The Catholic Worker Goes Out For Dinner

Our signs read: “IS THIS THE PREFERENTIAL OPTION FOR THE POOR?” “WE NEED JUSTICE, NOT CHARITY.” “CHRISTIANS–STAND WITH THE POOR, NOT HARRIS.” We held them against the windows of the Metro Convention Center on the occasion of the Cardinal’s Supper, a diocesan fund-raising event whose patrons included many high profile business and community ‘leaders’ — among them [Ontario Premiere] Mike Harris and Bank of Montreal CEO Tony Comp.

The supper, attended by 1600 people this year, cost $150 a plate and has raised 2.5 million dollars for various causes in its 15 year history. This year’s menu included jumbo shrimp, sirloin steak and chocolate mousse.

There were 12 of us! Ten from Zacchaeus House, Sr. Barbara from the Jesuit Center and Walter Sharp from the Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics. Bill Payne, a member of our community, disguised himself in a tuxedo, wandered into the dinner and mingled with the guests while the rest of us, dressed in our ‘civies’ held signs and tried to engage people as they filtered into the dinner. We all laughed as Bill approached, decked out as he was, and waved him away from us. We didn’t want security to think he was with us.

As time passed, we grew increasingly curious as to what Bill could be doing. Scott, our spontaneously elected spokesperson, talked with some reporters about why we had come while the rest of us observed the various expressions that registered on the faces of the supper’s patrons as they read our signs. (Expressions that ranged from surprise to “get a job” disgust to enthusiastic support.) One priest left after learning that Mike Harris was scheduled to address the dinner.

Just as we were preparing to leave, Bill emerged from the building. We gathered around him to hear what had happened.

He had gone down the escalator into the reception area where free drinks were being served before dinner. Bill circulated through the crowd, greeting one or two people that he knew and introduced himself to those that he didn’t, freely sharing his opinions about the dinner. Feeling a little nervous, Bill retired to the men’s room after awhile for a cigarette and a quiet moment to figure out what to do next. He had come to say something but he hadn’t figured out what or how he was going to do that. He was able to get into the hall where the dinner would be served and observed an unattended microphone near the head table. Ah ha! He strode up to the mike, saw that it was on and decided that it was time to kick things off and welcome everyone to the dinner.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is William Payne and I am a member of the Toronto Catholic Worker community. I want to thank you all for coming this evening, for contributing so generously to charity. But charity is not enough…”

He then proceeded to remind those in attendance that we need to listen to the voices of those who are poor among us, that is our most basic responsibility as Christians to ensure that they have what is theirs in justice: housing, food, meaningful employment, safe workplaces, a place at the world’s banquet table…

Bill was able to speak for about four minutes and was beginning to run out of things to say before the microphone was finally cut off. Some people booed him once it became apparent that this speech was not an official part of the evening’s agenda. He was then unceremoniously ushered into a closet and placed under the guard of a waiter.

The media, catching only the tail end of his speech, swarmed around him as he was escorted out of the building. The story was picked up locally by The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and City TV and was featured nationally on CBC, CTV and Global.

***

Why did we do it?…Our actions at the Cardinal’s Supper were intended to communicate some of our concerns, raise some questions in a spirit of nonviolence, love and respect. We apologize to any who felt that we failed in this regard.

We feel that the dinner is a source of scandal, in so far as it gives the appearance that the church is aligned with the wealthy and the powerful. It is the likes of Conrad Black and Tony Comp who benefit from (if not facilitate) the continuing and deepening gulf between the rich and poor; who, it might be said, are the agents and architects of the violence of poverty.

The presence of Mike Harris is of particular concern as he spearheads the wholesale dismantling of those few structures which have been established over the years to relieve some of the poverty created by our capitalist system. To provide him with the opportunity to justify his policies and to reiterate his lies about being concerned about “the most vulnerable in our society” while failing to challenge him represents for us a grave failure on the part of the dinner’s organizers to exercise the prophetic ministry of the Church.

Some might feel that our actions were inappropriate or worse, disrespectful. Jesus was many things, but a model dinner guest he was not. We are told in the gospels of more than one dinner that Jesus ruined with socially inappropriate comments. Jesus addressed this one to his host: “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors, for fear they repay your courtesy by inviting you in return. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind: that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate…” (Luke 14:12-14) Talk about inappropriate!

In these times, it becomes a matter of increasing urgency that the Church fulfil its prophetic mission by, on the one hand, voicing and mobilizing opposition to the Ontario government’s current policies (which are a grave threat to the well-being of the poor), while on the other announcing the good news that there can be no excuses for poverty in a “civilization of love” (John Paul II). A banquet wherein the VIP lounges and seat of honour are reserved for the poor, not the rich, would be a good step toward civilization.

The Mustard Seed

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