By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Near the great oaks of Mamre, in a story told in Genesis, Abraham extends generous hospitality toward three strangers, not realizing that one of the three is God. This Scripture (Genesis 18:1-16) is a favorite of Michael Gayman’s and inspired the name for a Catholic Worker house he plans to open in west Davenport. Like Abraham, the Davenport native and former seminarian is placing his trust in God that he is doing God’s will.
It has been 20 years since a Catholic Worker community existed in Davenport, providing food and shelter in a spirit of hospitality modeled after the Catholic Worker Movement founded in 1933 in New York. The founders were Dorothy Day, a 1972 recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, and Peter Maurin. Considered one of the most important social movements in the 20th century Catholic Church, the Catholic Worker Movement called for a literal acceptance of the New Testament as a guide to social action, and a willingness to do something personally and immediately about the ills of society.
About 185 Catholic Worker houses exist today in the United States. Gayman was part of a Catholic Worker community for 2-1/2 years in California. When he returned to Davenport earlier this year to be closer to family, friends and colleagues encouraged him to consider opening a Catholic Worker community in the Davenport Diocese.
“I did some praying and discerning; I felt God was calling me back here. I see this as being a lay vocation for me,” Gayman told The Catholic Messenger. With a generous loan from an anonymous donor, Gayman purchased a house at 1713 W. Ninth St. which he hopes to open as the Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker this fall.
“We aim to keep alive hospitality as an ancient sacred code of conduct,” Gayman says in a letter to friends of the Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker. “We will be offering food, and a place to rest along life’s journey. In short, we endeavor to practice the works of mercy.” Communal spirituality (weekly liturgy and common prayer) will be an important component of this ministry of hospitality.
But first, Gayman needs to get the plumbing fixed, the floors refurbished and attend to myriad details involved in making the house a home. “At this time, we are still laying the groundwork for doing ministry, moving in, meeting the neighbors, assessing the needs of our community and raising the much needed funds to sustain us,” Gayman said.
“I think it’s exciting that a young person has the courage and faith to move forward with what he feels called to do,” said Sister Bea Snyder, CHM, a longtime friend of Gayman’s. “He’s had experience being part of a Catholic Worker community in a very diverse culture in California. Now he’s choosing to return home. So often we read about young people going to college and moving away with big degrees and here’s a person coming home and wanting to be involved with the marginalized in our area.”
Gayman will make a modest start; the small house can provide live-in hospitality for four to six people and some emergency sleeping space. During the week, he plans to serve daily, community meals to anyone who stops in. A pot of soup likely will be warming on the stovetop throughout the day.
“There is always a need for hospitality for the homeless,” said Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a retired priest of the Davenport Diocese who lived in Catholic Worker communities in Davenport and in Washington, D.C. Long involved in social action, the priest said he would have opened a Catholic Worker house and lived out his final years there, had his health permitted. So he’s especially pleased that Gayman is opening one. “I admire Michael for taking this on. If I had better health, I’d join him,” said Msgr. Mottet, the Davenport Diocese’s first director of social action.
Sr. Snyder predicts that Gayman is “going to challenge us to take the Jesus walk more than what we do and more than what we have done. The Jesus walk takes you out of your safety zone sometimes. I find that very exciting.”
Goals for Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker: provide live-in hospitality for four to six people and emergency sleeping space for a couple more; provide daily community meals for whoever shows up; offer a communal spirituality (weekly liturgy and common prayer) open to anyone wishing to join in; provide weekly food distribution to local families in need; offer an English as a second language program for the largely Latino neighborhood.
Items needed: Food staples, toiletries, furniture, garden tools and lawn mower, kitchen appliances, bed linens, cleaning supplies, English/Spanish dictionaries.
Where to donate: Make checks payable to Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker and send them to P.O. Box 4618, Davenport, Iowa, 52802.