Work as Gift: The Path of Cooperation and Sharing

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, December 1999

The Working Centre has from its inception attempted to walk along a path that is often not taken. At the heart of this journey is a way of thinking and acting with a conscious understanding of principles and ideals. We continually define our direction through practical projects while creating space so that others can explore these directions.

These projects evolve in ways that engender commitment by individuals who naturally create little pockets of community. Co-operation and sharing around access to tools works best when it supports the dignity of all the people involved.

It is easy to see how friendships and helping each other out naturally takes place when public space helps this to evolve. At The Working Centre and St. John’s Kitchen you see this everywhere you turn. The ten computers are constantly used each day. They are supported by friendships that grow while teaching, learning, helping each other out and sharing experiences. The sewing and crafts projects have many stories to tell of how co-operation happens around the sewing machines. The St. John’s Kitchen garden is supported by 10 people who work together to grow food. The satisfaction of bushels of produce is only part of what the garden harvests. BarterWorks members filled The Working Centre during a three day weekend Giant Trade Fair. The diversity of products and skills that people were offering was truly inspiring.

Arleen’s celebration lunch (see page 3) is an example of how St. John’s Kitchen has evolved into a community kitchen that not only feeds those who are hungry for a meal but creates a high level of community and sharing.

The community garden on Queen St. wrapped up a very successful season. The garden is a beautiful sight on the corner of Queen and Mitchell across from Joseph Schnieder Haus. It is a great example of how community co-operation can not only look spectacular but can grow food too!

Our work to revitalize 43 Queen St. South is a large example of harnessing community co-operation to make it possible for an empty building to come alive with three floors of activity. We have received strong support from individuals, funding bodies and companies who recognize the efforts we are making to create single supportive housing on the third floor.

Underneath this activity are many spiritual ideals. This season is a good time to reflect on people whose philosophy has influenced our work. A starting point is the way Ivan Illich describes how people face institutions or centralized bureaucracy. Often people feel as if they have no choice but to act like consumers accepting the logic of institutions.

“Persons on the mainstream or on the fringes of society are pushed by all modern institutions towards expecting some product or package from their respective institutions, while being discouraged from hoping in an action flowing from a personal vocation, one’s own or someone else’s.”

It is a major goal of The Working Centre to counter the message of bureaucracy. Ken Westhues has described our goals in this way:

“We seek to give people the dignity and respect they deserve, to help people take charge of their own lives, to enable us all to escape the doldrums of consumerism and find our way to the joy of producing for ourselves.”

We work hard at ensuring that our project reflects these ideas and approaches. We have found that a philosophy of work helps this approach take root. Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker had a clear philosophy of work. In the May 1999 Catholic Worker issue which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Peter Maurin’s death, Christopher Cornell beautifully summarizes Maurin’s ideas on work:

“Peter Maurin insisted that work is natural to the human being , but that it ought not be sold as a commodity, but given as a gift. Pondering this relationship, work as gift, seems to resonate deeply with most of us, and I think it points a way to view the fruits of our labours not as something without value, but something removed from the money economy, something you can’t or don’t want to put a price on.”

A further link in our approach is the recognition of the hardship of developing community and the recognition that such work is wholly rewarding. Dorothy Day, journalist, social activist, spiritual guide and founder of The Catholic Worker spent her whole life defining the meaning of sacrifice and living the works of mercy. Her writings chronicle her journey. They are a reminder of the constant struggles and fruits of such a journey. In this passage she describes the long loneliness:

“Tamar (wrote to me) about how alone a mother of young children always is. I had also just heard from an elderly woman who had lived a long and full life, and she too spoke of her loneliness. I thought again, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother and sister, and living close to them in community so we can show our love for Him.”

Michael Higgins, the new President of St. Jerome’s University, encourages us to look closely at the meaning of Thomas Merton’s work. Jennifer Mains, the new coordinator of St. John’s Kitchen, has used Michael’s new book, Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton to make the link between technology that is dehumanizing and spiritual imagination that seeks a higher order. (see p.1)

A fifth connection is the life work of Thomas Berry. In Dream of the Earth, Berry weaves together culture, consciousness and ecology to give the reader a flowing account of how we have allowed our culture of consumption to dominate the natural world. Berry is at his strongest when he describes where this is taking us:

“We have violated the rivers by making them toxic. We have violated the air by poisoning it. We have violated the sea by overfishing and by making it a dumping ground. The list goes on and includes the clear-cutting of trees, that in the long run will make the Earth uninhabitable.”

Berry wants us to evolve our conscience and ecology to recognize that God’s creation will be incapable of supporting life unless we develop a higher sense of the sacred. “There must be a mystique of rain...the same is true about soil, the trees, forests and other natural phenomena.” Berry calls for a new religious sensitivity or else we are in danger of plundering the very foundations of life itself.

These connections lead directly back to the practical projects at The Working Centre and St. John’s Kitchen — projects that give people access to tools to produce things, less dependence on centralized systems, a philosophy of work that recognizes work as gift and respects it as a gift given to the community, rooted in supportive friendships.

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