I have recently returned from my months’pilgimage’ to the US, to places that i consider Holy Places. My first ten days were spent at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker House. LACW has been present in East LA for 30yrs serving the most disadvantaged of God’s sons and daughters on Skid Row in downtown LA. The soup kitchen is affectionately known as The Hippie Kitchen and offers hospitality , a hot meal, a “ready smile and no preachin” 3 days a week. The current kitchen replaces the original which was destroyed by the last massive earthquake to hit California. A mural adorns the front wall and depicts Jesus in the Bread Queue. Its a powerful picture and i bear witness to volunteers serving the Jesus that exists in all people. Skid row is under siege from Gentrefication and a clean up programme to keep LA’s street ‘safe’. The residents of this area are constantly moved on, signs are every where to remind them that at no time will they gather in the streets or rest their weary bones. Their possessions are seized and destroyed. The police operate undercover stings and entrap people into procurring drugs. The prisons overflow with the meek and poor for such crimes as J walking and failing to pay fines. For a brief time the kitchen garden with shady trees, garden beds, picnic tables, mosaic murals and a water feature offers a place of eqaulity, respect and respite. A time to feel human and be treated as a human. A place to connect with friends, have a laugh, discuss politics or just sleep for a while.
Jeff and Catherine have lived in the LACW for thirty years and have hosted Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa. It is obvious that they love the people they serve and their passion for justice is infectious. At least eight others are part of the intentional community and the house is also home to 6 permanent guests. If any of the residents of Skid Row are ill they can go there to be cared for and sometimes that is where they die. During my stay there were 6 young adults participating in the summer intern programme and other Catholic Workers from other houses passing through. No one is denied a place to stay which makes for a crowded and lively place. Prayer and witness are also a strong part of Catholic Worker Life. The rhythm of the week also includes serving breakfast 2 days a week on the street followed by a vigils against the war in Iraq. You can check out LACW on www.lacatholicworker.org
Part 2 of my journey takes me to New Mexico the Land of Enchantment, a place of redbrown messas, sweeping mountain ranges adorned with green pinon and juniper trees and swathes of grey sage brush. The focus of my visit was to attend the Sack Cloth and Ashes Vigil in Los Alamos organised on the Anniversay of the vaporising of Hiroshima by The NM Pax Christi group. I had been inspired to attend following the visit to Oz in 2007 by Jesuit priest Father John Dear.
The vigil is preceeded by Friday Mass concelebrated by John in a beautiful modern, adobe style church near Sant Fe. John sets the tone with the readings and prayers and continually speaks of a God and Jesus of love and total nonviolence. That eve. guest speaker Sr Helen Prejean http://www.sisterhelen.org/ moves me deeply to tears as she speaks powerfully on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the death penalty. On the Saturday i made the journey up to Los Alamos. I accompanied my new friends and host Ellie and PeB and Illinois Pax Chrisit member Diane. Los Alamos is home to the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and continues to produce nuclear weapons on a mass scale. It is a picturesque town, prosperous looking and its main street like any other with the ubiquitous Starbucks, post office, shopping mall, Drs. clinics, hospital. It is called the Place of Discovery and it is no secret that nuclear weapons are made there. The museum proudly displays a replica of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Catholic population who work there feel no shame in what they do. You can buy a book in any national park store on the ‘glorious’ work of Los Alamos National Laboratory and its work is advertised in Hotel foyers and at baseball games. http://visit.losalamos.com/ Los Alamos sits a top the Bandalier National Park which for a few hundred years was former home to a nonviolent peublo community.
The vigil commenced at Ashley Pond with prayers and reading from the Book of Jonah by John. Aprox 200 people gathered and the whole vigil was to be in complete silence. We walked for half an hour along Trinity Way which intersects with Oppenheimer St my legs nearly buckling at the profanity of naming in this place of horrors a street Trinity. At exactly 2.45 we poured our ashes on the ground and wearing sack cloth we sat down on the side walk in the boiling hot NM sun. There i sat in prayer and reflecting on how i contribute to the continuing violence in this world and seeking forgiveness from all those i harm. Three eagles cicle over head soaring on the thermals.The traffic flows past, whether they take notice of our prescence i don’t know. At 3.15 we once again stand and walk back in total silence and gather once more in the park and give thanks and prayer. I did not experience visons or voices or bells or whistles but a deep humbling of my spirit. It reminds me to stay faithful to the journey and to know that God is present in all things. I had been in the modern day company fo saints and prophets.
Part 3 and the most profound part of my trip took me to San Quentin Prison, San Quentin, California. San Quentin sits on 200 acres of land over looking San Francisco Bay and squeezes in 6oo inmates on death row which was designed to accomodate 300. My pen friend of 6 years Carl Powell has been incarcerated there since he was 18yrs old he is now 35. I had started writing to Carl because i niavely believed i could bring something into his life. Infact it has been the other way around. Carl has created a very centered prayer life and has developed a deep wisdom. Over the years he has taught me much, some of which i have passed on to others. In his thoughtfullness he organised for me to contact another friend to accompany me on my first visit. She took me through the process of form filling, waiting, going through security and entering the visiting area for condemned men. I was more excited than nervous. Carl recognised me straight away as he was waiting in the visiting cage. Before the door was opened Carl had to place his hands behind his back at the gap in the door and be handcuffed. A spontaneous expiration of air left my body at the witnessing of the shackling of a human being. On entering the cuffs were removed and we were able to hug. I cannot begin to describe how that felt. He looks much younger than his 35 yrs. His appearance is fastideous dressed in regulation blue uniform which he washes and presses under his mattress for visiting day. The creases on his trousers are sharp and precise. He has newly plaited his hair and jokes about it. The conversation flows and soon our 4hrs is up. Carl is recuffed and led away. I try to digest what has taken place as i collect my ID return to brilliant sunshine. I then visited Carl the folowing 2 days. I experienced some of the difficulties of getting public transport to a prison and the amount of time it takes to do this. Nothing is made easy for the families of inmates as they try to hold their lives together. Visiting can be cancelled at ‘the drop of a hat’ or if you arrive late for your apointment time. At my second visit i could have been in serious trouble as i had contraban in the form of 2 forms of ID and a lawyers card in my passport. Thankfully the gaurd was a pleasant woman and didn’t penalise me. My third and final visit was the most stressful. The visiting area was in a different space. The visiting cages were much smaller and not lined with perspex which made it incredibly noisy, cold and lacking in privacy. I could hear very clearly the conversation next to me so knew they would also hear ours. I felt very jumpy with the banging of doors and anticipating the gaurds coming to take Carl away. We had only been scheduled a 2.5 hr visit but Carl asked the gaurd if we could have an extension as i was from Australia. The guard said he would have to see what the list was like but didn’t come back and we ended up with a 4 hr visit. We were able to have a polaroid photo of our visit through the gap in the cage.(Prisoners are able to purchase tokens for this purpose.) We hugged goodbye and Carl was recuffed and lead away. Prisoners do not look back. It was hard to watch him go. He was returning to his cell on the fifth floor, a continuously noisy place with a window glimpse of brick prison wall. Our converstaions had been full, open and honest. I do not know when i will see him again but i pray it will be on the outside. I have renewed my commitment to ending the death penalty and would also like an end to life in prison with out parole. You can make a huge difference in your life and of someone in prison by taking the time to write. Check out this site to find out how http://www.santegidio.org
I have experienced deep blessings on my pilgrimage. The making of new and deepening of friendships, hospitality from strangers and the sharing of prayer and faith. All food for the journey of life and death.