As the gap widens between rich and poor in Britain, the effects of austerity on our society become impossible to ignore. People now sleep under my local railway bridge in full view of passers by and it is impossible to go shopping without a beggar asking you for money “for a cup of tea”. Here in the London borough of Haringey, one of the most deprived areas in the country, is a Catholic Worker hostel where refugees and migrants are fed and sheltered by volunteers. All the men (women are housed in a converted farm outside London) have no documents and are not allowed to work by law. They are provided with food and a bed in shared rooms in a converted church, and it is there that I met Nora Ziegler, one of the team of volunteers that run the show.
I had met Nora before, both at the bible study class that meets here and at the 2015 London Anarchist Book Fair where she gave a very well-received talk on “radical hospitality”. I started by asking her what her political views were and how they affected her religious views. Although she had been on a few protests and had a Christian background she told me she had never thought seriously about the connections between her faith and politics until she did a course at college on radical Islamic and Christian philosophies. There she heard about Tolstoy for the first time and set about reading his classic work “The kingdom of God is within you”. She also dipped into another Russian writer, Peter Kropotkin, a (non-Christian) anarchist. These radical, not to say revolutionary, perspectives made sense to Nora who started looking for ways in which she could apply her faith using non-violent means to help bring about social justice.
Her search led her to the Catholic Worker house where she eventually moved in as one of the team. She told me that she felt “called” to work there, even though it turned out not to be quite what she expected. For example there were conflicts over issues of race, class, gender and hierarchy. Nora spoke of growing and learning how to live in a community with very diverse people, and of the value of regular prayer. She also liked reading the writings of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the movement in the American depression in the 1930s.
I asked her if it wasn’t paradoxical that a pacifist/anarchist institution such as the Catholic Workers should bear the name of church that sported a rigid hierarchy. She grinned broadly and said she didn’t know much about the church as she wasn’t a Catholic, but she had learned more about the history of the Catholic church since being part of the CW and found that there is a long history of dissent, struggle and community building from the grassroots within the church. She sees the CW movement as part of that tradition. Could the CW movement be construed as anti-welfare state? After all Peter Maurin, one of its founders supported the philosophy of Personalism, where society’s needy were supported by individual acts of charity throughout the community and not by a massive state bureaucracy funded by taxes, such as we have in the UK. Nora said that people should freely take a personal responsibility for those less fortunate than themselves. It was good to create spaces where life was valued so that people could undertake voluntary work for others. She felt strongly that in a capitalist society, work done by mothers and carers wasn’t valued. She foresaw a day when violence was eradicated from society and the welfare state was not needed any more. It was vital to build relations of trust, thus enabling the members of each each community to rely on one another and to run their own affairs without depending on the state.
I knew Nora had just returned from delivering aid to the camps in Calais, France. When I asked her about it there was a long silence. The hundreds of refugees and migrants trapped in this squalid tent city on the coast near the crossing point to England are there as a result of government decisions. The French government won’t give them solid houses to live in and the British government won’t let them cross the Channel. On the bright side, Nora told me that people in the camp were pulling together, and had opened little restaurants and built a beautiful church. Even though the police arrested and intimidated at will, people there still had faith and cared for each other. Like the London Catholic Workers they made the best of what they found. Even though they lived a life without any privileges people still felt empowered and had a positive take on what was happening.
Nora had come to feel that both the guests at the hostel where she worked and the inhabitants of the camp were poor because we were rich. Her increased awareness had made her see that there is a sense in which we are rich and free at their expense. She was more aware of this in her present job than she had been while a privileged student at uni. She had been forced to think about the injustices that she might be complicit in. For example the British government, acting on our behalf, had implemented strict border controls to keep the desperate and the needy from ever getting to these shores. Some refugees and migrants had died as a direct result of these measures. This strong motivating force has led to Nora getting involved with marches for justice, peace vigils and protests in solidarity with refugees in London, as well as trying to make the hostel more a place of healing.
In Calais a young Afghan said to her that he wanted to come to England so that he could be “free”. This was rather ironic to Nora as she sees her freedom as existing only because others are not free. She wishes to unlearn her privileges, to stand in solidarity with those who are destitute; or, in her words “to put her body where she wants her heart to be.”
To find out more about the team and the guests at the London Catholic Worker, or to make a donation to their work, go online to http://www.londoncatholicworker.org