“I was a draft resister during the Vietnam War. I got inducted and I refused induction. I thought I was going to be arrested that day. But the FBI interviewed me and said, ‘Yep, we’ll be seeing you, Dietrich.’ So I said, ‘Can I go?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll be seeing you.’”
That’s how Jeff Dietrich, who has been a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) for 45 years, recalled it, talking a break from chopping lettuce and cabbage on a wood block table. He was sitting outside the community’s Hospitality Kitchen on a Saturday morning this month, legs crossed, his impish half-grin punctuated by a wildly bushy mustache.
The 68-year-old seemed a bit overdressed for Skid Row: Dark grey unbuttoned dress shirt over a black T-shirt and black pants, with a silky royal blue scarf decorated with tiny flowers hanging stylishly around his neck, topped off by a summer fedora with a black band. And he was telling the unlikely story of his circuitous path to the radical Christian movement started by Catholic social activist Peter Maurin and bohemian writer Dorothy Day in New York City in 1933. (U.S. bishops have endorsed Day’s cause for sainthood.)
Dietrich, then a 24-year-old graduate of Cal State Fullerton, was working in the college’s audio-video department when he decided it was high time to do the post-college-stick of checking out Europe. After hitchhiking clear across the country, he took a plane to Iceland from New York because Icelandair had the cheapest immediate flight.
Practically freezing, he boarded a tourist boat to Denmark and then hitchhiked to Germany, where it was almost as cold and rainy as Iceland. So as fast as he could thumb, he made his way to Gibraltar on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula. A ferry took him over to Morocco, where he spent a couple of decidedly warmer months.
“You know, it was kind of the hippie place to go in those days,” he pointed out.
Returning to New York, Dietrich “started getting a little scared” reading the murder-and-mayhem 60-point bold headlines in the city’s tabloids. But with $3 in his pocket, he walked out of the airport and once again stuck out his thumb. Two days later in St. Louis, Mo., a hippie van with flowers on its paneled sides picked him up. The driver asked if he wanted to go to a “peacemakers” conference.
At a camp in the woods, three men who had likewise refused to be inducted — during World War II — and had protested every modern weapon system and gotten beat up on Freedom Rides through the deep South were holding court. “I mean, this was like shocking to me,” he said. “These guys were probably just 50, but they looked ancient to me at the time. But they had lived such a life of integrity, and I had never encountered that. So that was very enlightening.”
He also met some younger folks, who said they were from the Milwaukee Catholic Worker. They had recently burned their draft cards and been to jail.
“Just suddenly this light went off in my head, and I said to myself: ‘Oh, so that’s what Jesus would be doing if he were alive today. He would be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless — and burning draft cards,’” he remembered aloud. “You know, it was the most radical thing I’d ever heard, and it was being done by Catholics.
“I had already decided that, you know, I had gone to college and was kind of an existentialist and kind of hip. And the Catholic Church was the last thing I was interested in. I was so disinterested that I wasn’t even disdainful of growing up in a Republican Catholic family in Orange County. I had gone to Catholic grade school and been an altar boy. But later I just said, ‘OK, that religion isn’t worth fighting about.’”
n‘I was very cool’
After half a year, he was finally back in California, staying with friends in Orange County. One day he took time to visit his brother, who was locked up in Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail on drug-related charges. And when he walked out, there was a light blue paneled van with tiny writing on the side saying “House of Hospitality,” which is what Catholic Workers call their home that they typically share with others.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I hadn’t like hitchhiked all the way across the country, spent six months in Europe and hitchhiked all the way back across the country, I never would have known about the Catholic Worker,’” he mused. “In my entire Catholic life, I had never encountered the words or the name of Dorothy Day.
“You know, you had to leave and, basically, you had to get out of the suburban environment. And the driver was saying how they were right here in Pasadena at the time.”
Still, a couple of weeks passed before Dietrich went to Pasadena, dressed in his hippie hat and boots with a Moroccan purse and rolled-up Moroccan cigarettes. “I was very cool,” he said with a chuckle.
Former Los Angeles archdiocesan priest Dan Delany and his wife, Chris, who had been a nun, had recently started up the local community.
“Dan asked me, ‘What have you been doing?’” he reported.
“I said, [in a deep false baritone], ‘I’ve been on the road, man.’
“Yeah, ‘I know. But what did you do before that?’
“I said, ‘I was an English major,’ which means, like, you’re not prepared to do anything.
“And he goes, [in another voice], ‘You can be the editor of our newspaper.’ It wasn’t started. It was just a dream in his head. So I rose to the top rather quickly,” he said, laughing. “And Dan named it The Catholic Agitator.”
Dietrich met Catherine Morris, then a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, in the summer of 1972 — the same year the Delanys left and he was thrust into being the fledgling group’s leader — when she started volunteering at the Hospitality Kitchen. “She got more and more involved with the Catholic Worker, and, you know, we were doing a lot of community organizing stuff. We were much more energetic in those days,” he said.
“And we developed a very close relationship during a strike of the blood banks downtown. It was a very intense campaign lasting more than six months. Homeless guys were only getting $5, so we were asking for more money and some health care for them, too.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he noted. “The Catholic Worker got threatened with fire bombing. Also, we were going through some pretty tumultuous times in the community. Like, it takes a long time to get any sense of how to make this work. And it still operates pretty much on grace. But over the years you make a lot of mistakes, and you try to see if you cannot go there again. It doesn’t mean you won’t, but …”
One mistake Dietrich didn’t make was marrying Morris in 1974. Another was becoming a Catholic Worker.
Over 45 years, of course, there have been some steadfast accomplishments along with many changes.
The Agitator has been at least a semi-monthly publication since then, with Dietrich acting as editor, graphic designer, layout and production person, and feature wordsmith most of the time.
The House of Hospitality, where today nine fulltime Catholic Workers live with a dozen or so formerly homeless “guests,” moved from Pasadena to Boyle Heights. The current residence is an almost 100-year-old Victorian on Brittania Street.
The soup kitchen first operated out of parish halls, serving meals on Skid Row’s Winston Street, then moved to its present site at the corner of 6th street and Gladys Avenue in the early ‘70s, before being damaged in the 1987 earthquake. Today, the “Hippie Kitchen,” as it is commonly known, serves nearly 3,000 meals most weeks.
The community’s works have also included a medical and dental free clinic and an at-cost membership food store called Nuestra Tienda. There’s been a playground and a daycare center, which is still going as Para Los Ni√±os. as well as a legal advisory office.
Besides the commercial blood banks that preyed on Skid Row’s homeless, the LACW has publically rallied against the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the militarization of American culture; county and federal prison systems; U.S.-backed regimes and wars in Central America and elsewhere — and the local Catholic Church itself for spending some $200 million on a new cathedral.
Dietrich, meanwhile, has soldiered on.
“Yeah, I never found a real job,” he quipped, laughing again.
n‘Forty years worth of Jeff!’
While the Vietnam War was still raging, Catherine Morris spotted a guy at different events and places getting signatures for a California state ballot to end the air war in Cambodia. Then, filling in for another woman religious at the Hospitality Kitchen, she met him. “He was sort of from my same background, had sort of dropped out of the same thing I was dropping out of. He had good values. And he was cute and fun,” said the former teacher and principal at private Mayfield senior and junior schools in Pasadena, giggling like a school girl.
“I just thought it was a really nice combination of he was an activist, he was focused, we had a common interest in the poor. And so we got together.”
But not so fast.
“Actually, Jeff and I were real good buddies for a long time,” she added. “He would come with me to the convent, ‘cause I was a sister when I started at the Catholic Worker. And the old retired sisters were crazy about him. This one sister, she would have him come up and she’d play her autoharp and sing for him.”
Around this time, Morris went off to San Francisco to a Jesuit symposium and afterward marched in a United Farm Workers’ picket line in the fields outside Fresno. She was arrested and spent a couple weeks in jail with Dorothy Day. Dietrich also took a break from L.A.’s Skid Row.
“When we got back, then we started kind of the next step in our relationship, which went from being friends to him saying, ‘Do you want to get married?’ It was kind of that quick.”
She recalled answering, “No, I can’t marry you.” And he assumed it was because she was a nun. But when he asked her why, she surprised him by answering, “Cause I’m older than you are, 11 years, 11 months to be exact.”
“He said I should think about it,” Morris recalled. “And he kept saying things like ‘If you marry me, I’ll make you chocolate chip cookies every day.’ ‘If you marry me, I’ll make chicken livers for you every day.’ All sorts of things like that. Which, in the meanwhile, I’ve stopped eating chocolate and I don’t eat meat.”
But she did agree to think about the proposal over the weekend when all the other sisters were gone. “So then I came back,” she reported, “and he said, ‘Well, what did you decide?’ And I said, ‘I decided to marry you.’”
Since she was still under final vows as a woman religious, there was the matter of informing Rome, which only held up the wedding for a week.
When asked today how it’s been, Morris didn’t hesitate.
“Forty years worth of Jeff! Can you imagine?” she said with a barely-straight face, adding: “Well, he’s a lot of fun. And it took me a long time to realize what an intellectual he was. In fact, one of the sisters and best friends, when I told her I was going to marry Jeff, she started to cry and said, ‘Catherine, what about your intellectual life?’
And Morris laughed.
“Well, it surprises me how he looks out for me,” she went on. “I have arthritis that has made me pretty lame. And he’s always looking out for me. And then he notices the things I like. I like Bailey’s Irish Cream, and a Bailey’s Irish Cream bottle will show up because I don’t drink wine. And I like PayDay candy bars. So I walk in last night and there was a PayDay candy bar there. So he just has in his head things that I like, which is kind of nice, huh? After 40 years, he still does that.”
n ‘I’m not Dorothy Day’
With his legs still crossed, scarf around his neck and summer fedora on his head, Jeff Dietrich was pondering the query: After more than four decades working on Skid Row and protesting the causes of poverty, injustice and war, why haven’t you burnt out?
“Well, you know, I’m not Dorothy Day,” he finally said, meaning he’s not a saint. “I don’t have quite the same kind of spiritual life that she did, or I don’t claim to. Although, we certainly have a great deal of prayer time, mostly communal prayer. But the best I can say is that the relationship with Catherine and the others has been sustaining.”
Then he had another thought: “OK, after a while you just go, ‘I’m just not going to leave.’ After a while, it’s not egotistical, but it is sort of personal, you know. I kind of liken it to the military. We’re waiting for the revolution. In the meanwhile, we’re fighting a rear guard action until the really smart people get here to make the revolution happen.”
After a good laugh, and waiting for the blare of a fire engine to die down, he said that regular Scripture study along with “cultural critique” helped, both being essential motivation for what Catholic Workers do. With another chuckle, he self-mockingly remarked, “I’m motivated by anti-authority and anger,” adding, “but it’s not overt in my writing.”
Dietrich pointed out how living in community is both a joy and a challenge.
“People idealize it, just as they idealize the poor,” he said. “And it’s really arduous. But it is, if you pardon the military metaphor again, like a band of brothers. I mean, sometimes you just can’t stand those people because they burp and they leave the bathroom a mess. But I’ll tell you, those are the people who will watch your back when things go south in the kitchen or on the street.”
The joys are still there, too, for the aging activist.
“Oh, yeah, it’s like we get to put on a party every day,” he said, smiling one last time. “We get to put on a party, and we get to invite our friends. And there is, of course, the sense of ‘Well, what’s the point? You’re not changing the system. And you’re probably not even changing these people.’
“But at the end of the day, you go home and you’re really tired and you know you actually did something. Not everybody gets to produce something. So it’s an attempt to live our lives in conjunction with the Gospel narrative. That’s what I think is integrity.
“Now, it’s not perfect,” he said, “but we’re trying.”