Catholic Action Center in north-side neighborhoods
By Jeff Gross
Nearly as soon as I moved to the north side in February 2009, I heard people call the Catholic Action Center a neighborhood pariah. At a Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association meeting, Movable Feast outlined their renovation plans for the former Nanna’s Soul Food. Local residents were concerned that Movable Feast would be another Catholic Action Center. They wanted reassurance that Movable Feasts’ clients would not come to the organization’s location at the corner of Fifth and Silver Maple and that it wouldn’t end up like the Catholic hospitality house three blocks down at Fifth and Chestnut. This isn’t to say that neighbors’ concerns are unfounded: a quick search of the Lexington Division of Police’s Crime Map shows a significant number of calls to the Fifth and Chestnut intersection, though most other intersections in the Williams Wells Brown, MLK, and North Limestone neighborhoods also show high numbers of police calls.
Between February 2009 and January 2010, I put little thought into the Catholic Action Center’s presence in our neighborhood. Perhaps because I lived five blocks away, I never paid much attention to the Center. I had no reason, good or bad, to notice it. Homeless persons walked down my street throughout the day, though I had no way of knowing if they were going to the Catholic Action Center or somewhere else in the area. Since then, I’ve learned that many of the people passing through the north side are heading to Baker Iron and Metal off Seventh Street to exchange cans for cash. Others in our area are making their way back to the Hope Center or some of the camps off North Broadway.
This past January, that all changed when I reported to GodsNet, one of the Catholic Action Center’s many arms, on Seventh Street for a community service orientation. Over the past decade, the Catholic Action Center has expanded to include residential homes, food and clothing distribution, community gardens, laundry services, online sales of books and other media, a Streets to Home placement program, and mentoring for its Streets to Home residents. On this Saturday morning, I found that GodsNet was a hub of activity, with people coming in and out for clothing and food. Volunteers were working to pack up the Center’s Christmas Store Warehouse. Volunteers and guests of the Center worked side-by-side on projects.
Over the past six months, I have had numerous opportunities to spend time with individuals who are currently experiencing or have formerly experienced homelessness in Lexington and some of the many volunteers and organizations that aid our local homeless. Yet, even in that time, I have probably interacted with under 2 percent of Lexington’s estimated 2,500 homeless. In a north side neighborhood full of progressives involved with SeedLeaf, neighborhood associations, community gardens, and religious groups like the New Monastics, I think we may have to look again at the Catholic Action Center and its outreach programs, viewing it less as a pariah and more as a potential exemplar of what progressive community efforts can accomplish.
A history of radical Catholicism
Perhaps it’s the word “Catholic” itself that scares people off, though it’s worth noting that the roots of the Center trace back to a radical branch of Catholic activists. The Center is based on the model of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. Staunchly antiwar and interested in social justice, Day and Peter Maurin opened a house of hospitality in New York in the 1930s to feed and care for the growing number of poor and homeless workers during the Depression. The Catholic Worker movement sought to follow the examples of justice and charity set forth by Jesus Christ. Significantly, the movement has never been recognized as an official organ of the Roman Catholic Church. Day’s vision then moved on to farms, where those she served could learn to grow food, live communally, and ensure some degree of self-sufficiency.
Day and Maurin believed hospitality houses should be placed at the fringes of society to help people. Their hospitality goals meant that they would take in all people and help them address their needs without making people sit through religious services as an exchange for assistance. Other local shelters and homes, they observed, would only feed the needy after they had been indoctrinated with the shelter’s message. Following the lead of St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic Action Center attempts to preach the gospel with its actions rather than its words. It’s also worth noting that more recent developments in Christianity like New Monasticism, which itself has a growing following on the north side, trace their origins to people like St. Francis, Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa—all models for the Catholic Action Center.
Lexington’s Catholic Worker Movement
Lexington’s manifestation of the Catholic Worker Movement holds true to Day’s vision for hospitality houses. Unlike other homeless outreach programs in the area, the Catholic Action Center makes no attempts to evangelize. As someone who is Jesuit-educated but often at odds with the Catholic Church and most organized religions, I think I appreciate the most the Center’s willingness to accept everyone as they come. This includes those who serve as volunteers. Going in, I feared being alienated due to my religious or political views, but I found that the Center is more concerned with social justice than spreading any particular religious ideology. Co-founder and director of the Catholic Action Center Ginny Ramsey says that everyone is welcome, from agnostics to Zen Buddhists, as she thinks of “catholic” in the sense of “universal.” The Center, she suggests, could be called anything, though she likes the way its current name honors the work of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.
Because the Catholic Action Center is willing to accept everyone through its doors, including those whom other centers and society at large have written off, they deal with all kinds of people. Ramsey tries to find a balance between meeting the needs of the Center’s guests (in keeping with the hospitality house goals, the Center refers to those it serves as “guests”) with the needs of the neighborhood. She stresses that she always welcomes feedback from the neighborhood.
As a member of the neighborhood, the Catholic Action Center has attempted to improve its neighborly image, imposing a number of policy changes based on feedback from the community. Planters have been placed on outside benches, and guests congregating outside have been warned to come inside or the police will be called to disperse them.
In its 10 years of existence, the Catholic Action Center has always tried to take part in the neighborhood, using some of its volunteers to shovel sidewalks and winterize houses for the local elderly. Ramsey also sends her volunteers to participate in local clean-ups, including those set up by the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association. They’ve planted trees in the area and helped with house maintenance so that homeowners can keep their properties up to code.
Why Sector Three?
Many may wonder why the Catholic Action Center has to be in this neighborhood. Why can’t it be somewhere else? When purchasing the property in 2000, Ramsey says that she purposely looked for the neighborhood that most needed it. In 2000, much like today, Sector Three, where the Center is located, ranked highest in the city in poverty and crime and lowest in education. The Center attempts to work with those who feel the most disenfranchised and disconnected from society.
“These are the folks that nobody else will take,” says Ramsey, explaining the guests the Center serves. Part of the Catholic Action Center’s outreach is its “From the Streets to a Home” program, which has placed 64 individuals in homes since March 2009. The program is part of the Samaritan Project of the Kentucky Housing Corporation and the Shelter+Care Program of the Lexington Housing Authority. Joe Shuman and Ellis Boatly are two of those initial 64, and they have both lived in their apartments for almost a year and a half. They represent the successes of a program like Streets to Home.
Joe Shuman, 50, is a graduate of Lexington Catholic High School and a lifelong Lexington resident. In 2008, Shuman’s longtime girlfriend died unexpectedly. Suddenly, Shuman’s life began spiraling out of control. Before long, he was addicted to alcohol and living on the streets of Lexington. Within eight months, Shuman had been arrested three times for alcohol intoxication and had lost touch with society. With the support of the Catholic Action Center, Shuman completed six months of intensive, residential alcohol rehabilitation at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Erie, PA.
Now sober and focused on his recovery, Shuman has completed job training at Jubilee Jobs, volunteers six days a week at the Catholic Action Center, and is active in the community. Earlier this spring, he served as a fill-in cleaning person for the Newman Center for a few days. Only when I interviewed him for this story did Shuman tell me that he invested the $200 he made into B.U.I.L.D. (Building a United, Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action). In addition to his other volunteer activities, Shuman serves on B.U.I.L.D.’s leadership council. Feeling no longer in need, Shuman aims to give back to the community in every way he can.
Boatly, 50, spent nearly eight years on the streets in Lexington before being selected for Streets to Home. I was able to speak to Boatly in April while attending the Downtown Trash Bash, an Earth Day Event to clean up downtown streets. Boatly often talks about the importance of giving back to the community. He pushes fellow Streets to Home community members to volunteer their time because they are benefitting from government housing funds. With Shuman, Boatly volunteers six days a week at GodsNet and speaks regularly to church and school groups about his experiences. Boatly also serves on the leadership council for the Street Voice Council (SVC), an organization made up of those who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness in Lexington. The SVC gives Lexington’s homeless a unified voice in community discussions and debates.
Speaking of Boatly, Ramsey suggested that he once represented the individual who scared the Center’s neighbors. A regular at the Center since its 2000 opening, he had been turned away from other centers due to drunkenness. Being selected for Streets to Home, Boatly says, “brought hope back for me.” With the mentoring they have received through the Streets to Home program, Shuman and Boatly have been able again to participate in community life and find, as Boatly says, the “joy” in having a home, volunteering, and living a more stable existence. All of this came after most organizations and centers had written the two men off as incorrigible due to their substance abuse issues and their inability to fit the molds required by other agencies and centers. The Streets to Home program has taken them off the streets and given them an opportunity to serve others experiencing homelessness.
In this series of articles, Jeff will continue to explore the Catholic Action Center’s place as a resident of the north side as well as the broader concerns of those experiencing homelessness in our community. Stay tuned.