Syndic No. 21 Cover / Theme: Social Justice ∼ Social Injustice
Syndic Literary Journal

Social Justice ~ “A Life of Serving Those In Need” by Peter Stiehler

“A Life of Serving Those In Need”

By Peter Stiehler

For the past thirty years I have tried to devote my life to social justice through serving those in need, with the last twenty-three years being at Catholic Worker Hospitality House in San Bruno, which I co-founded with my wife Kate Chatfield.  I feel thankful to have had this opportunity to live out my Catholic faith in this manner, but given my early background it’s the last thing I would have ever expected of my life.

I grew up in suburban Dallas, Texas in a conservative Republican family with a father who voted for Barry Goldwater and campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968.  The only service talked about in our house was military service and there was never any critique of the government or society.  While I was raised Catholic, we weren’t a devout family.  My mother made sure we went to Mass every Sunday and that I attended catechism classes until I was confirmed in the Church, but we were neither active in our parish nor did faith play a role in our daily life.  When my parents divorced shortly after my Confirmation we stopped regular Mass attendance, which as a teenager I didn’t complain about.

In many ways life in suburban Dallas in the 1970’s was idyllic with good schools, safe neighborhoods, and hordes of other children with which to play.  As a white male life seemed full of opportunities, but in retrospect the choices offered to me were rather limited.  When I became a student at the University of Texas at Austin it was assumed I would get a business degree and work in some sort of financial institution or corporate job after graduation.  The idea of devoting my life to voluntary simplicity and social justice with a radical Catholic organization was unimaginable.  All that began to change when I embraced Catholicism as an adult.

Oddly enough it was the sacrament of confession that reconnected me with my faith.  Easter of my sophomore year I went to my grandparents ranch in South Texas where the entire extended family would gather for Easter Mass and BBQ.  All were expected to go to confession before Mass.  During my confession the priest asked me how often I went to Mass. “Um, rarely,” I feebly responded.  “Jesus died on the cross for you,” he responded, “the least you can do is go to Mass one hour a week.”  I accepted the old school Catholic piety and guilt for what it was, but I was at a place where I was looking for deeper meaning in my life. So I started going to Mass again. 

Among my friends, who were mostly survivors of Catholic High Schools and Baptist mega-churches, religious practice was frowned upon.  This was due partly to youthful rebellion and partly to the perceived hypocrisy of churchgoers. Jesus preaches such high ideals of loving our brothers and sisters, serving those in need, and eschewing power and wealth.  Yet his followers all too often seem more concerned with their own betterment and maintaining an unjust status quo than the ideals of Jesus.  At least that was my experience growing up in suburban Dallas.

With this in mind I felt that if I was going to be a churchgoer and maintain the respect of my friends (and myself), then I had to take my faith seriously and have it be the guiding force in my life.  I wanted to live an authentic and sincere faith, but I was clueless as to how to achieve this goal since my only experience of religious practice was of the “one hour a week” variety.   So I tried getting involved.  In addition to regular Mass attendance, I got active in my parish as a Eucharistic minister and lector, became an active participant in the student young adult group, and attended weekly bible study as well as the occasional retreat.  I was doing whatever I could think of to deepen my faith life.  I had the zeal of a convert and the idealism of youth, but was still a fairly mainstream Catholic.  So what changed?

A series of events led me to begin making major changes in my life.  First, a friend was severely injured in a motorcycle accident (I too rode a motorcycle at the time); then another friend was murdered in a drug related incident; then my father died at age 51 from cancer; and then the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on take off.  All of these events made me think, “I could die at any time.  How would I account for myself before God if I died today?  I need to start living my faith now.”

The first thing I did was switch from studying business to liberal arts.  From my experience, a business school education is narrowly focused on learning how to maximize profits. My liberal arts education, on the other hand, exposed me to the world.  From my Liberal Arts studies I learned that my country and my church, while at times admirable and great, are also flawed with a long history of oppression and injustice.  But I learned that they also have a long history of people and groups working for justice and espousing high ideals.

After changing majors I was often asked what I was going to do with my life.  “I don’t know,” I would respond, “but I’m not going to work in a bank.”  My family and friends thought I was nuts – overly pious and naive.  Maybe I was, but I knew that I somehow wanted my faith to be an integral part of my life’s work and studying finance wasn’t going to help me with that. So I started searching.  I knew I didn’t need the answers immediately, but I did need to start walking the path to find some answers.  In an attempt to find those answers and a path, I started reading and volunteering.

Once again, I felt somewhat clueless in this search.  As stated earlier, my family was neither particularly devout nor socially active.  I had no one to show me the way to a life of devoted Christian service, so I set off the best I could.  I started reading about the lives of saints and holy people in an attempt to find a model of how to live a faith-filled life of service. But while the lives of these people were admirable and inspiring they didn’t show me a way to live my faith outside of vowed religious life (and celibacy and obedience have never been my strong points).

Then I read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day.  I was inspired by the story of her life: her pre-Catholic life as a journalist in the 1910’s and 1920’s writing about and participating in the struggles to create a more just society, her conversion to Catholicism and the years she spent struggling to find a way to combine her new found faith and ongoing commitment to creating a more just society.  Then in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Peter Maurin showed up at her door with the answers she was seeking: publish a paper extoling the Church’s social teachings, open houses of hospitality to serve the needs of the poor, create “agronomic universities” (farms) to get unemployed workers back to the land, and host roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought.  This was the model for what became the Catholic Worker Movement.  For the remaining years of her life she, and the others who joined her, lived in the lower eastside of New Your City in voluntary poverty so as to devote their limited resources to feed, shelter, and care for the outcasts of society.  She continued challenging and writing about unjust social structures, as well as the solutions for them that could be found in the church’s social teachings.  I remember saying to myself, “Boy, if I could ever be a saint, that’s what I would like to do.”  It felt so authentic and real.

While I was doing my literary research I was also volunteering at my local parish to see what sort of ministry spoke to me.  I tried starting a youth ministry group with other young adults and teaching catechism classes, but I felt neither comfortable nor competent in either of those pursuits.  Then I got involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society where I made home visits to folks seeking food aid, furniture, or rental and utility assistance.  This spoke to me.  I felt called to serve those in need and thought that this could be the way that I could combine my faith and life’s work. But I needed more experience to see if I was up to the task of this life.

The summer before my last year of college I participated in the summer orientation program of The Channel Program in Seattle WA, a yearlong volunteer service program.  Through that orientation program I deepened my knowledge of justice issues and learned what a faith-based year of service would look like.  After that I drove across country to participate in a week of service in Appalachia with the Glenmary Home Missionaries.  It was an amazing week of engaging in various service projects while learning about life and culture in Appalachia.  After my summer of exploration I had no doubt that I would do a year of faith-based service after graduation.

I chose the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) for my post-graduation year of service.  The JVC is a yearlong volunteer program in which participants live in community with other volunteers, receive a small monthly stipend, and get placed in a job serving the community.  I spent my year in Santa Monica working at a meal program on Venice Beach.  I enjoyed the work, liked living in community, and benefitted from the retreats where we deepened our spirituality and learned about issues of peace and justice.  I enjoyed my year so much I signed up for another year, this time in Philadelphia PA where I worked at a day center for mentally and physically disabled adults in a rough neighborhood of north Philly.

My JVC experience further confirmed my desire to continue working in faith-based social service.  It was a life that made sense to me and after my time with JVC I knew I could do it.  Unfortunately JVC is a maximum two-year experience, so I began the search for a place where I could continue this life and work long-term.

After my time in Philadelphia I traveled a bit, then settled in San Francisco where I found a job at a senior meal site in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco operated by the Salvation Army.  During this time a girlfriend from Philadelphia had joined the Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) and encouraged me to visit as she knew how moved I had been by the writings of Dorothy Day.

My visit to the LACW fulfilled my expectations of the Catholic worker Movement.  They operated a free dining room on LA’s gritty skid row, lived together in a large house in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles where they offered hospitality to guests from their dining room, and regularly protested against war and unjust social structures.  The Catholic Workers I met were devoted and radical in their beliefs – serious about their faith, but not piously churchy; devoted to justice and service, but not afraid to have fun and get bit rowdy, more akin to “reforming rottens” than “holy holies.”  Being a “reforming rotten” myself despite my churchy background, I felt right at home.  I realized I didn’t have to be a saint to be a Catholic Worker. And far from being severe and dour, the life of a Catholic Worker was usually fun and full of joy.

 I soon quit my job in San Francisco and joined the LACW and settled into the work and life of the Catholic Worker.  Far from having a two-year shelf life like the JVC, the Catholic Worker encourages a life-long commitment. I felt I had finally found my spiritual and vocational home.  My search was over.  I had found a place where I could live out my faith through the daily practice of the Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.

My journey to justice could end here, but there was to be one more stop.

I fully expected to spend many years at the LACW, but three years into my time there I met Kate Chatfield who was doing a year in JVC and was also interested in the Catholic Worker.  We started dating and quickly decided to get married and after her JVC year she joined the LACW.  Shortly before we got married Kate informed me we wouldn’t be staying in Los Angeles working in someone else’s Catholic Worker. She wanted us to operate our own Catholic Worker House.  On our honeymoon we met with Larry Purcell and Jan Johannson of the Redwood City Catholic Worker to talk about starting another Catholic Worker House in San Mateo County (Kate had read they were looking to assist a young couple get started in their own house).  After a surprisingly short interview Larry and Jan offered us money to purchase a house to be used as a Catholic Worker house of hospitality.  We quickly accepted their offer. (I mean, really, we’re not stupid.  How could we not say “yes?”)  Within a year we had purchased a large house in San Bruno CA that would be our Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, had started our own dining room for the poor (my dream), and were expecting our first child.

Twenty-three years later Kate and I are still living a life of faith-based social justice.  While Kate has moved on to work as an attorney (initially as a criminal defense attorney serving the poor and disenfranchised and now working on criminal justice reform), I’m still working at our Catholic Worker (Catholic Worker Hospitality House).   While one’s journey of faith and justice should never end, when I found the Catholic Worker I knew I had discovered my path, and when we started our own Catholic Worker House in San Bruno I knew I was home.

My life and work is still based on the daily practice of the Works of Mercy.  On the grounds of St. Bruno’s Catholic Church in San Bruno we operate a free dining room serving 70-80 folks five days a week and during the dining room 15-20 guests are able to use the shower facilities. Out of the same building we operate a year-round homeless shelter for nine guests nightly. We also have two boarding homes providing permanent affordable housing to 14 former shelter guests. And we have a house where we provide transitional housing for folks coming out of state prison.

When I first dreamed of “living a life of social justice” I envisioned rough neighborhoods, grand actions, and dramatic background music.  But after thirty years of trying to live the life, I see it’s about doing small simple acts of kindness to bring comfort and joy into the lives of others.  Whether that’s by providing a hot meal, a blanket, a place to live, acceptance, or a corny joke.  It’s about sharing what you have so all will have enough, maximizing prophetic witness instead of profits. It’s about living justice wherever you are given the opportunity to serve.  Whether it’s rough neighborhoods or average suburbs, people still need to be loved, treated with dignity and respect, and given an opportunity to live the best life possible. 

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