family in need, I was a little self-conscious to them how I lived my life. After some confusion, and translation problems, the family showed a level of sympathy that both caught me off guard and touched me deeply. The mother in the family said, “You are a warrior.”
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What do you do?
Although I had my difficulties learning Spanish, I always had an emotional affinity with the low-wage, immigrant workers whom I served as a union organizer. In developing The Burning Bush’s programs I want to serve the same basic constituency—especially the single moms that are so prevalent amongst the hotel maids I worked with as a union organizer. Many hotel maids are paid $8.00 per hour, which, in LA, means living in poverty.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37 million people live in poverty in the United States. This is a shocking fact in itself, especially considering things are getting worse. In the last 30 years poverty has changed from something that had primarily afflicted the homeless, unemployed, and jobless to something experienced by those who work, even those who work full-time. Today, the majority of those that live in poverty show up for work and work hard, yet are not paid enough to support their families. When good church people or members of the public think about poverty, they think about bums and “welfare moms.” It is hard for most people to really understand the change that has taken place. “Hard-working poor people in America?” It sounds like an oxymoron. But often these are the people most in need.
Today, we need a movement for the new working poor. Instead of just soup kitchens that make people wait in line at noon, we need programs that can bring a bag of groceries to a hotel maid at 4:30 pm, when she gets back from work, before she cooks supper for her kids. Beyond efforts to expand welfare at the federal government level, we need to embrace a living wage movement that lifts all workers above the poverty line. Already living wage movements have appeared in a hundred different cities and an array of laws have been passed, lifting tens of thousands of public employees out of poverty. These living wage campaigns have put the issue on the political landscape. The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor will help to create a larger living wage movement with a combination of direct services and advocacy.
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What do you really do?
We have just started, but we are in the process of carrying out the following:
1. We deliver food to working families that live below the poverty line.
2. We sit at their kitchen tables and talk to members of the working poor about their kids, about free clinics, and about any other needed social services that they can secure.
3. We live, pray, and educate each other about how to eat with little resources, stay motivated to do this work, grow spiritually, and fight against working poverty. We plan to share our homes with the young, the poor, and anyone interested in living in voluntary poverty. Right now we are only two of us, living in a small apartment, but more people are already interested in joining. We plan to move and grow soon and by the summer we plan to have 12 full-time volunteer members.
4. We publish a paper called The Burning Bush. This paper is primarily a tool to inform church people about what we believe is the greatest tragedy in America—poverty—and to let people know about efforts to fight poverty.
5. We advocate for and participate in living wage struggles—campaigns to ensure that no one who works hard will live in poverty. Doing this political advocacy work in addition to offering services gives people hope. It establishes a long-term plan in working towards a better life and helps build a movement that can cure the disease rather than merely treat the symptoms.
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The Story of Martha
I will tell the story of our first family in our program. Martha (as we will call her) is an immigrant from Mexico who worked as a hotel maid. She was fired for advocating a living wage and a union at her job, where she was paid about $8.00 an hour. Her husband is still working full-time in the tourism industry. They live in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in what some call the “airport ghetto.” The rent is so high that they are only left with $600 dollars per month to provide for themselves and two kids.
A friend in the union that represents Martha called me and asked if I could help her. I got some food donations together and started bringing her family groceries. They always thanked us for the food we delivered each week, but this was only the beginning of our relationship. Over time and conversation, we got to know one other better and one day Martha told me that she had broken out in a stress-induced skin rash. She had the same rash in the past and cured it with a simple prescription medicine. Now, however, she had no health insurance, no doctor, and no medicine. She also had a nagging fear that it would spread. I was able to give her some advice and some phone numbers for a free clinic.
As our relationship developed further, she told me about her worries about her 10-year-old son, Oscar. Oscar had trouble at school. It was rooted in some kind of learning disability, possibly dyslexia. “We have tried so hard to get him to do his homework, but he lacks motivation,” she said. “The teachers say that this year he will not pass the fourth grade.”
It had taken me years to learn to share what I had felt was a very shameful part of my past: my childhood troubles with dyslexia and my difficulty learning to read. I told Martha and her husband my story. Although our cultural and geographical backgrounds were miles apart, we shared the common experience of what it is like to be or to have a child struggling to read and to be accepted in school with a learning disability. While I had difficult time reading growing up, I had a great talent for many things like juggling—just like Oscar had an amazing gift for the guitar. Martha and her husband feared the disability was a life sentence of failure and maladjustment for their son, so they were relieved to hear my story. I found great joy in the fact that my experience with dyslexia could have a potentially redeeming power for all of us.
With some excitement they asked me if I would talk to their son and I agreed. Sitting there with Oscar, I had a unique opportunity to confess everything I had felt for so many years. I wanted to speak to myself at ten years old. I wanted to explain how hard I tried, how it was not my fault, how I prayed to God to help me read. I told Oscar about how everyone thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, when no matter how hard I tried—more than my brothers or peers—I still felt cursed. I felt like a burden to my parents and teachers. Although Martha had told me her son had trouble concentrating on conversations and communicating his feelings, Oscar became still and silent during our talk. After I finished my story, there was a long pause. “I try too. I try really hard,” he finally said. His eyes were wet. For a moment, I felt I had gone back in time. I saw myself carrying so much pain. Oscar told me how frustrated he got, how he felt no one understood. He told me about his dreams of being a punk rocker with a nice house, a wife and kids.
Martha said that her anxiety about her son more than the material poverty was the hardest thing she was going through. It was the reason it so hard for her to find a job: She wanted the afternoons free to help her son. We discussed some unexplored options and some ideas I had from my experience. In the end, I think she was more grateful for this than anything else.
I tell this story not because I could fix all the problems in the situation. I couldn’t. I tell the story because our philosophy of service is about more then just feeding the body; it is also about feeding the spirit. In a dramatic scene from the life of Saint Francis, the future saint was sued by his own father because he had donated some of his wealthy family’s money to the poor. When he was sued, Saint Francis striped naked in the public courtyard, gave everything to his father—even the clothing from his back—and walked into the wilderness. He proclaimed that from then on he would serve only God and the poor. The townspeople laughed at this crazy man. What would a beggar be able to give to beggars? Saint Francis had nothing to give but himself, but he changed the world. His philosophy of giving of oneself and one’s spirit was the cornerstone of his order of penniless wandering monks.
Only four decades later, there were thousands of them wandering Europe and serving the poor. Many believed they were instrumental for the renaissance in culture, religion, and human development that enveloped Europe and reformed the Christianity of the day.
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What does your mother think?
For those of you who think that nice young Iowa boys from families of single moms are obedient to the wishes of their mothers, well… you’re right. After my father’s death in 1986, my mom was left supporting three rambunctious boys. Because I saw her struggle so hard to support us, I want to make her proud. My mom is a tough lady, but having a son quit his job, donate away all his money, and lose his health insurance is enough to shake up any mother. At first I thought this was probably going to give my mom a heart attack. It was right up there with the first time I juggled flaming torches. To most moms, the thought of your son turning into a secular monk and doing weird Gandhian religious experiments is akin to losing a child to the Grateful Dead.
But my mom was strangely calm and collected, unfazed by the idea of a son-turned-radical-religious-nut. No matter what I told her about my plans for voluntary poverty, communal living, and income-less service, I received unconditional support. “That’s great, honey,” she would say. I kept thinking, “What is finally going to push her over the edge?”
During my recent six months on sabbatical, I had some solid time at home with my mom. After I nagged her with questions, she started to open up to me more about her religious practice. And all of a sudden it hit me: Holy crap, my mom was a nun!
For 12 years before she left to start a family, my mom belonged to an order of Franciscans of Perpetual Adoration, known for their vows of simplicity, strict discipline, and community service. I learned recently her order was known for “perpetual adoration,” which means that this small community of nuns had someone praying to God (and for the community) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My mom occasionally woke up at 2:00 in the morning to do a four-hour shift of prayer, only to hand off the baton at 6:00 am to another tired sister. My mom then went to teach rowdy students in the morning. After learning this, I felt like a wimp. I realized I was talking to a spiritual heavyweight. At best, I was a young Luke Skywalker. She’s Yoda.
I hate to admit that there have been times when I have disregarded my mom’s intelligence and strength. Growing up, I saw her struggle to be an imperfect, sometimes stressed-out single mom working in low-wage service jobs. I forget that this amazing woman was a teacher, a nun, and leader of the community in her own right. After a very long emotional conversation, I was touched deeply at how supportive and proud of The Burning Bush my Mom was. I will always be grateful for her support. “I knew you were always destined for a great and special life,” she said.
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Please Help Us: Visions of Unpaid bills and the New Renaissance
I’ll be honest: I am uncomfortable asking for money. I’ll also say this: I am desperate. Part of this lifestyle is living day to day without financial security. But I do have faith. Even limiting my stipend to $200 a month, the project will not make it more than a few months if I do not get donations. I ask for you to be part of my vision and to be part of what I believe will be something special. If you cannot help with money, please at least sign up others to receive this paper, free of charge. This would help. We also need a larger house, food donations, and people to keep us in their prayers.
I ask you to imagine with me the possibilities of what we could build. What if there was an Interfaith Catholic Worker for Quakers, Jews, Catholics, Methodist, and Buddhists? What if college students had an option to sleep on the floor for a summer and visit a struggling single mom at her home with a bag of groceries?
I wonder, what if we can build today something like the order of Franciscans in the Middle Ages, with thousands choosing to live lives of service? Peter Maurin, the visionary co-founder of the Catholic Worker, thought that if enough people would live this type of life, a new Renaissance would envelop the world. I also find inspiration in the Civil Rights movement. In the movement’s years of great success, one of its most prominent organizations was called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC staffers worked for no wages, stayed in communal “freedom houses,” and lived in solidarity with the people they organized. Their work helped create a renaissance in the South that spread the philosophy of non-violent protest and advanced the cause of civil rights. Hundreds of SNCC volunteers entered the most impoverished and dangerous areas of the South, innovated methods of non-violent protest, and endured even physical beatings and jailings. In a decade, the movement they were a part of won the end of segregation and the right to vote for Blacks. Following the model of SNCC, I hope The Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor can serve at the fore of a new living wage movement, one that will win the right of people to work and live in dignity.
Currently, I am preoccupied with our daily existence. Right now it is just me and Clayton. But already there are a few others interested in joining our community and adopting this crazy lifestyle. There are also more families we would like to help. We need money to support our meager existences, even if we are consuming primarily rice and beans and have no income for luxuries.
I have nothing to offer you except the knowledge that what you give will be used to keep me in poverty and to help us serve others. I have learned not to pray for money, but rather for knowledge of God’s will in my life. But money wouldn’t hurt either. Any contribution would be greatly appreciated. Just to get by, our rent for our community each month is $1,200 and our living stipend for one volunteer is $200 a month. To provide emergency groceries for a family in the working poor costs about $50 a month. If you cannot send cash or a check, we also accept rice and beans. Donations made payable to “The Burning Bush” are tax deductible. Please send your contribution to 820 Laveta Ter, Apt 5, Los Angeles, CA 90026.
May the spirit be with you,