I have a friend at work who, as any good friend would, has steadily been offering advice to improve my life. I’ll call him Good Ben/Bad Ben.
Lately, Good Ben has been urging me to go with him to volunteer at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen. The Catholic Worker was started in New York City in 1933 by Dorothy Day, and today about 250 Worker hospitality houses/soup kitchens operate across the United States. Here in L.A., they’ve been cooking meals for the city’s poor and homeless since Easter Sunday 1970. The kitchen is at Sixth St. and Gladys Ave. in the Skid Row neighborhood.
Two Saturdays ago, I took Good Ben up on his offer. I showed up at 7:30 a.m., joined in the morning’s prayer, and spent a half-day buttering bread, chopping red cabbage, filling plastic bags with bagels, and walking from picnic table to picnic table offering cups of cool water to the guests. I’m not asking for God’s gold star for cutting vegetables and pouring water. After all, God’s grace is given freely, we can’t earn it. The best part of the day was who I met.
An African American woman in a wheelchair came from the food line and asked me for water, then for my name. Hers, she said, was Mary. When I said Mary was my mother’s, as well as my sister’s — my sister, the nun — a five-minute conversation began. Mary told me about the poems she writes, reciting three, each about the faithfulness and providence of God. But the special moment came 10 minutes later, when she called out “Joe” from across the courtyard. I walked over to her table, where she introduced me to her friends. I arrived at the kitchen feeling anonymous, and in an instant I felt known.
The other special encounter was with an LMU alumnus, Rob Palmer ’85, and his daughter, Grace. I have a daughter named Grace, and, as sentimental as it may seem, I feel bonded to anyone who has named a daughter Grace. Rob’s been to Sixth and Gladys many times, and I was struck by how much fun he was having. I’m not sure he knew everyone, but he looked like a man surrounded by friends. At the end of the day, Grace, a high school freshman, was beaming, too. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself among the LMU community. Jeff Dietrich, a leader at the Worker, writes in his new book — titled “Broken and Shared” and published by the Marymount Institute Press — that he considers Greg Boyle, S.J., M.A. ’85, founder of Homeboy Industries, his pastor and first volunteer. And at least a handful of Jesuits across the country have helped shape Dietrich over the years.
I suppose I have Good Ben to thank for all of this. But what about Bad Ben? Well, 50 percent of Ben’s advice is excellent, dead on target — Good Ben’s. The other 50 percent — this I’ve said straight to Bad Ben’s face — is dreadful. For every invitation from Good Ben to head down to Skid Row, Bad Ben suggests a weekend in Las Vegas. Well, you know what they say. So I said to Bad Ben, “Let’s not go there.”
(Photo by Mike Wisniewski, Los Angeles Catholic Worker)