The next generation of peacemakers

By Heather McNeill

Like many peacemakers who have come before them, Kendall Marsden and Vicki Kline have found extraordinary work performing ordinary tasks for people in need. And for those concerned that the next generation is unwilling to take up the cause of peace, these two young women are lights of hope.

For the past year and half Marsden, a Lasallian volunteer at the Holy Family Catholic Worker House, has spent her days preparing meals, providing hospitality, and giving comfort to Kansas City’s poor.

In the mornings, she has helped prepare breakfast for 50 to 60 guests in the modestly-sized house; in the evenings, she has been a welcoming face when 150 to 200 people return for dinner or shelter from the elements.

Kline also served as a Lasallian volunteer and recently finished a two-year service at Holy Family. Since leaving the house, she has been applying the ideals of nonviolence and activism she developed there to her pursuits as a master’s student in social work. As part of her social work training, she works as a case manager and counselor for incarcerated women in the Kansas City, Mo. Municipal Correctional Institution. Despite her busy schedule, she still maintains a connection to the house and its dedicated community of volunteers, guests, and neighbors.

Both young women made the remarkable choice to pursue volunteer service directly out of college, eschewing a traditional path of many college graduates and instead opting for a difficult, but rewarding life serving in a Catholic Worker. Perhaps even more impressive, after serving the required year of service with the Lasallian volunteers, both women then signed on for another year in the program.

But it wasn’t always straightforward. After reading about the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, Kline says that while she admired the movement’s principles, she couldn’t quite envision herself in a Catholic worker at that time.

“I was called to that; I was inspired by that, but I wasn’t sure that I was nearly strong enough to do that,” Kline explains.

Marsden, on the other hand, knew since high school that she wanted to participate in post-graduate volunteer work. Visiting the Holy Family house in college and spending time at a house in Minnesota solidified her decision to live in a Catholic Worker House.

But there’s much in common in Kline’s and Marsden’s experience. Both attended Lasallian universities—Marsden in Minnesota and Kline in Philadelphia— and when both became certain of their desire to serve as volunteers, they felt drawn to the work of the Holy Family Catholic Worker.

The house is a unique placement in the Lasallian volunteer program, which typically places volunteers in school settings because of its traditional focus on education dating back to the seventeenth century and the movement’s founder St. John Baptist de La Salle. The house has had a longstanding relationship welcoming Lasallian volunteers because of Brother Louis Rodeman, a member of the De La Salle Christian brothers who has worked and lived at the house for many years.

In addition to placing Marsden and Kline at the worker house, the Lasallian program arranged for them to work part-time in their chosen career fields. Marsden currently works as a youth minister and volunteer coordinator at St. James parish. Kline spent her first year of service as a migrant advocate for the Migrant Farmworkers Project and the second as a social worker in a small, predominantly Hispanic grade school in the Northeast neighborhood.

Serving the poor at the worker house, however, was the primary draw for both women.

In the two years she served, Kline found she was more than up to the task. She worked hard to meet the variety of needs required of serving at Holy Family, which included confronting the distressing realities of poverty and more disturbing elements of the human response to those conditions—an undertaking that can test a person personally, emotionally, and spiritually.

“I guess there were a lot of times that I understood the ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of thing,” Kline says, with a laugh. “There’s a lot of darkness in the issues that people go through, and the issues that people are confronted with as a result of poverty, as a result of injustice. It’s a pretty real thing to be face-to-face with the ugliest parts of what people have to become to adapt to that poverty and that injustice on a daily basis, and so it’s hard to digest sometimes.”

Reflecting on how she handled these situations, Kline describes a spiritual work that resulted in “stripping down” to the core of what’s really important. She credits the Catholic Worker movement with allowing her the possibility to break down walls that separated her socially and culturally with the poor.

“It’s a pretty unnatural thing societally, and also learning spiritually, how to strip yourself down of all these thoughts about, preconceived notions about, what service is like, and what we’re called to do in a community, what we are really talking about when we talk about the Gospels, and what we are talking about when we talk about forgiveness and compassion,” Kline explains. “To see those things living out, in your dining room every single morning, when you walk down or go out on the front porch, to be confronted with those as realities, is a pretty intense thing.”

Marsden describes the way she has gained perspective on larger social issues through what she’s observed interacting and developing personal relationships with guests of the house.

“People really know what’s going on with the system,” she says, “They know it’s not working for them…I can tell you it’s a lot worse this year than it was last year, at least in terms of how many people we see each day, or how many clothing vouchers we’ve been giving out. We’ve probably turned away 50 families each week for shelter—those things still shock me—but being able to relate to people that you’d think you’d be so different from…has been really nice.”

Marsden describes a connection with one man that has been particularly moving for her. The man, a regular visitor to the house who had struggled with drinking and health problems, had not shown up at the house since he told Marsden and others at the house that he had been diagnosed with advanced throat cancer. Then, recently, he returned.

“We just sat down there and had some coffee, and lunch. He couldn’t say much without coughing, and coughing, but we laughed about all these memories, and he was just being grateful for all this house has provided throughout the years,” she explains.

Through his friendship, the man had provided Marsden with something, too. “The transformation of a man in a year in a half that I’ve been able to see, and so late in life—that after craziness in your life you are at peace with knowing that you’re going to die and just still doing what you can, while you can,” she says, pausing to reflect a moment. “It was just good to see him.”

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