and humble: Fred Boehrer and Diana Conroy.
Workers take the teachings of Jesus seriouslyenough
to live by them
Boehrers voice fills the gym of St. Johns the
Evangelist School in Schenectady, prodding, but also understanding
how much he is asking. Pray for your enemies? Pray for
people who plan to execute people, bomb people, torture people,
hurt other people, hurt their own people? This is tricky stuff.
. . . Some of the stuff Jesus comes out with is a little off
hundred or so high-school students sitting in long rows of
folding chairswhite, well-dressed, many who walked in
talking on cell phonesare silent. They are here to hear
Boehrer speak as part of the social-justice and service units
of their confirmation class. One of the first things Boehrer
had asked when he started to talk was how many kids were there
because they wanted to be. Only about six had raised their
hands, but at this moment, at least, he has all their eyes.
No one rises to the bait though. At least not out loud.
Later, when Boehrer tells them about a Russian family that
couldnt stay in the homeless shelters because of problems
with their documentation, one girl whispers derisively to
her neighbor, In other words, illegals.
now, leaving his provocative statement hanging, Boehrer segues
smoothly back into the main topic of his talkexplaining
his life as a Catholic Worker in Albanys Emmaus House.
He walks the kids through the decision he and his wife made
to give up their full-time jobs and devote themselves full-time
to a life of voluntary poverty and living with the poor. At
Emmaus House, they take in one homeless family at a time,
helping them get back on their feet in whatever way they can,
while also providing everything from groceries and rides to
emotional support for 12 to 15 other struggling families,
mostly in Albanys West Hill area. They rely on donations
of money and goods to keep both their own household and their
works of mercy going.
The teens, in fact, have brought piles of stuff for thempaper
towels, canned soup, baby Tylenolwhich they have piled
in grocery bags on a card table by the exit door. Walking
a thin line between gratitude and not wanting to lose a teachable
moment, Boehrer gestures to the pile as he tries to describe
one of the major lessons he has learned about working with
the poor: not to assume you know what they want. He plays
some excerpts from Seinfelds Muffin Top
episode, in which Elaine and an acquaintance open a shop selling
only muffin tops (because everyone knows those are best part!).
Looking to get rid of the less-desirable muffin bottoms theyre
not selling, they drop them at a homeless shelter, only to
get harangued by the shelter director for assuming the homeless
should be grateful for second-rate food.
On the show, the enraged shelter director is played for laughs,
but Boehrer asks the kids to take her seriously: What could
the store owners have done instead? He gets several ideasgive
the shelter money, bake them some breadbut what hes
looking for is much simpler: They could have asked. Part
of what were called to do as Christians is to listen,
Boehrer and his wife Diana Conroy have spent a lot of time
since they founded Emmaus House in 1996 listening, and a lot
of time askingsometimes to learn, and sometimes to challenge.
The Catholic Worker movement, now a network of houses like
Emmaus, was founded in the Depression by Dorothy Day and Peter
Maurin. As with most of their fellow Workers, Boehrer and
Conroy are countercultural in multiple dimensionsmore
left-leaning in most of their politics than mainstream Catholics,
Christian in an activist world that distrusts Christianity,
voluntarily poor in a consumerist world, and sharing their
house with other poor folks at a time even most liberals consider
helping others to be a career, not a lifestyle. And yet they
have managed to surround themselves with the kind of community
that much of America in theory is longing for.
n Feb. 2Candlemas, and also the Feast of the PresentationEmmaus
Houses monthly Mass is a little late getting started.
The dozen people gathered in a circle in the living room are
chatting animatedly. Walt Chura, a respected elder in the
extended Emmaus House family, who for 11 years ran Albanys
Simple Gifts bookstore where Boehrer first encountered Catholic
Worker philosophy and practice (and changed his major from
accounting to religious studies as a result), is holding forth
on the meaning of the presentation. Because God killed the
Egyptians firstborn to get the Hebrews out of Egypt,
he says, the Hebrews firstborn sons were considered
to symbolically belong to God, and needed to be redeemed with
a gift of two turtle doves.
cost us three French hens, and Helen was four calling birds,
Inflation! chimes in Father Bob Longobucco, one
of Boehrers and Conroys longtime friends, and
also the Catholic campus chaplain at University at Albany.
The banter is comfortable, and it is clear as Mass gets started
that it comes not from disrespect, but rather from a connection
to faith that isnt threatened by joking.
Instead of a homily, Emmaus House substitutes a discussion
on the days gospel readings, with people contributing
both sophisticated interpretations of scripture and bits of
more-or-less-relevant personal sharing. The group sings the
Shaker song Simple Gifts while Longobucco blesses
Despite Boehrers rhetorical challenge to the confirmation
students, the prayers here dont regularly include bin
Laden or Hussein (or Bush or Rumsfeld for that matter). They
do come up from time to time in careful wordings, but its
hard to do without being partisan, says Boehrer, and they
try to avoid politicizing their Masses. Still, the range of
prayers is wide. Tonight it includes the pope and a specific
homeless man in Troy who has disappeared, tsunami victims
and the victims of other manmade disasters who are getting
less attention, people serving in the military and those fighting
for conscientious-objector status, including one Catholic,
Camilo Mejia, whom Boehrer has been pushing to get any parish
in the area to mention.
efore they opened the Em- maus House of Hospitality,
Boehrer and Conroy were already living what many in this country
would consider a generous, modest life. Conroy worked in human
services, Boehrer as a teacher and youth minister. They tithed
5 percent of their income to various good causes, volunteered
regularly at a soup kitchen, participated in a parish, and
maintained close connections with college friends at potluck
thats art from trash: An icon of St. Nicolas, painted
on leather from a discarded handbag. The frame is a single
piece carved from scrap wood.
they began to feel that they wanted to go another step. They
could see people falling through the cracks of the human-services
system: undocumented immigrants, people whose problems took
longer to resolve than time-limited government programs said
they should, people just over the official poverty line, homeless
couples who didnt want to separate to go into single-sex
They began to feel like it might be time for them to open
a Catholic Worker house. To prepare, they visited many, and
sponsored other friends to go live at some to let them know
how it worked. (Conroy says that there were several Worker
houses that were only half-jokingly disappointed when Emmaus
House was started and Conroy and Boehrer no longer had an
income to be sending donations from.) They began to build
support, paid off all their remaining debts, gave away one
of their cars and their expensive stereo system, and (much
to the disapproval of Boehrers grandfather) finally
made the leap into voluntary poverty and a ministry
of presence. Their first child was 3 months old.
oday, eight years later, the front door at Emmaus House, an
unassuming two-family on North Main Avenue, is usually adorned
with a few notices of protests, roundtables, prayer gatherings,
or new additions to the resurrected Simple Gifts bookstore,
which is now housed in two bookcases in the front room (sales
support the house). In the front foyer an antiwar flyer proclaims,
Not in Our Name. On the inside door, a quote from
aboriginal activist Lilla Watson is both welcome and admonition:
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your
time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound
up with mine, then let us struggle together. On the
other wall is a massive Mets banner.
the first impression is one of student housing. The walls
are the slightly dingy white of a longtime rental unit. The
furniture doesnt match, and much of it is well-worn.
There are lots and lots of books, strings of Christmas lights
around the curtain rods, and posters covering both walls and
doors, many held up with Scotch tape.
But after a few minutes it becomes clear that the analogy
isnt quite right. The dishes and floors and bathroom
are clean, and the furniture is well cared for. The arrangements
are not transient; the furniture will not easily collapse
to fit in someones truck. Much of the clutter is childrens
toys, and numerous icons of saints are mixed in with the posters
on the wall. There is a smattering of the sort of nice things
that adults accumulate throughout a life: the beautiful pottery
chalice and bowl they use for communion at Mass, for example,
which were gifts. Though there are likely to be several other
things going on at the time, anyone who visits is offered
at least a cup of tea.
The extent of Boehrer and Conroys commitment to voluntary
poverty doesnt immediately hit you over the head when
you visit Emmaus House; knowing that there is a big difference
between being forced into poverty and choosing it, and knowing
that with their college degrees and middle-class families
and white skin they are still filthy privileged,
they dont make a dramatic show of their choices.
Their only earned income comes from some part-time teaching
by Boehrer, amounting to $4,000 to $11,000 a year. Add to
that about $20,000 in yearly donations on average, plus in-kind
donations of food, clothing, and other goods. With that they
raise their own three children and take care of their current
guests, periodic live-in volunteers, and up to 15 other families.
They have one basic phone line, no Internet connection, and
no health insurance, retirement plan, or emergency savings.
They keep the heat set at 62 degrees all the time (eliciting
many complaints from guests, especially those from warmer
climes), and have no clothes dryer, microwave, or dishwasher.
Still, this is not poverty in the global sense, and they are
aware of that. The goals behind the Emmaus House version of
poverty are more complicated than merely having and spending
as little as possible. They keep their earned income below
the poverty level to avoid paying taxes that will go to the
military. Some things, like health insurance, they simply
cant afford, and these things are their closest taste
of what many of their guests live with all the time.
But many of their decisions also go beyond simple economics
or resource use. A microwave or dishwasher might actually
save energy over the long run, explained Boehrer, but washing,
drying and putting away the dishes is a great communal activity,
as is hanging around in the kitchen together while water is
boiling for tea, or leftovers are slowly reheating in the
oven. So, no microwave or dishwasher.
On the other hand, they also have to have enough time to be
fully present with their guests and do their social-justice
work. And so when their washing machine broke recently, sanity
(and cloth diapers) called for it be replaced. Not that it
was a simple purchase. Boehrer returned from his first visit
to the appliance store empty-handed, both amused and frustrated.
He was looking for a super-energy-efficient washer, manufactured
in the United States, not made by GE (the nuclear-weapons
connection). After he told the salesperson, who was trying
to steer him to a fancier, less efficient model that she herself
owned, that even that models larger capacity wouldnt
make up for its miserable energy efficiency, she quit showing
him options at all.
Voluntary poverty is a tough thing for our upwardly mobile
society to grasp. The leader of the confirmation class that
Boehrer visited in Schenectady met him at the door and said
to be sure to explain to the kids how he has his Ph.D., but
still chose to . . . She paused and made a sweeping giving
it all up gesture. (Actually he completed his Ph.D.
after Emmaus House opened.) Apparently not confident that
he would emphasize it enough, she went on to mention his Ph.D.
(in theology, with a focus on nonviolence) at least three
times in her brief introduction of him.
Perhaps more common is the reaction of supporters who admire
and help, and then add a little caveat about how I couldnt
this ones for you: Boehrer and Conroys daughter
Helen hands out song books for Mass, while Katarina, one
of their current guests, observes.
know that some people feel a sense of guilt when they compare
themselves to the Catholic Worker lifestyle, says Dennis
Sullivan, who teaches classes on restorative justice at the
University at Albany and grew up in a family that was close
to the Catholic Worker movement. That I know for a fact.
But the whole idea of personalism, the message, is not that
everyone should be a Catholic Worker, but that everyone should
build [the principles into] their own lives wherever they
everyone has to open a Catholic Worker house, or become a
social worker, agrees Boehrer. Just take it down
a notch. If you have premium cable, maybe take it down to
basic and send the rest of the money to a food bank.
Joan Cooney, a 74-year-old Colonie resident who keeps Emmaus
Houses newsletter address file. She says she doesnt
have the courage to live as they do, but that
she stays connected because it pushes her out of her comfort
zone. She says they have influenced her to stop shopping at
Wal-Mart, pay more attention to sweatshops, and question the
death penalty. They challenge you, she says, But
in challenging you, they dont say Theres
only one response to this challenge or youre out.
trying to follow the teachings of Jesus closely and
accurately has long been viewed as a radical or even dangerous
undertaking by institutional churches. Adding Catholic social
teachingwhich among other things has a stringent definition
of a just war (which the bishops say the current war in Iraq
doesnt meet), strongly supports the rights of workers
to organize unions, and requires of Catholics serious attention
to economic justicedoesnt make it any easier.
say Catholic social teaching is the churchs best-kept
secret, says Boehrer with a laugh, quoting from a 1998
report by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. In response to that
report, Catholic social teaching is supposedly being given
more attention in Catholic schools and religious education
programs, but it still faces some serious competition from
the secular world as Catholics have become a more affluent,
and less isolated, cultural group.
St. Francis left the military when he had a conversion experience,
notes Boehrer, but there are institutions (like Siena College)
that are Franciscan in name but have ROTC on their
campuses. Boehrer recalls with a wry smile the parish in Troy
that petitioned to have a priest removed because he opposed
the Iraq war. Are you going to petition to remove the pope?
The social activism of Catholic Workers bears little resemblance
to what is thought of as Christian politics today across much
of the country. Emmaus House holds regular vigils against
the death penalty, and is active in the antiwar and restorative
justice movements, while casual conversation there often includes
references to gay-friendly Christian retreats or groups that
support womens ordination. Jesus never said a
word about contraception and homosexuality, but he said a
lot about compassion, mercy, justice, the poor, says
Chura. You have to look at the gospel as a whole.
seminary, says Longobucco, I was pretty quickly labeled
one of those peace-and-justice guys. But its
connected. The Mass calls us to peace and justice, and peace
and justice calls us to the Eucharist.
many dioceses, the tensions between the Catholic Worker vision
and the drift of mainstream Catholicism have created a serious
rift between them. This may be why many Catholics, even those
like Boehrer who go to Catholic schools, never learn about
the Catholic Worker movement at all until college or later.
Emmaus House, and its sister Catholic Worker in Troy, Rosa
House Peace Community, by contrast, have a very cooperative
relationship with the diocesesomething that Boehrer
attributes to a bishop whos concerned with social-justice
issues. But though they work together closely here,
hes quick to note there theres no official connection.
No bishop asked us to do this work, so no bishop can
tell us how to do it, he quotes Dorothy Day; and that
independent, anarchist (yes, they use that word) spirit remains
throughout the movement.
One of the clearest examples is the fact that Catholic Workers
houses dont incorporate. In Emmaus Houses first
year, one wealthy potential donor was sitting at their kitchen
table, checkbook in hand, when he asked about their financial
record keeping. We always send thank-you notes right
away, they replied. After some confusion, the checkbook
went away again. But they value that independence. We
dont want people giving us money in the expectation
of getting something [like a tax deduction] in return,
Donors are not the only people who assume they are a nonprofit.
Wanting to be in a more residential neighborhood than where
they are now (they rent from the diocese and are surrounded
by other diocesan-owned buildings, mostly offices), they are
working with the Albany Community Land Trust to buy a house
(completely with donations and no-interest loans) in Albanys
Mansion neighborhood. Reportedly, some of their new neighbors
were concerned about yet another property coming off the tax
rolls. But while they avoid federal income taxes, says Boehrer,
they are not exempt from local ones, and have no problem paying
them. They are, after all, not going to the military.
atholic Workers relationship with the left-leaning activist
culture with whom much of their politics naturally lines up
is also not simple. Many of those activists are generally
suspicious of religion, especially Christianity.
hope to show them that our faith brought us to this place,
says Longobucco, when asked about working with secular activists.
The most important thing the peace movement needs to
do is define what peace is. For example, I dont think
shouting curses during a peace rally is peaceful. A
few minutes later he rephrases, with more emotion. The
curses at peace rallies, it just shrivels my soul sometimes.
It really takes it out of me.
its the folks who talk the most about diversity who
dont seem to realize they have a discriminatory policy
of their own, says Chura. One of the problems
I think is ignorance: People of a secular mindset have a very
narrow view of what religious people are.
places some of the blame for that on the media. The pope could
(and did) give a long detailed, impassioned speech about how
the war in Iraq is unjust and wrong, he says, but if he tacks
on one little line about a matter of sexuality, thats
what the media will cover.
For their part, Whats their stand on abortion?
is usually the first or second question out of the mouths
of secular social-justice activists when one brings up the
Catholic Workers. And more often than not, they dont
quite believe the answer, which is that it is not an all-consuming
priority. We tend to focus on areas that dont
get the kind of attention they would otherwise get, whether
its from the media or from the pulpit, says Boehrer.
Though most Catholic Workers will say that they are anti-abortion,
many are sensitive about being painted with the same brush
as religious right zealots who oppose abortion but wont
support programs for poor or immigrant children. Were
committed to nonviolence and nurturing life, says Boehrer
carefully, but whats more important than where
you stand on an issue, is what are you doing. How has your
lifestyle been changed? . . . So [for example], if people
are morally opposed to abortion, are they willing to host
people who [otherwise] would be considering that?
mmaus houses most recent guestElena, a nurse and
single mother of two from Moldova, a former Soviet Republicmoved
into her own apartment in Watervliet just last weekend. The
Tuesday before, a snow day, Elena passes by all the kids of
the house sledding on her way in from an errand, and as she
heads into the kitchen to make some hot chocolate and lunch
for the kids, she reports that I told Freddie to put
his hat on. He wasnt very happy about it.
Boehrer and Conroy mean it when they say their guests become
part of the family. It leads to wonderful stories of close
and lasting friendships: They are godparents to the children
of some former guests, for example, and continue to raise
money to help children go to school in the South African village
to which another guest returned. They tell stories of learning
Spanish, eating the freshest corn when a farmworker guest
brought some home after work, being with families seeing their
first snowfall, and observing Ramadan with an Islamic family.
They tell of the time they almost threw out a donated handbag
full of holes, but a guest rescued it and used the leather
as a canvas for a beautiful painted icon of St. Nicolas, reminding
them again not to assume they know what people want or can
They insist that they are not social workers, and that Emmaus
House is a home, not a shelter, so while they do plenty of
social-work-type things for their clientshelp navigate
bureaucracy, connect with resources, get to a doctors
appointment, start some savingsthey also wont
make sure youre in by a certain time, up by a
certain time, doing something during the day, as Conroy
puts it. Perhaps more to the point, there are many unusual
things they will do that most social workers wont or
cant: teach someone to drive in their car in the parking
lot of the state office campus. Arrange for a guests
father, who escaped the civil war in Guatemala to Montreal
and hasnt seen his daughter in 20 years, to come down
for a reunion. Listen to troubles in the middle of the night.
But at least as common, if not more so, are the stories of
heartbreak or failure. The visiting children who had to be
separated from their own because they were hitting them. The
couple they helped out of an economic crisis, only to discover
(after they moved out) that the woman was being abused, and
their support wasnt enough to help her choose to leave.
The woman just out of an inpatient substance-abuse program
who needed more structure than they could provide and sank
into a depression where she wasnt caring for her daughter.
The families that never say thank you for the groceries or
Or the woman who had made it past so many obstacles to get
her own place, only to have her apartment building burn to
the ground (ironically, from her upstairs neighbors
unattended prayer candle lit right after Sept. 11, 2001) while
she was in the hospital having hip-replacement surgery. Eventually
that woman, who had been listing Boehrer and Conroy as her
next of kin on medical forms, just disappeared. They still
dont know where she went.
One of the frustrating things about our lives is theres
no happy endings for most of the people we work with,
says Boehrer. Its not Hallmark Hall of Fame TV
movie. Boehrer and Conroy dont try to hide these
stories; most of them end up in one form or another on the
front page of their quarterly newsletter. The point is not
some sort of target definition of success, but the practice
of personalism, of seeing God in everyone. (Even though, Boehrer
jokes, Sometimes we think God wouldnt be
calling us at one in the morning!)
The boundary between personal life and public life [for
them] is relatively nonexistent, says Sullivan. For
the most part, theres no downtime.
of this, Conroy says theyve been careful to keep a little
space and a little time each week, even if its just
one outing or one meal, for just the five of them. They take
breaks between guests when they feel the need. Recently the
kids, who usually enjoy additional playmates, have also started
asking on their own for breaks, says Conroy.
And yet, the chaotic, swirling community of guests, former
guests, volunteers and friends, coming and going for weekly
pie nights, conversations over newsletter mailings, roundtables,
work parties, and prayer is clearly worth it to them. In fact,
theyre even hoping for more once they move. I
want to be in a place where there are people to have a block
party with, sighs Conroy over the chatter of a gaggle
of kids coming in from the snow. Someone to sit on the