Reading Jeff Dietrich’s new book Broken and Shared is a meditative experience. Dietrich, a Catholic Worker, activist, and advocate for the poor, has devoted his life to the underserved. For the last forty years, he has worked alongside the homeless in a Soup Kitchen in LA’s Skid Row, where he has served hundreds of thousands of meals. Broken and Shared winds us back and forth through his writings on poverty, social justice, and Biblical Scripture. He writes from soup kitchens, prison, and protests. He quotes sparingly, yet powerfully. Most profoundly, he speaks with moral clarity and force.
He begins “I believe the gospels are the best stories we have,” a statement that provides a foundation for his writings. It also captures Dietrich’s commitment to spiritual exploration and inquisitiveness. He actively questions Catholic dogma through textual analysis, dialogue, and daily prayer and reflection on Skid Row. Dietrich writes most persuasively when the forces against him are legion. In 1979, he served six months in Orange Country Jail for blocking the doors to a military exposition. In "Letters from County Jail," he questions, “How do I speak of the necessity of making personal sacrifice?”
Large societal problems demand even larger questions. While he aims to answer this question through the story of the Gospels, he does so through the stories of the poor. He tells the story of Sundance, an Indian on Skid Row afflicted by alcoholism, whose advocacy efforts led to decriminalization of public drunkenness. And Sister Samuel, who developed a program with St. Francis Hospital to save leftover and discarded food to be cooked at the soup kitchen.
Dietrich beautifully weaves between personal narrative and philosophical reasoning. In the chapter “The Devil’s Pact,” he begins with a story of his cellmate, Nino, a war veteran committed to peace using dialogue over force. He then succinctly explains the Constantinian church doctrine of “ontological salvation.” Remarkably, he manages to bridge both stories with the common theme of standing up for victims of oppression. For readers not well versed in Biblical history, Dietrich provides a fresh, practical, and often provocative perspective. For instance, he presents a compelling case for the Gospel of Luke as both pro-woman and anti-patriarchal.
Dietrich the essayist is borne out of Dietrich the activist. This collection highlights struggles with police, local governments, and bureaucratic orthodoxy, yet also enormous successes. His protest activity against the construction of an enormous Cathedral in Los Angeles contributed to significant dialogue and reflection on the role of the church in public life. Similarly, his campaign for shopping carts for the homeless resulted--yes, in political agitation--but also in the humanization of hundreds of people in their daily work. Dietrich’s modesty amidst his achievements is remarkable. This is not surprising, as he defines success not as a matter of changing social policy, fundraising or pious charity. Rather, he understands his lived work with the poor as a radical act of personal transformation. To read Broken and Shared is to meditate on this concept, and perhaps transform oneself in the process.
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