Prayer and Work, the Answer for These Times — An Interview with Robert Waldrop

Robert Waldrop is a fourth-generation Oklahoman whose great-grandparents homesteaded in Oklahoma before statehood. He was born and raised on a farm in southwest Oklahoma close to the Texas border. He is the director of music at the Catholic Church of the Epiphany of the Lord, the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House community, and the president of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. He previously served on the Migrants and Refugees Advisory Committee of Catholic Charities OKC, the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, and the Oklahoma Food Policy Council. He lives in an inner city neighborhood, on 1/7th of an acre, where he grows more than 100 different varieties of useful or edible plants. Having followed his work online for a number of years, I thought that the current economic stresses made this an especially good time to interview him and introduce his work to Catholic Exchange readers.

Kochan: Robert, or do you prefer Bob…?

Waldrop: I always sign my name Robert, but in person people generally refer to me as Bob, unless they are from my home town where I am called Bobby Max. After all, if you have two names, it’s a waste not to use them both.

Kochan: Thanks so much for sharing some of your thoughts with CE readers. Would you please give us a bit of an introduction to the work done through the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, and some of your other community projects?

Waldrop: The Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House works in the charism and tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement.

As such, we are personalists, which means we are willing to take personal responsibility for making the world a better place by doing the works of justice, peace, and mercy. You could say, in general, that we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our particular work is in food security. We deliver food to people in need who don’t have transportation to get to a food bank, promote permaculture and gardening, and mutual aid in times of distress.

Kochan: It was recently widely reported in the media that one in six dollars spent now in the US economy comes to the spender from the Federal Government. Some thoughts, please, on this increasing dependence of people on the government?

Waldrop: The Catholic Worker movement has always been concerned about the politicization of “life, the universe, and everything”. The leviathan state is an on-going juggernaut, devouring all in its path.

But I hasten to add that the situation is much larger than what most people think about when they think “government dependency” (i.e. means-tested social programs like Medicaid or food stamps). A substantial portion of our economy is utterly dependent upon the government. Some of the highest paying jobs in Oklahoma City and in many other areas are funded by the military budget.

Communities are dependent upon military bases, and production of weapons of war. The economic issue here is that military spending is inherently unproductive. Instead of investing in plows and productive machinery, we invest in building items that are designed to be destroyed, ultimately, the same thing as piling up billions of dollars and just setting it on fire.

But the problem is even deeper than this.

Government economic policies promote huge misallocations of wealth. Here in Oklahoma, our state government is busy building 4 lane highways connecting towns of 5000 population with towns of 400 population. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone access, but four lane highways? And every mile, where a county gravel road meets the highway, it turns into 6 lanes, because there is a turn lane each way.

Government finagling of interest rates promotes unsustainable and frivolous consumption.

Because of all of this distortion of our economy, we are all headed, inevitably, for poverty. Our nation is headed for the ash heap of history, and I see no way to rescue us from that destination.

Now is the time to prepare, work, and hope for a managed, soft-landing, rather than a chaotic hard crash.

Kochan: I know that you have been working for many years on community resilience and family and personal preparedness. Can you help us tie these things in with Catholic social justice teaching?

Waldrop: No one man or woman is an island. We are all part of a community and have a moral obligation to preserve and protect the common good in all circumstances. The Church’s teachings on subsidiarity tell us that there are appropriate roles for federal, state, local government actions, and for civil society, the Church, and the family. The concept of neighbors helping neighbors — mutual aid — is as old as civilization and as important as the air we breathe. The Church teaches that we all have human rights, and that all of those rights come with responsibilities. And finally, the Church teaches that we have a right — and a duty — to participate in our own lives. We should not be just mindless automatons, unable or unwilling to act on our own behalf, simply waiting passively for something to happen to us.

So it is my belief that like charity, community resilience begins in the home and then grows organically from that base into the wider civil society and local governments.

Kochan: In response to the economic downturn — recession, depression, or whatever you want to call it — all of us are being asked to more than ever support our local food banks, St. Vincent dePaul programs, etc. within our communities and parishes. Often this amounts to taking a shopping list from the food bank to the local supermarket and buying canned and boxed goods to drop off at church when we go to Mass. This has always bothered me because the quality of the food they request tends to be so poor — highly processed and loaded with preservatives and sodium. Not at all what I generally feed my own family. Is there another way to handle these needs?

Waldrop: I get a lot of plastic grocery bags left at my office door at church with four cans of green beans in them. And I am grateful for each can of green beans that someone gives. But I often wish that they would expand their horizons a bit and give something that they themselves would like to eat, OR at least something highly nutritious and often scarce at food pantries like powdered or canned milk, canned meats, and peanut butter. One of the things on my list of things to do is to organize home bread bakers who would bake bread for the poor. Another thing that we rarely if ever get is fresh vegetables. Home gardeners can plant an extra row or bed or two or three for the poor, and that’s a great gift.

If we wanted to think really radical, parishes and dioceses could actually buy farms and ranches, and operate them for the purpose of raising and producing food for the poor. We could have our own canneries and produce a line of canned goods for the poor — “St. Joseph’s”. The Mormons do this, internationally, and I always think that if the Mormons could figure this out, so could we Catholics. The Mormons know that the value of something like this goes far beyond the actual production of the food item. It might actually be cheaper for them just to go into the regular wholesale trade and buy all that food, but actually producing it themselves promotes solidarity. I lived in Utah for 16 years (instead of becoming a Mormon, though, I became a Catholic), and one hears tales of bank presidents working side-by-side with day laborers at the Mormon church’s canneries.

Kochan: In a lot of areas right now — especially where the auto industry has been a mainstay — communities are failing. Services are being cut back, including policing. Crime is growing and people are watching the disintegration of their way of life. Those with the means to do so are fleeing these areas, while others are economically trapped. From the perspective of a single person or family, things seem bleak and overwhelming.

But cooperatively is there anything that can be done? Can you offer any nuts and bolts advice for people in these situations?

Waldrop: People in such situations need to organize with their neighbors and start small, simple, easy projects that promote community well-being. For example, picking up trash in the neighborhood. Trash in the streets and etc. sends a message: nobody cares about this territory. So crime begins to flourish and people are victimized. Picking up the trash, regularly, is a place to start.

Another idea would be to start a community garden.

It’s hard to give an exact recipe, because areas are so different. The point is to look at the challenges, and figure out ways to surmount them by people working with their neighbors. That isn’t always an easy process. It is sometimes easier to love your neighbor (in theory) who lives say in China or Africa, than it is to actually love your next door neighbor. But that’s the place to start if you want to rescue your neighborhood.

And we shouldn’t forget the power of prayer, especially the Rosary. I love the Rosary because oftentimes I am faced with complex problems that I just don’t have a clue what to do about. The Rosary always helps. I prayed the Rosary a week after the bombing of the Federal Building here in Oklahoma City right in front of the fenced off area where the recovery work was going on. I’ve prayed the Rosary at places where people were murdered, where drugs are sold, at an abortuary, and places where there are prostitutes and I like giving rosaries to prostitutes and drug dealers.

I also am devoted to the Jesus prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. I have written a short Taize-like chorus and I like to sing that over and over when I may be especially troubled about something.

I mention this because as Catholics it is always important to remember that we cannot do any of this in our own strength. We must depend on God.

Our Catholic Worker house was founded 10 years ago this coming July, and we have done a lot of different things since then, but we would not have endured to this point without the power of prayer and the supernatural graces that we receive.

Dorothy Day and the early Catholic Workers used to talk about “picketing St. Joseph”, and the communion of saints is a very intense part of our work. This summer we will do a “novena of novenas”; we started on the Immaculate Heart of Mary (June 20th) and will be ending on the Nativity of Mary (September 8th), nine consecutive novenas in honor of Mary and various saints of justice and peace. Ora et labora, prayer and work, that is the Catholic Worker way.

Kochan: Thank you, Bob. I’m very grateful to have had this discussion with you because I’ve been an admirer of your work for some years.

CE readers who would like more information about the Catholic Worker response to difficult times and Bob Waldrop’s projects can get more infomation at the following websites:

Click here to download the pdf document for the Summer Novena.

Better Times info is an Internet library covering everything from disaster response and developing family and community food security to frugality, simple living and socially responsible shopping and… well you just have to see it to believe it.

Justpeace.org is devoted to the study, practice and spirituality of Catholic social justice teaching.

Bob blogs at BobWaldrop.net.

20 Resilient Responses for Troubled Economic Times is a pdf created for family discussion, for distribution to groups, friends, and communities.

Gatewood Urban Homestead is the permaculture design for Bob’s super-insulated home, which sits in a densely populated neighborhood close to downtown Oklahoma City, on 1/7th of an acre — and has more than 100 different varieties of useful or edible plants growing on the former lawns.

Bob’s resources on energy conservation and sustainability are here: Access to Energy Conservation.

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  • Christi Derr

    What an excellent interview/article! It is at once a sobering view of the future and hopefilled. Thank you for the practical suggestions for sustainability and down to earth reminders on loving our neighbor.

  • Mary Kochan

    Thank you, Christi. I ask all of you please to forward the link to this article to your friends and family. It is a great way to help support Catholic Exchange.

  • patti

    Great resources at the bottom of this very logical and interesting article.

    Thanks.

  • goral

    “Because of all of this distortion of our economy, we are all headed, inevitably, for poverty. Our nation is headed for the ash heap of history, and I see no way to rescue us from that destination.”

    How did this statement slip by you Mary, without a follow-up question?
    I don’t think Mr. Waldrop is using hyperbole here, so what’s to be done besides
    cleaning-up our neighborhoods?

    I always thought that “the greatest nation in history” is making some of the greatest blunders in history.
    We’ve just experienced another one in the last election.

    May God have mercy on our national soul.

  • Mary Kochan

    Well, Goral, there are a lot more actionable items in the resources at the bottom of the article. They are along the lines of hope for the best; prepare for the worst. Always sound advice.

    Other than that, I don’t know what to do and really nobody does, including Bob W. And I mean nobody. Even the people who are attempting to take advantage of this crisis to make massive social change in the US don’t really for sure know what to do. Nor do they know what will result from their actions, even when they are very confident in their plans. Everything has unintended consequences. On the political front some are recommending the wholesale replacment of the House of Representatives come next election since they have massively failed the people. But I don’t know if that is right.

    However, faithfully and prayerfully doing what you can with what you have right where you are is really what our faith tells us to do. It is never the wrong thing to do. And that really is the point of this article. Small things do matter becuase God says that if we are faithful in small things, we will be faithful in big things. Maybe God is watching for the person who picks up trash to raise him to a position of leadership in this society — whether in this government or in whatever follows, because we will always have a society to be part of and our Church, regardless of what happens with regard to the government.

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