In Your Midst
The Spirit of the Family Kitchen
Nov. 2005

"The mystery of the poor is this:  that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him."  Dorothy Day

    The year 1975 is most remembered in Seattle’s Catholic circles for the fact that it marked the beginning of Raymond Hunthausen’s episcopacy in the Emerald City. But that same year, something else happened that would profoundly affect the life and rhythms of St. James Cathedral Parish: the Family Kitchen was born.

The Cathedral Hall has been completely refitted and refurbished as part of the Centennial Campaign.  The antiquated electrical and ventilation system has been replaced and the entire kitchen has been brought up to code.  New, state-of-the-art appliances and fixtures have been installed.  Jeff Winter of Bargreen-Ellingson (who has designed commercial kitchens for major downtown restaurants and hotels) designed the kitchen in response to the unique needs of the Family Kitchen).

    John Williams, one of the co-founders of the kitchen and the husband of current director Kathleen O’Hanlon, used the occasion of the kitchen’s 10th anniversary in 1985 to reflect on the humble beginnings of a special place. In Williams’ words, one can feel the spirit of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that gave rise to the kitchen. But just as important, one sees evident connections with the commitment to justice that Hunthausen would also bring to Seattle in 1975 and beyond:

    “It was February 1975,” Williams said. “Gerald Ford was President and the war in Vietnam was in its last exhausting months. Twenty miles away from us here in Seattle, the Navy was just beginning construction of a Trident Submarine Base. Those of us who began the kitchen had worked and would work against both the war and Trident. We understood that, whether the wars were hot or cold, the victims were not just foreign or in the future, but actually in our midst, and that, as Eisenhower warned us, every dollar spent on an arms race was stolen from the poor.

    “An article of faith we in the Seattle Catholic Worker community both understood and stood by was that all of us share a personal responsibility to make the future different by making the present different. So, from the beginning of the Catholic Worker in Seattle, it was our intention to open a kitchen and serve a free meal.”

    This meal is still being served today, nearly 30 years after the afternoon of February 24, 1975, when nine precious souls came to Cathedral Hall to taste Catholic Worker food... and the personalized, direct hospitality that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin envisioned when they conceived of the Catholic Worker movement in 1933.

    Guided by principles of simplicity, personalism (doing work yourself instead of hiring outsiders to perform a job) and radical solidarity with the poor, the Catholic Worker movement—which came to Seattle in 1974—seeks to blur the line between server and served, and to create ‘eucharist’ in the gritty yet grace-filled terrain of everyday life. While Catholic Worker houses of hospitality have seen ups and downs in the Seattle area over the past three decades, the Family Kitchen stands today as the most stable and enduring part of the Catholic Worker legacy in Seattle.
And while it is, in an all-too-real sense, a sad commentary on our society that a crowd of nine on Day One has become an average crowd of 130 nearly three decades later, the Family Kitchen has at least been able to remain a welcoming, safe and minimally judgmental place for women, families and seniors—in short, for everyone except single men under 55. In the cold of winter or in the searing heat of summer, the kitchen has been a safe haven for the particularly enfeebled and vulnerable members of the larger population, and it was this desire to provide safety for the vulnerable that gave rise to the single-men exemption that has been an understandable point of tension and unease throughout the kitchen's life and times.

    Williams put it best in that same 10th anniversary reflection back in 1985: “The community that is the Family Kitchen is not perfect—that is to say, nobody does it quite the way anybody else wants it done. It is arguable whether we are a community at all. But we are, beyond all doubt, a family—humble, lovable, cantankerous, judgmental, inefficient. No one has the slightest clue how we made it 10 years.”

    Williams concluded with a line that O’Hanlon has since echoed in subsequent years, as the kitchen has carried on to the brink of its 30th anniversary: “Like odd vegetables thrown together in a pot of common stew, our individual flavors are deeper, our combinations more rare.”

    This is the expression of community and individuality that defines the Catholic Worker vision of Dorothy Day, and of a humble soup kitchen that has thrown together odd vegetables—and odd characters—for nearly three decades on the ground of St. James Cathedral.


"Don't call me a saint; I don't want to be dismissed so easily," Dorothy Day once said.  She wrote:  "The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.  It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love.  The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love."

Dorothy Day

    “Not only is there no chance of knowing Christ without partaking of that Food that He has left us (the Eucharist), but also we can't know each other unless we sit down to eat together. We learn to know each other in the breaking of the bread. When the stranger comes to us to be fed, we know because Christ told us so, that inasmuch as we have fed one of His hungry ones we have fed Him. That is why the most fundamental point in the Catholic Worker program is emphasizing our personal responsibility to perform Works of Mercy.” (Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness)

    If some people find it difficult to grasp the essence of Dorothy Day's spirituality and the vision that sustains the Catholic Worker movement, one need only to look inside Cathedral Hall any weekday afternoon at 4:30.

    When you see the residents of our community sitting down with each other, and when you see the kitchen's volunteers in the middle of the action—getting a tray for a handicapped person and, later, sitting down to listen to the stories of the people who truly “own” this place—you find nothing other than a re-enactment of Eucharist. Such a scene is in one sense ordinary, but it also contains familiar echoes of the aftermath of the Emmaus story. Dorothy Day’s words not only describe what you see at the Family Kitchen; they also reveal the core of this extraordinary woman's spirituality, enfleshed in the Catholic Worker movement.

    “We can't know each other unless we sit down to eat together. We learn to know each other in the breaking of the bread.” These words sing with meaning. But for us to learn about each other, we have to sit down together first, and it’s that dimension of personal participation and involvement that truly defines Dorothy Day’s spirituality. From Peter Maurin and other shaping influences, Dorothy gained a strong appreciation for personalism, the simple concept that you should perform actions yourself, communicate meanings directly (without signage), and blur the line between server and served in a context of radical solidarity with the poor.

    Personalism lies at the heart of Dorothy Day’s spirituality and the vision that animates the Family Kitchen each day. In Dorothy’s words, “We have all known the long loneliness... we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes in community.”

    Personalism. Love. Community. Eucharist. Served daily at the Family Kitchen.

Matthew Zemek, a Cathedral parishioner, works in the Family Kitchen.

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