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An Oasis in Need of Help

RELIGION / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

Because of rising expenses, Los Angeles Catholic Worker's skid row soup kitchen for the poor and homeless is desperately short of funds for holiday food and health care.

December 23, 2000|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask anybody around skid row and they will tell you about a spiritual oasis. At the corner of 6th Street and Gladys Avenue, hundreds of hungry and homeless line up waiting to be served free food and drink.

But unlike the dank atmosphere of some soup kitchens, here people dine in a sun-drenched outdoor garden. Colored streamers hang from the trees and float in the breeze. A fountain gurgles as big, orange goldfish swim in the pond. Bird cages stand near picnic tables, with doves and cockatiels providing the dining music. Volunteers stand on the street handing out fresh veggies for later.

So laid back is this spot that regulars have nicknamed it "Hippie Kitchen." It has been run for 10 years by Jeff Dietrich and his wife, Catherine Morris, a former nun, along with fellow members of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community. The group also runs a free health clinic with HIV testing, and offers free aspirin, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap.

But now, as a result of rising expenses and a growing need among the poor and homeless, Los Angeles Catholic Worker is facing a financial crisis that could leave hundreds of poor people without food for Christmas.

Although the group is composed of Catholic lay people and volunteers, Catholic Worker has no official relationship with the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese and depends entirely on private donations. Its 14 members lead lives of voluntary poverty, receiving no salaries and living together in a house in Boyle Heights.

In a recent appeal letter, Dietrich begged for donations to keep the group's three-day-a-week soup kitchen and adjacent health clinic running for the remainder of the holiday season.

"We come to you now shouting full-throated the cries of those who are not allowed to cry out," the letter said. "Our bank account is empty. We need food and supplies for the soup kitchen and we must pay our bills. We are aggressive, unabashed beggars because we beg not for ourselves but for those who are not allowed to beg or to work or even to exist."

Earlier this week at Hippie Kitchen, Morris explained that donations have held steady, but unexpected costs have put a strain on the operation.

"We've taken on so many people," said Morris. "We're seeing a greater need. . . . Many of the people who come here have jobs, but they need us as supplemental income."

Dietrich added: "We're at a low point. We had to put a new roof on the house. That was $15,000. We have to trim these trees to let the sun come through, or else it gets too cold here. All that adds up.

"It' always a problem raising money. It's not a popular population," he said.

Nor is Dietrich the most popular person. To the dismay of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, members of Catholic Worker are the loudest and most prominent critics of the planned $163-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Members of the group--part of a national movement started during the Depression--say that the money could be better spent on programs for the poor. They have, for example, called donations to the cathedral from News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch testaments to "ego-satisfaction, but not to the justice demanded by the Scriptures."

Dietrich is perhaps best known for scaling barbed wire and disrupting the October 1998 groundbreaking of the cathedral, currently under construction in downtown Los Angeles. He and other homeless advocates continue to speak out against the project through protests at the cathedral site every Wednesday--including this week, when a 7 1/2-ton marble altar was installed.

"It's pretty depressing," Dietrich said. "It's such a vast amount of money. It just sends a signal that we're a church of the wealthy. I think it's important to raise that message. If Jesus Christ came back, I think he would be appalled."

Some church leaders and police have denounced their tactics, which include distributing shopping carts to the homeless.

"We get letters asking, 'Why do you have to do that? Why do you have to protest the cathedral?' Morris said. "But, even those letters come with checks."

The Catholic Worker movement was founded in New York in 1933 by social activist Dorothy Day. There are more than 175 Catholic Worker communities in the world, 155 of them in the United States. Earlier this year, the Vatican authorized the New York Archdiocese to begin the process of Dorothy Day's beatification.

Dietrich and Morris met in the 1970s as volunteers for the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. Dietrich was a long-haired hippie and Morris was a nun. Morris felt God was calling her to a different life, so she left the convent to join the Catholic Worker community. She and Dietrich married in 1974.

Like all marriages, theirs has had its ups and downs. Dietrich said running the kitchen and the house usually leaves them with little privacy or control over their lives. A few days ago, the peaceful atmosphere at Hippie Kitchen was disturbed when a fight broke out in the food line. But Dietrich says the human contact shapes his life. Without it, "I think something happens to you. You lose your anchor. Being here keeps us focused on what Jesus is about."

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