JEFF DIETRICH’S BROKEN AND SHARED: Food, Dignity and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row is a collection of reports from a life of activism. It begins (after forewords by Dietrich, Martin Sheen, and Daniel Berrigan), with letters from county jail in 1979, where Dietrich was serving six months for protesting a military electronics show in Anaheim, one of his forty trips to prison for civil disobedience. Most of the essays that follow were originally published in the Catholic Agitator, the newspaper put out by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, the community where Dietrich has lived (and worked in their Skid Row soup kitchen) for the last 40 years. The book is thus a hands-on history of poverty in our city.
As someone allergic to religion, even in what for a humanist is its most palatable, social-gospel form, I approached the book with some trepidation, and the amount of faith-based reasoning in it remains on the whole too high for me. Dietrich himself suffered from similar allergies as a young man:
Father Hearn, our parish priest bought a new Buick every year. One could hardly imagine him, with his well-tailored suits and Gucci loafers, wandering from village to village preaching the good news to the poor or suffering the little ones to come unto him.
After Father Hearn, Dietrich “progressed,” he writes, “beyond mere disdain for the church to a highly sophisticated level of indifference.” He found, in the Catholic Worker movement, the cure for that indifference.
My own Catholic mother revered the Berrigan brothers and Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, but I managed to maintain my sophisticated indifference. Doubting Thomas, I thought, when I first heard the story, that’s me, and unlike Dietrich’s, my agnosticism, after a period as a proselytizing atheist, has relaxed into sociological curiosity: I am only interested in faith as something other people do.
Still, it is hard not to be impressed by the commitment of someone who for 40 years has dedicated his life to cooking 4,000 meals a day for the destitute, living in a community with a couple dozen co-workers who all get room and board and $15 a week (when he isn’t in jail for protesting other forms of violence and injustice). I know the rap against soup kitchens, that as band-aids on deeper institutionalized inequality they help to perpetuate conditions, and Dietrich knows this critique, too: “The problem is this filthy rotten system,” he says, quoting Dorothy Day. But this doesn’t change the fact that feeding a hungry person is a fundamental act of compassion, and that, whatever else we do, people need to eat. Reading these pieces one is reminded that an enormous, however incomplete overlap exists between materialist humanism and Catholic Worker-style social action.
The book was published by Loyola Marymount’s Marymount Institute Press, an imprint of exiled Ethiopian journalist Elias Wondimu’s Los Angeles-based Tsehai Publishers. What follows is an excerpt from a 1996 Catholic Agitator article.
– Tom Lutz
“Hey, don’t give me nonna that hard crust stuff, man. I ain’t no Frenchy.” For the majority of folks who eat at our sou...read more