Good News on Los Angeles’ Skid Row
It’s Saturday morning, the first day of the month, and that means the line at the soup kitchen where Jeff Dietrich works is down to about 600.
For more than 40 years, Dietrich and his wife Catherine Morris have worked at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen in Skid Row, chopping onions, scrubbing pots, breaking up fights and making friends.
“It’s really simple, uncomplicated work,” said Dietrich, who could have worked any number of jobs that paid more than $15 a week.
On a typical day, Dietrich and Morris recognize many of the 600 – 1,000 in line at the Hippie Kitchen, as it’s called.
Many in line believe Dietrich and Morris own the place. But the couple is among a dozen or so full-time community members running the soup kitchen and living on donations, themselves. Their home is a drafty, 120-year-old, gingerbread Victorian house with 14 bedrooms a couple miles from Skid Row in Boyle Heights. They live with occasional volunteers from around the world and a handful of homeless friends brought home over the years.
“The dominant culture tends to deride what we do as worthless,” Dietrich said while plates of black-eyed peas were served with salad and bread. “At the heart of what we do is hospitality.”
Dietrich was born in Newport News, Virginia. When he was nine his parents moved the family to Fullerton. His father worked in the aerospace industry in the South Bay, and soon his parents moved to Manhattan Beach. Dietrich still considers American Martyrs his home church.
When he was 24, Dietrich refused induction into the military and hitchhiked through Europe and Morocco for six months. He expected to be arrested during customs when he arrived back in New York at Kennedy International Airport. Instead, he slipped through and took off hitchhiking towards California with $3 in his pocket.
Two days later, he was sticking his thumb out near St. Louis when a psychedelic VW bus pulled up. The occupants explained that they were headed to a “peacemakers” conference in the woods. Dietrich had his doubts. He suspected a rainbow hippie gathering or flower child love-in. Instead, the organizers were veteran pacifists who during World War II had gone to jail rather than fight. They staged sit-ins, were arrested for staging sit-ins, were clubbed by police, spent more time in jail, and refused to pay taxes.
Some came from Milwaukee and called themselves Catholic Workers. Dietrich was raised Catholic, but had dropped out of going to Mass years earlier. He had never even heard of Dorothy Day. The kids from Milwaukee had friends who were part of the Milwaukee 14, which burned about 10,000 draft files two years earlier, in 1968.
Dietrich himself caught fire at this conference in the woods. ‘This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today,’ he thought. “He would be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and burning draft files.”
After 10 days and 3,000 miles of self-discovery, Dietrich arrived back in Los Angeles with the $3 still in his pocket. A few days later, he spotted people protesting the Vietnam War and giving out coffee and doughnuts outside L.A. County Jail. On the side of the van was scrawled ‘House of Hospitality,’ and Dietrich recognized them as Catholic Workers.
He was home.
Dietrich walked through the front door of the community house in his cowboy hat and boots and met Dan Delany, the founder of the newly-formed Los Angeles Catholic Worker community and a former priest. Delany’s wife Chris was a former nun.
What have you been up to? Delany asked Dietrich.
Dietrich said he’d been travelling, and before that, had been an English major in college.
Delany must have known a true rabble rouser when he saw one. On the spot, he made Dietrich editor of the fledgling community newspaper called the Catholic Agitator.
Dietrich moved in and settled in. The anarchist community brought food to people on Skid Row and protested the Vietnam War. Everything was run on donations.
Dietrich found a community that supported and espoused his values of non-violent resistance. All of a sudden the Works of Mercy, the sacraments, made sense to him in the context of actually feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and taking stray people into your home.
That’s why Dietrich believes the protest movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s weren’t sustained: They weren’t in sync with the Gospels’ message to help and feed the poor daily.
Dietrich is a peace activist. He’s been arrested more than 40 times over 40 years. He non-violently breaks the law in demonstrations against state violence, including economic policies that burden extremely poor people. These demonstrations allow the activist creativity in his crime of conscience.
The first time Dietrich was arrested, he and a friend responded to the federal government’s call for citizens to build bomb shelters with an attempt to dig one on the Pasadena city hall lawn during a bicentennial concert. They never even put a spade into earth because police were waiting for them when they arrived. Dietrich chalked it up to a beginner’s mistake by sending out a press release announcing such the planned “action” ahead of time.
After a weeklong trial, Dietrich was found guilty and sentenced to community service. In fact, Dietrich rarely pleads not guilty to non-violent protest. He has poured oil on the steps of the downtown Los Angeles federal building to protest the 2003 attack on Iraq, trespassed in peaceful civil disobedience at Rockwell in El Segundo, and crossed the line at a missile site in Nevada while holding a peace sign in his hands. He and other Catholic Workers occupied the bell tower of St. Vibiana’s, the old downtown cathedral, to protest the Church’s plan to build a new, lavish one. They blockaded the bathroom of city hall to get more public bathrooms on Skid Row, chased an arms bazaar out of Anaheim, and organized pickets of Skid Row blood banks in the 70s for treating their homeless donors like trash.
In court, Dietrich refuses to accept probation, which would mean cooperating with the criminal justice system. He does the jail time, instead.
That’s how the Catholic Workers’ foundress Dorothy Day did it. During the Great Depression, she also opened up her apartment in New York City to anyone who needed a meal. There are now more than 200 Catholic Worker houses around the world. Each is independent and governed by the spirit of their present members, yet all are dedicated to serving the poor and resisting social injustice and violence. They are made up largely of artists and intellectuals, anarchists and former professionals living on the other side of society.
Some are interfaith, although the Los Angeles Catholic Worker is not. There have been occasional non-Christian LACW community members through the years, and non-Catholics every now and then outnumber the Catholics in the house, which is fun simply for the sake of maintaining a true anti-establishment attitude.
Catherine Morris grew up in Pasadena and attended Mayfield high school. She went on to become a nun and teach at that high school before becoming its principal. While on a year’s sabbatical to do some volunteering, she served food with the Catholic Workers on Skid Row. She continued volunteering when she returned as principal.
Back when Dietrich spent the weekend working on Skid Row, he’d usually ask Morris for a ride to Seventh Street and the freeway where he would hitchhike to his girlfriend in Laguna Beach. In the car, Dietrich prattled on about their weekend plans. When he got out, Morris would say, “Have a nice weekend,” and then growl after he shut the door.
But Dietrich had feelings, too.
Morris’s mother didn’t mind her daughter leaving the holy order but did mind her marrying that hippie Dietrich, who was 12 years younger than Morris. The wedding went on, with Dietrich’s father opening his portable bar in the kitchen of the Catholic Worker community house in Boyle Heights. The nuns sat in the living room and everyone else occupied the kitchen. They had cheap beer and wedding cake, and ate donated beef stroganoff that tasted awful. The next morning at five o’clock Dietrich and Morris drove to Skid Row and made bread. The Hippie Kitchen in those days was open seven days a week, and once a week two people made bread early in the morning. Without saying so, Dietrich and Morris knew what they would be doing for the rest of their lives together.
The Hippie Kitchen hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1971. The line for a plate of beans still stretches around the corner toward the end of the month after folks have spent their public assistance checks that arrive early in the month. Folks in line still believe Morris and Dietrich are among the richest people in Los Angeles who just happen to enjoy operating a free restaurant in Skid Row among their friends – and that would be correct.
The strong base of soup kitchen volunteers arrive from various parishes across Southern California, but these days plenty also learn about the Hippie Kitchen online. Some soup kitchen volunteers end up becoming full-time Catholic Workers, who give a year commitment and are united in high ideals, an alternative sense of world history and scripture, and unconventional living.
Catholic Workers have a limit to the number of dispossessed people they take home, and some violent individuals are not allowed inside. Catholic Workers strive for consensus at their meetings, which do not include the impoverished they serve on Skid Row and in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
While Dietrich was serving his first jail sentence in 1979, he wrote Morris letters nearly everyday as he struggled for his humanity and found his faith among warehoused human beings.
A community member at the time typed up those letters and they became Dietrich’s first book, Reluctant Resister (Unicorn Press, 1983). Last year, Loyola Marymount published a collection of his essays and articles for his second book, Broken and Shared.
“To be a Catholic Worker does not mean that we believe we can transform the poor or the domination system, itself, but rather that we believe we can transform ourselves. The most important thing for us is to live our lives as if the Gospels were true, calling us back to a more sustainable vision of community, simplicity and resource,” Dietrich wrote. “To meet human needs in a human way— this is what appealed to the youthful pilgrim in me. While I have not seemed to have accomplished anything permanent, the Catholic Worker was not founded with an eye towards permanence. It simply is a living witness to the Gospel ethic of humans responding humanly to one another.”
Dietrich is no saint, however. Just as Dorothy Day resisted being called a saint, so does he. He has his flaws, as anyone who lives among 20 people in a single house knows. The handful of behind-the-scenes leadership challenges at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker over 43 years has taught Dietrich and Morris the grace of forgiveness. Dietrich and Morris have always opposed changes in the organization’s mission that might jeopardize the Hippie Kitchen as the focus of efforts.
Because of Dietrich and Morris, the needs of those in the long line at the soup kitchen have formed the character of the LACW.
With a handlebar mustache now instead of a full red beard, Dietrich is still the young man who bolted to Europe and hitchhiked across the country to find his home at the Catholic Worker back in Los Angeles. The folks who live on the streets on Skid Row and in the neighborhood’s flophouse hotel rooms nicknamed the soup kitchen the Hippie Kitchen because of Dietrich and others’ long hair in the early ‘70s.
The name is still the same, so is the spirit.
Ed Pilolla is a regular volunteer at the Hippie Kitchen and has lived with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker a handful of times over the years as a house guest.