Feeding the Poor

March 3, 2012   •   By Jeff Dietrich, Tom Lutz

Broken and Shared

Jeff Dietrich

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 soup kitchen, bread is not hard and crusty, it does not have poppy seeds or sesame seeds, it is not black or brown, it does not have the flavor of rye or yeast. In fact, it has no flavor or character, or mass or density, or substance at all. It is soft and white and bland and as flavorless as a cotton ball. It is bread in name only, made by machines for a people who have lost all memory of bread.

This is not a judgment on the people who eat at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, it is just a minor example of the subtle but pervasive manner in which technology “transubstantiates” life into a mere simulation of itself, erasing all memories of what has gone before.

In recent months we have read articles about artists and monastics, Catholic Workers and peace activists, embracing the Internet. It is not the technology itself that concerns us so much as the fact that these particular people who are apparently embracing this new technology with such enthusiasm should, by virtue of their “alternative” vocations, be more skeptical than they apparently are.

They should not so glibly repeat the hype and promise of technical progress. They should know that everything that is being said today about the positive benefits of the Internet was first said about the automobile and then about radio and television. “It will bring us closer together, give us more and better leisure time, improve our intellect, save lives, promote community, give us more freedom, greater autonomy, and personal power.” How many times do we have to hear that same sales pitch before we realize that we are being sold a bill of goods? Soon they will forget the taste and substance of face-to-face community. Soon the only real community will be the net, just as the only real bread is Wonder Bread.

Those who criticize new technology are often characterized as naïve or romantic. But in truth, it is the ones who uncritically embrace new technical innovations that are being naïve and idealistic. They put their hope in the power of technology to solve the very problems that it has caused in the first place: alienation, pollution, unemployment, and an epidemic of cancer-related diseases. Technique is monistic. That is, it is all one piece. All techniques are inseparably united and cannot be detached from the others. Nor can the technical phenomenon be broken down in such a way as to retain the good and reject the bad. Every technical advance is matched by a negative reverse side. In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul writes:

History shows that every technical application from its beginnings presents certain unforeseeable secondary effects which are much more disastrous than the lack of the technique would have been.

Though we cannot know all of the unforeseeable consequences of the information superhighway, we can certainly recognize the secondary effects of our current highway system: air pollution; traffic fatalities that every five years exceed the number of Americans killed in World War II; war, intrigue, and death to secure oil in the Middle East; endless suburban sprawl, and more acres of asphalt than farm land. Here in Los Angeles anyone without an automobile is de facto a second-class citizen without access to the better paying jobs and decent housing that have migrated down the freeways to the suburbs. The same will also be true of everyone who finds himself stuck on the on-ramp of the information superhighway. It’s a dead-end street for the poor.

The late Christopher Lasch points out, in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, that the “new mericratic elites” are already cruising down the information superhighway, losing all sense of connectedness with community, place, and the common good.

Their loyalties…are international rather than regional, national, or local. They have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged into the network of global communications.

Our blindness to the disastrous “secondary effects” of technology is a result of our theological attachment to the technical phenomenon. We tend to think of technology as a neutral instrument. But in fact, it is the physical embodiment of our cultural values of rationality and efficiency, and our collective desire to overcome the forces of nature: toil, suffering, and death. As such, it is a response to the “Fall.” It is a manifestation of our attempt to attain salvation without repentance or discomfort. …

Our salvation lies in eating the true bread of life, not bread baked by machines and filled with chemicals — the bread of remembering, not the bread of forgetfulness.