Precarity. The first time I heard this word was at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. Much of my roots as a follower of the vagrant, people-loving, good-news-to-the-poor sharing, Jesus came from the Open Door starting in college when I was re-schooled by community co-founder, Murphy Davis, to take to the streets and cross lines of difference. Precarity was a word fully embraced by Dorothy Day, a journalist who stood with workers and the poor. She helped to begin the movement known as the Catholic Worker communities. Dorothy Day wrote an article on Poverty and Precarity where she talks about the need for the church to live on the edge instead of being so worried about the condition of the buildings we have church in.
“Poverty and Precarity”
By Dorothy Day
The Catholic Worker, May 1952, 2, 6. “True poverty is rare,” a saintly priest writes to us from Martinique. “Nowadays communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, Precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential element of poverty.”
That has been forgotten. Here we want precarity in everything except the church. These last days our refectory was near collapsing. We have put several supplemental poles and thus it will last, maybe two or three years more. Some day it will fall on our heads and that will be funny. Precarity enables us to help very much the poor. When a community is always building, and enlarging, and embellishing, which is good in itself, there is nothing left over for the poor. We have no right to do this as long as there are slums and breadlines somewhere.”
Though I’ve known the word precarity since the late 1990s, I must admit that I really didn’t know it at all. My head knew it well but my heart, my body knew very little about it until just recently. Precarity (comes from precarious which we are more apt to have heard and) basically means living on the edge. Poor people know precarity though they may never use the word. When you’re poor, you always live on the edge—the fine line between survival and not survival.
Our little community has spent the last few months fighting for our life (at least in my mind). We have wondered whether we will be able to pay the rent, received disconnection notices from the electric company, and saw our food supply dwindle. We took on extra part-time jobs and worked alongside other poor people doing meanial labor during the hours we weren’t open. If you received a phone book at or near your door lately, it may have been us. We saw how firsthand how corporate systems use desperate people to do a job that pays dramatically less than the worth of the labor given because capitalism thrives on poverty.
I am a worry wart. My partner, Lauren, says much of my worrying comes from getting a first taste at real poverty (though I’ve lived in voluntary poverty for years). She is right. And so with bills piling up and very little donations coming in, I spent many a sleepless night wondering how to help our little community survive. Stress is unhealthy and so my health and quality of relationships unraveled to greater degrees as my worrying increased. You might say I went kicking and screaming towards precarity.
There is a simple gospel thought that runs through the heart of the Jesus life. It says, “We are saved by faith.” And though I am the pastor, Lauren seems to embrace this simple statement far better than I. She has told me during many a worry-filled night to have faith and demonstrated that by the freedom with which she embraces poverty (this comes from years of being poor and learning to live with it even as you struggle for justice).
So in short, I’ve learned that we are not saved by worry. We are not saved by fear. We are not saved by trying to keep ourselves alive.
I have begun to embrace precarity and the power of love. I do not know what the journey toward precarity will mean for our community. But I do believe that our community exists by God’s grace and not by my worry. I have now embraced deeply in my bones what we’ve said from the beginning: that our true mission is to love and give in love and to change the world by the power of love lived out in community, a community that centers itself at the margins. And if we give everything away in love then we have been faithful. Faithful–even if we can no longer keep our doors open and are pushed further to the edge and the streets.
Thank God for walking on the edge of this world. We just might fall off into the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community.