Catholic Worker’s Bro. Louis Rodemann to take a sabbatical

Text and artwork by Pat Marrin

It is hard to imagine Kansas City without Christian Brother Louis Rodemann. For almost 50 years — since the day he arrived in 1961 as a 21-year-old CB in black cassock and distinctive white tab collar to teach math and science at the old DeLaSalle High School – the name “Brother Louis” (a.k.a. Louie) has been synonymous with care for the down and out in Midtown.

Manny, one of Brother’s many students, used to keep old DeLaSalle yearbooks among the magazines at the barber shop where he cut hair on Wornall Road. See Brother Rodemann, short dark hair, no beard, unsmiling, in total control at the blackboard, the kind of teacher who drilled the basics into his students, the one they will remember with gratitude for the rest of their lives.

Fast forward 50 years. Louis has just rolled a cart stacked with 10 large banana boxes each holding 15 loaves of bread onto the floor scale at Harvesters. Along with another cart of  slightly bruised produce from the cooler and a pallet of paper products and condiments ordered online, this week’s haul will be loaded into the van and unloaded into the basement at Holy Family Catholic Worker House, a mini warehouse of food that will move quickly upstairs and into the evening meal served six days a week. The carts roll clear and Louis steps onto the scale. His 135 pounds have not varied in years and, belying his silver hair curling off the back of his broad, bare forehead, he still has the body of a bantam-weight boxer, rope-like veins down his muscled arms ending in outsized hands accustomed to farm work growing up followed by a lifetime of hands-on ministry.

How Louis got from DeLaSalle to Holy Family House is the story of his unfolding vocation, one call coming within another,  each call taking him deeper into direct engagement with big city poverty and its many causes.

During his 20 years in the classroom, Louis was always alert to the underlying problems and social pressures that dogged his students: the economic disparities hitting minorities; the kids who dropped out to get a job and help out at home; the deteriorating neighborhoods; race and poverty defining thousands of lives. He was already volunteering with the many priests, brothers, religious women and others working in Midtown to address the needs for housing, childcare, pantry and meal programs, healthcare, drug and alcohol recovery. Their ministry was difficult but deeply satisfying in those heady days after Vatican II, when so many Catholics were learning how to put their faith into action.

The story is told that Sr. Jan Cebula, Sr. Joan Kane and Sr. Barbara Jennings, who had resurrected the Catholic Worker House at 31st and Harrison in 1982, found Bro. Louis in a dumpster at the city market. He was a regular volunteer salvager of produce and bread tossed by merchants but still good enough for distribution and cooking up into a meal for the growing population in Midtown short on money and nutrition. He joined the community, thrived there on hard work and the Beatitudes, what he later called “all the necessary elements for living the Christian life. It was the “school of radical Christianity” Dorothy Day intended when she and Peter Maurin opened the first Catholic Worker House in the Bowery section of New York City in 1933. Day visited Kansas City in 1974 when Holy Family House was first opened by Angie O’Gorman, and she would have felt right at home again in 1982, the first year of what was to become a 28-year sojourn for Louis.

In her 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day described the birth of the Catholic Worker Movement. She could have been describing life at Holy Family:

“We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ We could not say, ‘Go, be thou filled.’ If there were six small loaves and a few fish, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

“We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.”

During Louis’ time at Holy Family, the community waxed and waned, turned over as members moved on or passed away, and new people came, first to visit, then to stay — one year, two years, or eight or 10 years. The changing community matched an evolving ministry to serve the needs of the people, known as “guests,” who came night after night, hungry, in need of a safe place to be, to rest before going back out onto the streets.

Once surrounded by taverns and old brownstone apartments that later fell to city renewal and developers, the House attracted as many as 300 people a night for dinner. Their stories would fill a book the size of the Bible. Billy, the death-row inmate who came up from Houston and stayed 25 years; Lyle, who had read everything and loved to write letters to city hall; Ruby, who was sleeping on a steam grate when she got run over by a trash truck; Jerry, who came every night until he fell on the ice and froze to death near a bus stop; the guests who disappeared but then came back when they got out of prison; Gerard, who had been to Rockhurst University and always carried a book, who died of an asthma attack outside Truman Medical Center. His name is posted above the shelf of donated books at the House.

Over the years, other ministries were added to the meal program: help with prescription medications, half-price bus passes, hats, gloves and socks in winter, help with birth certificates and picture IDs, travel out of town for funerals and family emergencies, breakfast, monthly hygiene bags with toilet paper, soap, toothbrushes. The ministry drew hundreds of volunteers from area churches, prompted by their pastors who regularly said Mass at the House on Thursday after the evening meal, the little red table on wheels that held the bread at supper serving as the altar. Church or family groups covered each night of the week. Menus featured pasta or potatoes for starch, white or red sauce or gravy for taste, green beans, salad, bread, dessert, pitchers of cold water on the tables, or hot tea, lots of sugar, in the winter. Volunteer gleaners picked up day-old bread, pastries and produce from area supermarkets to supplement weekly shopping from Harvesters warehouse, a mainstay for over 500 meal programs and pantries all over the city.

Needs grew. Staffing got thin. Some years Louis was there with just one other volunteer, like young Tom Cook from Chicago, whom the guests loved because he could never say no. The LaSallian volunteer program brought willing young people to the House, fresh energy to support Louis, exhausted, sleepless, driving himself to distraction to keep everything going. The multiple programs were like wheels within wheels, cycles of resupply and distribution that appeared to run automatically, but, in fact, ran only because of  Louis’s meticulous attention to detail, hours on the phone maintaining volunteer lists, matching resources to needs, checking daily slips of paper in the pocket of his plaid shirt to remind him to pay the bills, answer the mail, take a car in for license plates to replace the ones stolen during the night, drive the van to help someone move, fix holes punched through the walls in the family shelter, go to court with someone.

It was not all work. The House was famous for its potluck parties, good food, Tony on the accordion, Louis and Sr.Theresa Maly doing the two-step, Brother Jim on the guitar, games of Jeopardy with Danny as Alex Trebek wearing a comb for a mustache and calling out the questions. Volunteers had nicknames like “Back Door Mary” Vincent (to distinguish her from “Front Door Mary” Leibman),  to go with guest names like “Big John,” “Doc,” “Little Bit,’ and “Speedy.”  This was Holy Family.

Life at the House was the center of its own universe, a place some called “Holy,” others just came to out of desperation, dodging the dealers and predators to get a meal and some take-home food for the morning. It was a zone where, if you were sober, watched your mouth, didn’t have a weapon, you became part of a miracle of hospitality that everyone created and maintained.  For many of the volunteers, driving in from Brookside or Johnson County, being at the House was a way to cross a border into the kind of brokenness you never imagined could exist in the city, but there it was, mothers carrying small children, going through the line before heading out for another night in a car. All very disturbing, getting into your heart and your dreams like a question that won’t go away, changing the way you thought about everything.

The House is in transition. This June, Bro. Louis will begin a long sabbatical, spending time in the mountains of New Mexico in a program that helps people in ministry catch their breath and decide what they will do next. At 70, Louis has longevity on his side (his time away will begin at home in Jefferson City with his 90-year-old mother). In the busyness of life at Holy Family, he admits he has postponed for too long his need to read and study, pray over his many encounters with God in the corporal works of mercy. There is advocacy work to be done, especially in the areas of disarmament and conflict resolution.

Dorothy Day set the example. In her latter years she set aside her broom and went to the farm to pray and write. She rode the bus to visit the many communities that were springing up in the movement. She packed along  her Tolstoy, her Dostoevsky and her Bible, reading her way across the country, showing up with Cesar Chavez in California, at missile sites in New Mexico, or wherever there was some cause to study and write about.

The House will go on, handed over to younger energy, fresh ideas about how to be a Catholic Worker. The circle of volunteers who have received life from the House will gather round to protect the mission, keep it going. Louis will be away, but always present in the programs he started and the people he mentored. Always a teacher, he will continue to shape and motivate so many of us who were blessed to share in the work and the fun at Holy Family House.

Pat Marrin is just one of hundreds of volunteers who have been part of Holy Family Catholic Worker House. He lived there for six months in 2006, currently edits “Celebration,” the worship resource of the National Catholic Reporter, located in Midtown about a three-minute drive from Holy Family. Contact him at patmarrin@aol.com.

Advertisements

2 Comments »

  1. Vicki Kline said

    Pat, thanks for this lovely reflection that brought me to tears. Memories of stories of guests, shared over chopping potatoes or 3-times re-heated cups of coffee, still hunt me down on the days when I forget about who it is I’m – we’re all – called to be. Thanks to Louis for his amazing example of what it means to faithfully attend to the nagging, pesky Spirit, that drives us deeper and deeper into the mission of being present with those in need, feeding them, clothing them, walking alongside…and allowing oneself to be attended to, fed, and clothed along the way.

  2. Brad and Dawn Grabs said

    What a beautiful story of a beautiful life! Br. Louis has been a great inspiration to us and countless others. His example gives us much hope for a better community, better church, and better world. Thanks Br. Louis! We will be praying for you as you make this transition and discern your future.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: