By Celine Klosterman
DAVENPORT — Any time Christina Lorentzen has needed help, she’s found it at the Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker house.
When her injured husband couldn’t work and faced a choice of paying an electric bill or buying food, Michael Gayman, the house’s founder, provided groceries. After her 4-year-old son complained of back pain from sleeping on a worn-out mattress, Gayman offered a replacement.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, if you have a need, he does whatever he can to fulfill it,” said Lorentzen, a Davenport hairdresser. He does so with a personal touch she hasn’t felt at food pantries. “He wants to know how you’re doing. He treats you like family.”
She’s among dozens of people who’ve received assistance from the Catholic Worker house at 1713 W. Ninth St. since it opened in late August 2010, when it became the first Catholic Worker community in Davenport in 20 years. Teens without families, people recovering from addictions, a laid-off professional, immigrants, and people with mental disabilities or illnesses have found food, fellowship and a place to stay at Gayman’s home.
“Dorothy Day said the poor will always find you,” he said, referring to a founder of the Catholic Worker movement. “That’s very true.”
A sense of community
Three guests are staying at the Davenport house now. While up to 15 people have slept there on a winter night, five people can stay comfortably, he said.
“This house is very small intentionally.” Not meant to be simply a shelter, the house offers a safe, supportive family, said Gayman, 32.
People who are homeless need that sense of community as much as they need a roof over their heads, said Sister Ruth E. Westmoreland, OSF. She’s coordinator of Café on Vine, a free meal site in Davenport where Gayman works part-time.
“Often, people come to Café on Vine because they just want someone to recognize they’re a person,” she said. “They want a smile, someone to talk to, some human contact that’s not confrontational. A Catholic Worker model offers that.”
Some guests who left Gayman’s home after finding jobs and apartments return for fellowship, he said. Of the 25 people who’ve stayed there, he’s still in contact with 20 of them, including two men who have lived there since it opened.
One former guest said living at the Catholic Worker house for seven months boosted his self-esteem. Jerry, who has struggled with substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness, said he received not only shelter, food and clothes at Gayman’s home, but support. “Michael and I talked a lot; he was genuinely concerned about me.” Gayman’s example inspired Jerry to help a neighbor move and to volunteer at the Red Cross, said the former guest, who now lives in an apartment with furniture Gayman helped provide. “His heart is in his work,” Jerry said. “He really means what he’s doing.”
Making tough decisions
Relationships with guests make up the most gratifying — and most challenging — part of Gayman’s ministry. “I’m constantly asking myself what are good boundaries to have with them… Sometimes I just want to be alone to recharge, but it can be hard to say I’m not available. An emergency doesn’t always happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.”
Also difficult can be determining who comes into the house and, sometimes, who must go. While Gayman at first offered space for women, he later decided to house only men until a female Catholic Worker becomes available. On a recent morning, he received three phone calls by 10:30 a.m. from men seeking a place to stay. “It’s getting cooler and the need is growing. I set up times to meet with them, but I’ll have to say no to two of them,” he said. And he’s asked a few guests to leave for various reasons — using drugs around a recovering addict, disrespecting fellow guests.
Prayer helps him make such decisions. “I couldn’t do this work without some sense of spirituality,” he said. The former seminarian wakes at 4 a.m. each morning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and meditate, which he also does in the afternoon.
When Gayman needs a break, he’ll spend a night or two at a friend’s apartment or accept invitations from the Clinton Franciscan community to retreat to a cottage in Cordova, Ill., along the Mississippi River. Volunteers check on houseguests when he’s away.
One such volunteer is Karen Wente, a Catholic who lives about a mile from Gayman’s home. Seeing a college-educated, laid-off teacher come to the home as one of Gayman’s first guests disconcerted her. “I thought, she’s no different than I am. We’re all one step away from having nothing.”
His ministry has affected Lorentzen’s perspective, too. “At one point in my life, when I saw people who were homeless on the street, I’d just walk right past them. But Michael says, ‘That homeless person doesn’t really need the money so much; he needs a handshake or a hug.’ So now I’ll stop and have a conversation with the person, and see what I can do to help, because I’ve seen what a difference Michael can make in people’s lives.”
Gayman acknowledged the Catholic Worker lifestyle doesn’t suit everyone. “But I love it. I haven’t woken up a day in the past year wishing I was somewhere else.”
Support Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker house
Michael Gayman’s wages from his part-time job at Café on Vine, a free meal site in Davenport, cover utility bills for his home. Donated groceries and a backyard vegetable garden help sustain him and others living at the house.
But he relies on donations to cover taxes and make improvements to his 111-year-old home, which he bought with an interest-free loan from an anonymous supporter. “People are very generous around the holidays,” he said. “Donations really slow down in the summer.”
To give, make checks payable to Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker and send them to P.O. Box 4618, Davenport, Iowa, 52802. Donations of toiletries, cleaning products, laundry soap, food staples and other everyday items also are welcome.
Gayman invites volunteers to visit his home to cook and serve a meal, which guests share each evening. Contact him at (563) 505-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.