Something that matters

Something that matters

By: Luiza Ilie

(Originally published in Illinois Times, June 9, 2005)


Author’s Note:

“Something that matters” was my first attempt at an in-depth story and was my chance to practice this wonder called narrative journalism that I had just discovered at the University of Illinois in Prof. Harrington’s class. The idea that journalists can use their craft to write these real life stories that dig deeper and tell readers something about the way we live was a revelation, and has since become a lifelong aim.

“Something that matters” taught me how to stick with a story for months, how to shadow my subject, ask uncomfortable questions, take detailed notes, agonize over organizing the material and understand the importance of rewriting over and over. It made me aware of my limitations, and how important it is to have an editor that truly cares, one that doesn’t give up on me or the story.

The story won the Marian Boruck Brody Award for Creative Feature Writing in 2005 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It became a cover story for alternative news weekly The Illinois Times, and won an honorable mention for feature writing at the 2005 AltWeeklies Awards.

– Luiza Ilie


Eric Anglada wakes up at 6:30 a.m., before the noise of the day starts. At this early hour, he is the only one awake.

His small room is furnished with a desk, a small dresser, a bed with navy-blue covers, and bookshelves. The only flashy thing here is the color scheme: Soon after he moved in, Eric painted each wall a different color — blue, mauve, orange, green.

Everything here is quiet; outside, the street is deserted. Eric enjoys the solitude — it won’t be long before the phones will start ringing, people will start arriving, and he’ll be hard at work.

This day, Eric will help Johnnie move out. The 60-year-old woman has lived here for the past year, and, when she needed help getting into public housing, she turned to Eric.

Around here, everybody turns to him.

“Eric, can you check with Social Services and see whether she has a caseworker already?”

“Should I get started on the coffee?”

“Can I make a quick phone call?”

“Hey, Eric, I am gonna go out on the porch and smoke a cigarette.”

They turn to this slight blond 25-year-old who still looks like a teenager, even when there is no need to turn to someone.

Eric is one of three live-in volunteers at Champaign’s St. Jude Catholic Worker house, a soup kitchen and shelter for homeless women. And he’s a most unlikely volunteer: He comes from a privileged background, attended good schools, had every opportunity. Even as his high-school friends are entering the corporate world, starting families, and moving to the suburbs, Eric wants none of it.

“It has been my desire since leaving high school to reverse my social location,” Eric wrote in St. Jude’s newsletter. “Depending on where we stand, we see things differently; we see the whole world differently.”

From where they stand, Eric’s parents and friends back in Rosemont, Pa., see Eric’s life as, well, odd. Twice a college dropout, he lives below the poverty level and doesn’t rule out the possibility that some day he might go to jail to show his commitment to pacifism. On April 15, he spent three hours in front of the post office on Neil Street in Champaign, protesting against the U.S. tax system. He believes, he says, in “community” and “simple living.”

In short, he believes in the Catholic Worker, a social-justice movement that was born in the depths of the Great Depression.

“The past two-and-a-half years,” Eric says, pouring tomato sauce over the pasta he will serve at St. Jude’s soup kitchen, ” that ‘s the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Eric takes the bus back to Pennsylvania three times a year, but his home is St. Jude’s. He lives with six homeless women in the main house of the Catholic Worker. The other two live-in volunteers, Andy Lewis and Florence Yeri, live in an annex house, across the back yard. The living arrangements will change in the next months; three more volunteers are expected to come to St. Jude’s.

There are days when St. Jude’s seems like a gathering place for friends rather than a shelter for the homeless. The house is always warm, and the entire building has an inviting personality with its big windows, green back yard, and squeaking doors and floors. The dominant place is the giant kitchen, which looks and is thoroughly used. It opens into a large dining room, one wall plastered with newspaper clippings about Catholic Worker. On a rainy April evening, volunteers and guests laugh and talk loudly over ice cream.

For Eric, living at the house is a privilege: “Not having to worry about bills and basic needs. Having real solitary moments and balancing it out with real convivial situations so I can engage with people but also to have the ability to disengage and close my door and be alone.”

Eric cooks the meal for the soup kitchen every Friday and helps out on Thursdays. Two nights a week, he is in charge of locking the house’s three doors in the evening, answering phone calls and e-mails, and cooking dinner for the guests. When he talks about himself, he seems unconvinced that people are going to understand or even want to hear his story.

“How do people relate to your living in a homeless shelter?” he asks. This may be why his friends in Champaign — such as the 82-year-old retired history professor he met at the Emmanuel Episcopal church and the 60-year-old photographer with AIDS whom he met at St. Jude’s last summer — are a lot older than he is.

“A lot of people that are old are really interested in what I have to say,” he says. “Most twentysomething-year-olds couldn’t care less.”

Dorothy Day started the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in May 1933. They published a newspaper advocating hospitality for the homeless, nonviolence, and voluntary poverty. They practiced what they preached by living with the homeless. “We must and will find Christ in each and every man,” Day wrote, “when we look on them as brothers.”

There are more than 185 Catholic Worker communities in 12 countries, 168 of them in the United States. Some shelter people with AIDS or illegal immigrants, others offer soup kitchens and overnight hospitality to the homeless, and still others are involved in peace protests and civil disobedience. Philip Runkel, an archivist at Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University, the main repository of Catholic Worker records, estimates that the movement has as many as 1,000 live-in volunteers. Rosalie Riegle, the author of Voices From the Catholic Worker , explains the success of the movement in this way: “Perhaps it isn’t a mystery after all when we recognize our hunger — a hunger for meaning, a hunger for hope, a hunger to do something that matters .”

It is this hunger for meaning that turned Eric into a Catholic Worker.

Nothing in Eric’s childhood suggested that this is the life he’d be leading today. “We live in a really wealthy neighborhood,” says his mother, Kathy Anglada, “so he was not exposed to needy people.”

Although Eric’s mother did not work while she was rearing Eric’s two older sisters, by the time Eric was born she had gone back to work in the banking industry. With Eric’s father busy as the office manager of a ball-bearing factory, Eric’s grandparents helped raise Eric.

“Being the youngest person in my family has had an influence in the sense that there wasn’t an influence,” Eric says. “I wasn’t given a direction, and I was free to find my own path.” The family never talked about politics. They didn’t go to church or to PTA meetings or get involved in any other civic action.

Eric attended Radnor High School, which he describes as a “top-notch” public school. He hung with a popular crowd but wasn’t one of the wild ones. He didn’t drink and wouldn’t join his friends when they slipped into the strip clubs of Philadelphia. Politically conservative then, he loved watching Fourth of July parades. His first choice of college was Valley Forge Military Academy.

Back then, Eric was loud and comfortable getting public attention. He once bet a fellow student that he could interrupt a teacher the most times and won by asking 30 questions. “It was all just ego, really,” he says, and notes that it came from his family. “They are all extremely self-confident and very boisterous and very sarcastic and very sure of themselves.”

Yet, gradually, Eric was changing. He began feeling disconnected from his friends and from everything and everyone around him: “I was just trying to figure out who I was, and I didn’t think I could communicate much to my friends, so I felt cut off that way.”

At 17, Eric waited for his mother to come home from work and coaxed her into driving with him around Philadelphia’s slums. Driving through those poor neighborhoods, Eric saw burned-out buildings, narrow streets, small houses, and rusty cars. But he also saw people barbecuing in their yards and neighbors talking on their porches, demonstrating a sense of community that he didn’t experience where he grew up.

“People really tend to be shut off in the suburbs,” he says. “They tend to stay more in their houses, spend time in their back yards so that they don’t have to face their neighbors. Most people in the suburbs don’t even know their neighbors.”

And Eric started going to church. “I had this innate desire for the sublime, the transcendent, something ultimate, something beyond the here and now,” he recalls. He chose a Presbyterian church, mostly because of its inspiring youth minister. After about a year, Eric decided that he wanted to join and was baptized.

When each Radnor High senior was given two weeks to explore some field of interest, Eric picked up a phone book and found Daylesford Abbey, 20 minutes from home. He was inspired by a book his mother had given him, titled Cloister Walk, about Kathleen Norris’ experience in Benedictine monasteries. Eric came away from the experience impressed by the monks’ communal lifestyle and their deep commitment to prayer. He left the monastery believing that he’d never be satisfied living in Rosemont.

“I think in this day and age in our society the only place to be is on the margins,” Eric says. “I think we live in a society that is really going awry. It’s militaristic, it’s nationalistic, it’s consumerist — lots of ignorance, lots of possessions, lots of avarice — and so I think you have to be standing on the edge and working toward change.”

After high school, when all of his friends were going to college, Eric began a year of three-week travels to volunteer communities throughout the country — a farm in Mississippi, a community in Appalachia, a homeless shelter in Phoenix. He financed the trips with $3,000 left to him by his grandfather.

He was searching for a way to a life that could bring together simple living and prayer. Most of the places he visited exposed him to various forms of Christianity. None quite fit. Some repelled him.

Eric finally found what he was looking for when, in February 1999, a volunteer at the homeless shelter in Phoenix told him to look up Catholic Worker. Days later, Eric was spending time at a Catholic Worker community in Baton Rouge that had been founded by two Franciscan monks who, earlier in their lives, had been a lawyer and a labor organizer. He shared a room with two homeless men. One of them, Adrian, an African-American who wore a hat over a big Afro and a goatee, took him under his wing and showed him where to stand in line for food at a soup kitchen, where to donate blood for extra money.

Eric identified with the simple ways of the Catholic Worker. “This is not destitution,” he says. The Catholic Worker is based on the paradox of preaching poverty while fighting against it, but the shelters are not destitute. “Just see our kitchen — we have two microwaves, a commercial stove and griddle; a lot of it is quite luxurious.”

At the end of his traveling year, Eric enrolled at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he found a girlfriend who shared his ideals. It was his idea to spend the summer in a Catholic Worker community, and the pair e-mailed about 50 houses. St. Jude’s Catholic Worker House in Champaign extended them an invitation. Eventually the couple split — Eric dropped out of college and returned to Champaign; she went back to school. But Eric had found what he wanted, “to achieve some proximity and move closer to the status of the poor.”

That proximity is important to Eric. Two months ago, he was standing in line at the Champaign public library waiting to check out six books. A person whose library pass lists a homeless shelter as his or her address is not allowed to check out more than five items at a time. The librarian noted that Eric had a shelter card, loudly enough for the three other people in line to hear. “I did look a little bit scruffy that day, so everyone thought I’m homeless, but it’s satisfying in a way — that ‘s why I’m there,” Eric says.

Eric realizes there are other ways to help the poor — a member of Congress can help pass laws that may do more good than he or she can do alone. But that is not the point. “The government is not a faithful, truthful witness to God,” he says.

“The Catholic Worker is all about personalism,” Eric says, “taking on direct responsibility for the poor and the homeless and those that are hungry rather than looking to some other agency or government to take care of those things.” Eric is not saving the world. He knows it. In a sense, he is saving himself.

“It’s a moving experience to think that the food that I made is being eaten by 60-or-so people, which is really incredible — it’s a privilege.”

Every day at 11 a.m., the doors to St. Jude’s are opened and people sit down to eat, 10 at a time. The dining room is wide, and the blue-and-white-patterned tablecloth looks friendly. Volunteers have been preparing the meal since 8:30 a.m. Although the heat inside the house makes the knees weak, most people sit down to eat wearing their coats and hats. Most do not look up. They seem to not notice that the mismatched silverware has been neatly folded in shiny white napkins and that each slice of apple pie has a spoonful of strawberry jam atop it.

“We’re treating this poor guy like a king,” Eric says. He has written the reasons why: “We stand as a counter, or contrast, to the existing society. We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

When people ask Eric what he plans to do next, when this stage of his life ends, he has a simple answer:

“There is no afterward,” he says. “I am a Catholic Worker.”

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