In the spring of 1981 a young woman in the Publications Office at Notre Dame suggested that I might write an article about CILA, which was having its twentieth anniversary. CILA stands for Community for the International Lay Apostolate. It was founded by Father Larry Murphy of Maryknoll. As its name suggests, it is an organization for lay people who want to work for social justice and to act out the gospel imperative of Christian love beyond the limits of their own communities. CILA had been very active at Notre Dame, sending students to Peru, Chile, Appalachia, Harlem, and other places to work with the poor.
One of its most successful projects at Notre Dame was, and is, Urban Plunge, a two-day immersion in an inner-city pocket of poverty. Students take the "plunge" during Christmas vacation, in their own cities or other big cities. Their plunge is usually a shocking first look at the suffering of the poor. Short though it is, it is sometimes the beginning of a long commitment to service.
Marianne Murphy, a former student of mine, suggested the article to me on behalf of the CILA people, who were eager to spread the news of their projects so as to attract more supporters. The CILA office had sent inquiries to as many former CILA volunteers as they could locate, asking them what they had been doing since leaving college to help the poor and the powerless. Marianne showed me a sheaf of replies from people who had carried their commitment to social justice into their family lives and their careers.
I was attracted by the idea of writing such an article. I was teaching my course in Writing for Publication that semester, and as usual I wanted to write an article myself along with my class. But I decided not to limit myself to CILA and its alumni. Instead I would try to cover other organizations and other individuals who carried on the Christian concerns they had learned at Notre Dame.
I had been stirred by the idealism of the place. Granted, the majority of students, like students everywhere, are cheerful materialists intent on success and enjoyment. But at Notre Dame opportunities for doing something to improve the circumstances of old, or handicapped, or poor, or unfortunate people are numerous. So are models of action and service. Lay faculty members, as well as priests and brothers, shows examples of generous sharing of time and possessions. A number of faculty families sheltered Vietnamese boat people in their homes, and helped them for months until they found homes of their own and jobs. Other families took regular turns at cooking and serving meals at Hope Rescue Mission, where derelicts were fed. I have met faculty families who practice extremely spare life-styles in order to give their excess to the hungry.
I remember once talking to a young professor in the Government Department at a big faculty Christmas party. My three-minute conversation with him was worth hours of the usual party talk. I asked him about an incident several years earlier when he had been badly beaten in a racial encounter -- "hit with four or five crowbars." He had been an active idealist in urban politics and had thought his efforts were helping to ease racial tensions. He told me that when he was about to be beaten he had looked around at his black attackers, thinking that at least one of them might know him and his work. Not one did. He said he thought of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible: they sold him into slavery with evil intent, but what they did to him turned out well for him. John meant that for him, too, this beating turned out to do something that the attackers didn't intend. Though he was much disfigured and psychologically battered, he recovered and was stronger. He said that God lets us suffer, expects us to suffer in our service. Those were not his exact words, but I think he meant that suffering is to be expected when we serve. I was tremendously struck with the plain, bold way he spoke of the spiritual aspect of his experience.
Notre Dame fosters in its students a conviction that educated Christians have a responsibility toward the weak and helpless. The Theology Department has a course called "Theology and Community Service," in which students move between classroom lectures and hours of helping in nursing homes and in a school for the mentally handicapped. The curriculum at Notre Dame contains other courses with titles like "Third World Justice," "Church and Social Action," and "Corporate Conscience." The extracurricular opportunities to serve are manifold. Even if they never volunteer an hour of help, few Notre Dame students get through the university without catching at least a dim sense of the debt that the privileged owe to the weak and helpless.
I encountered students who were trying to pay this debt, in small ways and in large. Some were acting as big brothers and big sisters to local children; some were tutoring public school boys and girls who couldn't keep up with their classes; some were teaching handicapped children at Logan Center to swim, to dance, to play baseball; some were lobbying for fair wages for farm workers.
I began to plan an article which would follow some former students who had carried this habit of serving into the world beyond the campus. Mike Bozik, for example, had taken an Urban Plunge during his sophomore year. He had spent two days in Washington, D.C. serving soup to half-frozen street people. In the bitter January nights he saw them sleeping on subway grates. He read a newspaper headline: THREE MEN DIE OF COLD. When he came back to Notre Dame he couldn't get the scene out of his mind. "I was reading St. Thomas Aquinas's treatise on law, and I kept thinking, what am I doing here? Why am I reading this medieval philosopher?" he asked himself. He wanted to quit college right then and do something about the suffering he had seen. Father Don McNeill of CILA convinced him to stay in school, but his commitment remained. After graduation in 1980 he joined Holy Cross Associates and spent a year in Portland, Oregon, teaching at an "alternative school" for children with learning or behavior problems,
Holy Cross Associates is a national network of young lay men and women who pledge a year of volunteer service. It is sponsored by the Holy Cross Fathers, who founded Notre Dame and who figure largely in the running of it. The young people in Holy Cross Associates live in communities of five or six in Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Portland, or Hayward (California). They have small stipends on which to live frugally together, while serving in some local organization for helping people. Some, like Mike Bozik, teach in "alternative" schools; some work in an alcoholic treatment center; some work at prisons; one that I know of worked at a shelter for battered women. Holy Cross Associates is modeled after Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a much older and more widespread network of the same kind. In fact, a number of Notre Dame graduates have joined JVC.
Former students whom I read about in CILA's files had given not just a volunteer year of service, but were building their lives around it. Ricky Flores in San Antonio had founded a school to teach the Mexican children whose parents had slipped over the border to work in Texas. These children were not citizens and could not go to public schools. Later the Supreme Court ordered Texas to allow these children into the public schools. By this time Ricky Flores had found other ways to advance the well-being of Mexican-Americans. He joined the staff of the Mexican American Cultural Center where he could train Hispanic youths for leadership. Over half the population of San Antonio is Mexican-American, and Ricky Flores wanted to see this large group exert a proportional influence in city affairs. For this, they needed more young leaders.
Another story in the CILA file which interested me was that of Dr. Michael Hennelly of Espanola, New Mexico. He had first seen real poverty as a CILA volunteer in Mexico when he was a student at Notre Dame. He made up his mind then that he didn't want to be a "country club doctor." He would use his medical skill to serve the poor. When he was a resident at a hospital in Albuquerque, he met another young doctor with the same ideal, and they founded a clinic together in Espanola, where the residents are mainly descendants of Indians and Spaniards. Many of them do not speak English, and the per capita income is well below the poverty level. Michael Hennelly married a young local woman and settled down for a permanent life of the service he loves, in the adobe house he bought and fixed up.
As I planned my article, I realized that I would need to go to the scenes where these and other young people were doing their work. I was always urging my students to "go and see", rather than rely on second-hand reports, but of course their articles were usually about local subjects. I could show the students how a writer prepares a prospectus of an article as a basis for getting an editor to pay the travel expenses. I proposed a trip to San Antonio, Espanola, Hayward, and Portland to see and talk to the people who would figure in my article. I showed the plan to my students before submitting it to the managing editor of the Notre Dame Magazine. I was able to report to them before the course was over that the editor had agreed to pay for my trip. They could see the published article a few months later in the magazine.
Before I even left for the western trip, I had a visit from Dan Stollenwerk, who had been my student in a writing course the year before. I knew that Dan had spent the year since his graduation in the South Bronx, helping to run a men's shelter, and I wanted to hear about this. I thought I might use some of his experiences in the article I was planning. Dan Stollenwerk turned out to be the crown of the article.
He had gone to New York to work first with a Franciscan Oblate father in a "summer camp", really a playground camp, in the South Bronx. The priest, Father Bob, had been informally running a shelter for derelicts, as well as the camp. His provincial ordered him back to Washington that fall. Father Bob asked Dan to live in the house he had acquired, to "hang on to it" over the winter, while he tried to persuade his provincial to let him continue the work. Dan agreed. He was joined by two others: a Franciscan brother, Tony, and an eighteen-year-old boy, Bobby. They got jobs working for a plumber to support themselves.
"Nobody knew I had a college degree," Dan told me with a grin.
Winter came. A bitter winter. They began to bring in derelicts from the streets, who would otherwise freeze to death. Dan and Tony and Bob constructed twenty beds by buying slabs of plywood which they would balance between milk cartons, the old wooden kind. Then they'd cover the slabs with foam rubber, then with vinyl. At first they also had sheets, but had to give that up because of the laundry problems. They had blankets. For $300, Dan said, they made these twenty beds, and filled them every night through January, February, and March.
They bought lots of bug spray and shampoo which eliminated lice. The men had to use this as a condition of having a bed. They used paper plates and cups and plastic utensils as a precaution against tuberculosis. They had a washer-dryer and they'd wash the men's clothes and the blankets. They had to quit their jobs in order to do all this cleaning and washing and cooking. They used their own money until it ran out, and then they got some help from other people, including Dan's parents in Ohio.
Dan said that he and Bobby had arguments about the rules of the house. They searched each man before letting him in to be sure he had no knife, or gun, or bottle of liquor. Their rules barred any man who was drunk. But Bobby would quote Scripture about mercy, and would let in drunks, who would cause fights and make other trouble. Bobby was sloppy and lenient, always at odds with Dan, who was trying to bring some order and some modest sort of beauty to the place. "But if we had a choice of two chairs, and one was nice and the other one ugly and broken, Bobby would take the ugly one," Dan said, trying to describe this difficult but saintly companion.
He told me some horrifying stories about the men they sheltered. Some of them would have gangrenous feet because of frostbite. Dan told of coming home on a crowded subway one night, when he noticed that one car was not crowded. He moved into it and was struck by a terrible smell. It was coming from an old man whom nobody could bear to sit near. "I felt I had to go and sit next to him," Dan recalled. People were laughing and making remarks about the terrible old man, but when Dan looked up and caught their eyes they grew silent.
He asked the man if he wanted to come to his house and have a bath. So Dan took this repulsive human being, so abhorrent that people would stand up in a crowded subway rather than come near him, home to his house. He helped him get out of his clothes, and when he took his shoes off Dan saw that his feet were black with gangrene. One toe had already fallen off. Dan called an ambulance. Two police officers came with it, one of them a woman. Dan tried to keep her from seeing the man, who was by now nearly naked. She brushed his warning aside. But both police officers backed away when they saw -- and smelt -- their patient. Dan had to shuffle him into the ambulance. Both his feet were amputated that night.
I stared at Dan as he told me this story, a tall, lean young man, very clean and well-groomed. I couldn't imagine how he could do the things he described. He laughed about some of the incidents, the comical things the men would say and do. Nevertheless I could see that he had suffered terribly during these months that he ran the shelter.
He told me that one day while he was praying he had a powerful insight about God's grace. He felt that it was being poured out on him; that even from these poor and miserable beings he was receiving. "What I give is like this" -- he held his thumb and forefinger about a quarter-inch apart -- "compared to the gifts of Christ's death and resurrection." He quoted Mother Teresa, who thanks the poor for allowing her to help them, and for being poor so that the rest of us can understand suffering.
I had never heard such an account, completely unselfconscious, of sanctity. Dan was offhand and humorous about what he had done. He had no clear purpose for the next stage of his life. With the advent of warm weather the men no longer came to the shelter. Apparently they would rather sleep in the subway or in a doorway or on the street than come to a house where their bottles and knives were taken away, and they had to shampoo against lice. The shelter had closed. Dan thought he might work in Appalachia that summer. He said he had left New York with a sense of failure: what had he really accomplished? Yet, he added, he sometimes felt a surge of strength and confidence at having touched the depths of degradation and come out of it. He was finding it hard to adjust to middle class life, and wondered if he would ever be able to.
I asked him if I could use his name and tell his stories in my article. At first he didn't want me to. He seemed to feel that if he were praised or glorified for what he did, it would cheapen it. I reminded him that Mother Teresa had accepted the Nobel Prize and various honorary degrees not because she wanted honors but because her fame might bring help for her work, and perhaps inspire some people to follow her example. So he agreed that I could use his story. "But keep it honest," he said. In other words, he didn't want me to overstate.
I don't think I overstated. I made his story the climax of my article, but I didn't embellish the facts as he had told them to me, and I didn't back them up with any violin music. He had moved me deeply, however, and I began to think of putting him and other brave young people into a novel, where I could treat them more imaginatively.
The idea of a novel grew even as I was gathering material on my western trip for the article I would write. Ricky Flores and his wife Christine in San Antonio, Michael Hennelly in Espanola, Mary Monnat in Portland -- these and others furnished me with figures and scenes for a story of idealism in a materialistic world.
In Portland Mary Monnat showed me around DePaul Center, which treated derelict alcoholics who couldn't afford to pay to be rehabilitated. It was a shabby old building, once a hotel, in a shabby section of Portland: a sad place full of men and women who had gone down to the very gutters of shame and were trying to climb back. Steve Newton ran it, a former seminarian who had left the seminary because of alcoholism and who had plunged to the depths himself before struggling back. Now he was devoting his life to reclaiming other alcoholics. Mary Monnat, who had once been my student, was a volunteer with Holy Cross Associates, giving a year's service at DePaul. She told me that she had become so committed to the work that she intended to stay on and take a job there. Two or three other former Holy Cross Associates had stayed on after their volunteer year, and were working for the small salaries which the Center could afford.
I visited the house where Mary Monnat and the other Holy Cross Associates lived. Six of them shared a little house, cooked and ate frugally together, confided to one another the ups and downs of their various volunteer jobs, prayed together -- and occasionally had clashes. How could they not have clashes? Six young men and women in their early twenties, united by their desire to serve their fellow beings, but divided by tastes, temperaments, and life goals, were cramped together in a bungalow with only one bathroom and very little private space. Coming from affluent homes, for the most part, they probably thought a "simple life-style" would be an enjoyable adventure until they tried it, and found it involved some discomforts they hadn't expected. Some of their disagreements concerned the meaning of "simple." One man insisted "we don't need an ironing board", even though the ironing-board had been given them, along with pots and pans and other household equipment. In fact this group voted item by item on what they should keep of the stuff donated to them. "Shouldn't we use coffee cans instead of keeping this cannister set?" Melinda Henneberger told me that a house-mate had rebuked her for wearing Calvin Klein jeans, the jeans that she had had in college. He thought they weren't suitable for someone working with the poor.
Such arguments could later be laughed at. But sometimes clashes were philosophical, and resulted in a member leaving the group. A young women had left the Holy Cross Associates group in Hayward, California, because she decided her volunteer job demanded it. She was working with QUEST, a center for battered women, where the women were constantly urged to become independent of the men who abused them. It seemed to her that she herself should be independent, rather than live in a supportive group, so she broke her commitment to Holy Cross Associates, accepted a paying job with QUEST, and took an apartment.
I stored up the stories I heard of tensions in these communities, not to use in my article but for the novel that was growing in the back of my mind. There wasn't room in the article for the subtleties of personal relationships. I had a word-limit from the Notre Dame Magazine of 3500, and I wanted to cover Ricky and Christine Flores, Michael Hennelly, Dan Stollenwerk, Holy Cross Associates groups in Hayward and Portland, and a Jesuit Volunteer group in Chicago. I had a terribly hard time compressing all these people and scenes into that space. In fact I went over my limit, and the editors cut some of my scenes. Later I wrote a second article about DePaul Center and about Steve Newton, its director. These two articles appeared in the Fall of 1981.
I consoled myself for the cuts by planning my novel, in which I could deal expansively not only with the facts I had gathered but with the implications. I wanted to tell a story of young idealists, fired by Christ's command to "feed my lambs, feed my sheep." I wanted to show the difficulties and conflicts they would have in trying to do this as a group of volunteers. I would not model my characters on the actual persons I had met and talked to, but I would take bits here and bits there, scraps of dialogue, and the hints I had gotten of emotions and tensions behind what I saw. I would transpose incidents and scenes.
My point-of-view character began to come to me as a vivacious, attractive, rather spoiled young woman who, in her last year at Notre Dame becomes involved in tutoring poor children who are falling behind in school. Neal, as I decided to call her, has her conscience awakened through this tutoring to the realization that she has been living a privileged life in the midst of a world of hunger and deprivation. She learns about a national network of young people who agree to give a year of volunteer service, living together in small communities in big cities. I decided not to call this organization Holy Cross Associates or Jesuit Volunteer Corps, although it is modeled after both of them. Getting away from the factual, I named it Company of Barnabas. I got the name from the passage in the Acts of the Apostles which describes how the company of Christians shared everything they had so that no one was in need, and how one man, Barnabas, sold his field and contributed the proceeds to be used for all.
I set Neal down with Company of Barnabas in a Chicago flat, suggested by the one I had seen when I visited a Jesuit Volunteer group. Neal is the controlling intelligence of the story: all the other characters are seen through her eyes. The camera follows Neal as she takes up her volunteer service in an alcoholic treatment center, and shares in the adventures and tensions of life in the community flat. The alcoholic treatment center that I saw in Portland furnished me with many of the details, but one big element is different. St. Vincent's Center in Chicago is run by a woman.
Neal is not a docile, self-effacing type. She's outspoken, impulsive, and hot-tempered, and is inclined to be critical of other people -- also of herself. She has a lively sense of the absurd, and doesn't hesitate to point out the absurdities that do-gooders often fall into. One editor, declining the novel, said, "None of us could stand her. She's such a smart-aleck." I may have created a heroine whom nobody can like except myself, as Jane Austen said of Emma. I do like her; she's my heart's darling, as Faulkner said of Caddy Compson, bristling with faults along with some honest impulses toward good.
In Company of Barnabas, as in Holy Cross Associates and Jesuit Volunteer Corps, there is supposed to be no romantic interest. The community members are supposed to live as brothers and sisters. In fact if a couple are already in love or engaged when they sign up, they are placed in different communities. Ah, but after they get into the community, who can legislate that they will not fall in love? One of her "brothers" falls in love with Neal, and therein lies some of the conflict in her story.
There are other conflicts, as the five young workers try to share the lives and realize the sufferings of the unfortunates they are trying to help. They can't really experience poverty, hard as they try, because underneath them is a safety net of family love, of education, of good health, of self-assurance. Living without an ironing board and foregoing steaks for a year cannot initiate them into the life of the under-class. They learn this through some comic and some sorrowful events. This lesson does not convince them, however, that their service is valueless; in fact it forces some of them to make a deeper commitment.
In a pamphlet issued by Jesuit Volunteer Corps I read a line which gave me the title for this novel: "After a year of service many volunteers happily find themselves ruined for life." This reminded me of Dan Stollenwerk's saying that after his winter in the South Bronx he didn't think he could ever again adjust to middle-class values. I like the oxymoron "happily ruined" in the JVC brochure, but I decided that I couldn't use "happily" in my title. It would smack of sentimentality; it would be over-urging the point of my story. I would have to trust that when they came to the end, readers would see that some of my characters had made a fortunate decision to continue their service -- fortunate in the sense of their growth in devotion.
When I finished Ruined for Life, I felt euphoric. I loved the story, and I expected everyone else to love it. Oddly enough, I had no misgivings about its being a religious novel, not likely to have a wide appeal. After all, Flesh and Spirit had been just as religious and it had found its admirers. It had been a selection of Readers Digest Condensed Books, which assured me that there was a big popular audience for a story of religious conflicts. But I very soon had a bitter disappointment, one of a series. William Morrow turned down Ruined for Life in a short cold note which referred to the failure of A Broken Family.
Dorothy Olding was handling the manuscript for me. I couldn't help noticing that her own reaction to it was tepid; she wanted to find it a publisher for my sake, but she clearly had few hopes. One publisher after another declined it. I decided to ask Dorothy to show it to Rosemary Casey at Dodd, Mead, who had been urging me to write another young adult novel for her. Perhaps Ruined for Life was a young adult novel, since it was almost completely lacking in sex, violence, cynicism, and horror. But nobody at Dodd, Mead liked it, even Rosemary. Dorothy tried it on a few more publishers as a young adult novel. Nothing doing.
Besides the disappointments and discouragements of these rejections, there was the frustration of having to wait months for each one. The protocol of the publishing business is that an author must submit her manuscript to only one house at a time. There is some justice in this: a publishing house may invest considerable editorial effort in evaluating a manuscript. Several editors may read it and take notes and discuss it. Even the sales department may study its possibilities. Publishers feel that they shouldn't be asked to make such efforts unless they have the exclusive offer of the book. They do not want to "waste" the time and talents of several editors only to be told that, after all, they can't have the book because another publisher has bought it. I can see the point of this. Yet I feel that it works a terrible hardship on authors when publishers abuse their exclusivity by taking three months to reject a book. In two and a half years of offering it, Dorothy was able to show it to only twelve publishers. Most of them kept it two months, and some three. And this, with a top literary agent handling it. Authors who have no agent get even shabbier treatment. And while we wait for answers, the events in our stories may become dated, the slang go out of style, or a competing book appear.
Some bold authors thumb their noses at the system and do "multiple submissions." They take a chance that they won't get two offers at once. I guess it's a chance worth taking. But I couldn't ask Dorothy to do that with my manuscript because a literary agency must keep the good will of publishers. "Multiple submissions" might be seen as subversive by publishers (except of course in the case of celebrity books which are candidly "auctioned"). But, fed up with the long waits, I asked Dorothy to send my manuscript back to me so that I could do multiple submissions,
In the event, I got cold feet when it came to actually sending the whole thing out to several publishers at once. I guess I had been a literary agent too long. Instead I wrote a letter, comprehensively (and I hoped, enticingly) describing Ruined for Life, and sent the letter to several publishers at once, offering to send the manuscript for consideration. Most of the answers were no on the basis of my letter. A few publishers asked to see the manuscript and then said no. After eighteen months, and two dozen rejections all told, I finally got a contract from Paulist Press. To my great joy, Ruined for Life was finally published in the fall of 1987. It was and still is my favorite of all my books.
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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