Sunday, April 21, 2013

CATHOLIC WORKER DENNIS APEL, PART III

DENNIS IS SECOND FROM LEFT
I know you're all on the edge of your seats for Part III of the story of the formation of a peace activist, aka my friend Dennis Apel of the Guadalupe Catholic Worker.

Here's Part I.
Here's Part II.

And here's Part III, in which the Guadalupe CW is founded.

Dennis: [Witnessing at the Federal Building in L.A. and elsewhere] was my first introduction to the application of the Gospel to something besides myself. The first understanding that as a collective group, we’re complicit in people’s sufferings because of the decisions that our government’s making with our approval, our blessing almost, even if we don’t know it. We really sort of have to be more responsible to know what the government’s doing in our name. We need to know; it’s our tax dollars. So it made sense. It made sense to me. It didn’t make sense to my wife. It didn’t make sense to my mother.

And this initial…what was going on at the time?

There was this kind of civil war in El Salvador.

The United States’ role being?…

We were funding the government against the people who were being oppressed by the government.

And what was our motive?

Well our motive was what we always say our motive is which is to stop Communism. Anybody who was against the government must be Communist. And we didn’t want Communists so close.

But our overarching interest in El Salvador was…

Probably money. Part of the way we maintain our American lifestyle is to make sure other countries don’t rise to that level. Once people get self-suffcient, they can…

Get nuclear arms, too!

Get nuclear arms or even control their own fate.

And they might not be on board with “the American way.”

Right.

Okay, so then what happened.

So I saw Tensie there and then I didn’t see her for a couple of years. And then I came to work one day and Don, the priest I worked with, said, I never make unilateral decisions but I’ve made one and I think you’ll be okay with it. I’ve hired Tensie Hernandez.

[again, semi-swoons]. I said, No I don’t mind. I think that’s great.

Your heart leaped.

I said When does she start? Don said, This morning…

You’re thinking, Oh I would have worn a better shirt…

You know what, not so much. I was a little dense in that area. All I knew was, This is someone I’d love to be around.

Right. Cause of her spirit. You kind of have to know her to appreciate…

Her spirit. She was just so…everybody is so delighted to be around her. So I didn’t see myself as any different from anybody else. Everybody just loved to be around her. So she came and we had seven or eight chaplains on the Catholic staff and Don Kribs was…the stuff we dealt with was really intense. So he insisted that we talk about it. So we had what we called Debriefing Partners. So when Tensie came, we had to pass the hat with everyone’s name in it to switch up partners. And I pulled out Tensie’s name! I thought, Well thank you God for that. So now I have time every week to talk to Tensie, Well, we did. We started out Debriefing Partners. And we started debriefing every day. We’d come to work early. We’d go to Lincoln Park and we’d walk around Lincoln Park and even after six months was up and we changed Debriefing Partnesrs we’d still come every day and walk around Lincoln Park. So we got very very close. And still for a long time, I just thought…We’re very close, what a gift. Tensie’s 17 ½ years younger than me. You know, a thought of anything other than being really good friends was not even on my radar. So when it kind of became clear that, wait a minute, there’s something more here, it was very scary for me. It was very scary for both of us. I was still married, I wasn’t divorced yet.

Yeah.

And there was an age gap. But I just so wanted to be there, we both did. So Tensie said, “We need to be apart for awhile and sort this out.” So she went to the Catholic Worker in Philadelphia. And I filed for divorce. So I moved out and I was living by myself and she was living in Philadelphia, so we finally decided Well let’s give it a try and see what happens. So I think she was gone nine months. Actually I wanted to see her so bad that I asked Terry [a mutual priest friend with whom Dennis worked for a time at County]. Cause I had nothing, when I moved out I sent my paycheck home. And I loved it. Finally!...

Simplicity.

Right. So I said Terry, you wouldn’t have any frequent flyer miles, would you?

He said, Well! Not only do I have frequent flyer miles but they’re going to expire soon and you’d be doing me a favor by using them.

He knew Tensie, too.

Oh yeah. He knew Tensie. And I think I’d already confided…we were running partners, we ran together. So he gave me the frequent flyer miles and I went to Philadelphia. And oh…what a lovely, lovely…the Worker, or their supporters, there had a house on the Jersey shore and said we could use it for the weekend, so we went there. We had nothing, we packed all our food from the Worker…but I remember we did stop at a place that was selling shrimp so we bought some shrimp and we made shrimp scampi. Neither of us had ever made shrimp scampi but we made it and it was so delicious. So it was lovely. And when Tensie decided to come back, then I started working on Okay, where’re we gonna go, what’re we gonna do. Because I was done at County. I was the administrator myself for six months and it was terrible. Things weren’t good there. So she came back and I’d researched the Catholic Worker and I’d found this one up in Oakland who gave hospitality to people dying of AIDS. That’s what they did. Tensie and I had had lots of experience with the dying, so we went up. It was just her and I and one other guy and…he was a study, let me tell ya. He could work, but he was tough to live with. It takes a special person to deal with the dynamic of a couple and a single person. [Community member] Jorge does it very very well but this guy couldn’t.

We’d committed for a year and even though it wasn’t working out I like to stick to my word and even though Tensie would have just as soon have left, we stayed out the year. So we went up and down the coast exploring, we had our list, we’d decided on Guadalupe…

Which is a small, almost a time-warp, California…

Town…

Inhabited mostly by farm workers, right?

Yeah, and it sits out in the middle of fields, There aren’t that many cities in California that don’t butt up against another city.

It’s a little island almost.

Yeah, it was geographically isolated…

And it’s on the ocean…

It’s close to the ocean, where there’s a lot of beauty….

Where we are right now!

Gorgeous. So we came to Nipomo [a nearby town] offered to let us stay at her place till we got on our feet. Which was lovely. We’d ride our bikes down every day to Guadalupe, look for an apartment, look for a job, neither of which we found. But we did come across this house and it was empty. It was all overgrown, nothing was happening. So we went to City Hall, found out who the owner was, called the owner. She said, “Nah, I rented it for a long time and I had nothing but problems. I’m snot sure I want to rent it. But I’ll come out to talk to you. Why don’t you meet me out at the house at five on Friday.

This is the house in Guadalupe? [where the food distribution, clinic and many other activities take place: the family lives in a modest house in Santa Maria].


Yes, and we liked it, but it was too big for us plus how would we pay rent? We had no jobs!
So the day we were supposed to meet them we parked the van a block away, cause it was so ratty we didn’t want them to see it. And we stood a block away and watched them drive up. And we kept saying, “They won’t like us, let’s just not show up, let’s just not show up.” But on the back of their car was a bumper sticker saying “Uvas, no.”

No Grapes.

Which is a United Farm Workers sticker. So we said Look at that. And we went down and we met with them. They took us all through the house, they got all done and they said Well we have an appointment and we have to go but we thought we’d get a bite to eat here in Guadalupe and can we buy you dinner?” So we said, Well, sure, okay. And the place didn’t serve alcohol, but he wanted beer with his Mexican food so he said If I go get a six-pack, will you have a beer with me? So I said Sure. And we sat there and it turned out…the last six months I was at the County Hospital, they’d brought in a new director, a priest. The previous six months I’d been the director, but the last six months had been this priest, and I’d told the priest who’d come in I’m only gonna be here for six months. I’ll show you the ropes, I’ll break you in, but I’m only going to be here six months. Well that guy was Chris Ponnet. And we’re sitting there talking with these people in Guadalupe and it turns out Chris Ponnet performed the marriage of their daughter. So it was this instant connection with these people. And we told em, we don’t have any money, we don’t have any jobs.

It was a Friday and they said Well let’s all think about it over the weekend. So we called the LA Worker and we said You’re not gonna believe it but we found this place up here and it’d make kind of a great place…we hadn’t wanted to go the Worker route but somehow it was all falling into place. So they said We’re gonna have a meeting this afternoon, let us get back to you. So they got back to us and they said As a community we decided we can send you 500 bucks a month. Well, that’s something. So the owners called us back on Monday and they said, Well we’ve thought about it and we’d really like to rent it to you and we’d like to cut the rent way down because of what you want to do with it—could you afford 450 a month?

Fifty bucks for food!

At the time, fifty bucks a month for food sounded great.

Rice and beans, man.

We’d come two weeks earlier with 200 bucks. We were really pinching it. So that felt great.

So June 1st we moved in.

What year?

This would have been 1996. So we had this blow-up air mattress that didn’t hold air, we had a little hibachi we cooked on. We had a little cooler to keep food cold in. That’s all we had when we moved in.

And you didn’t know anyone in town?

Well before we made the decision to move to Guadalupe, we’d already met a couple of people. We’d met these two women who worked for Pacific Pride Foundation in Santa Maria, which was a gay and Lesbian support center. We’d met them and we’d met a nun who worked at the Catholic hospital, Janice. But they were the ones who begged us to come to Guadalupe. So we did. We moved in June 1st and by July 1st, one month later, we had a stove, a refrigerator, a dinette set, the entire living room was furnished, all the bedrooms upstairs had beds.

How many bedrooms?

Four. We had a washer and dryer.

Donations?

We got seven beds at one time. A priest called as soon as we got there, he said, You know what, the seminary out at San Lorenzo’s getting all new beds. I bet they’d give you some of their beds. So we called out there and they said you can have as many as you want. We said Can we have seven and they said Absolutely.

Wow.

So we drove out there with our VW van and we put some inside and some on top and we’d bring em back and drive back out and get some more…

And what about the stove and refrigerator?

These people just kind of put the word out and people who had an extra or were getting rid of one…The nun at the hospital, she said What do you need? We said Well we don’t even have dishes or silverware or…She said, Come on, and she took us from her office down to the basement where the cafeteria was and she found a big ole box and she just went through the hospital cafeteria asking How many plates can you use? How many glasses? And she just gave us eight place settings of everything, from the hospital cafeteria.

This is the miracle of the loaves and the fishes! And what strikes me too is that at every juncture there was a “coincidence”…it just so happened when they passed the hat with the names on it at County, you got Tensie…If it’s God’s will, nothing you do can avert it, and if it’s not God’s will, nothing you do can make it happen…


Ched [Myers} calls that Sabbath economics. And it sounds real nice in a book, but when it’s your life, it’s almost startling. That’s happened more than once for us…

But you have to be willing…

You have to trust that it’s gonna happen because if you try to force things, that messes it all up. And you have to be willing for it not to happen. You have to be wiling to say, Okay, well I guess that wasn’t God’s will.

So that came together and how it’s come down is…tell what you do today. You have a food distribution Tuesdays…

So we started that right off the bat. A month later we had our first hospitality guest. We had a guy from El Salvador living in the house. We were doing a food program…

Meaning?

Supplemental food for families who are having a hard time. Farm workers don’t make a lot of money. They struggle. So to help them with food is a huge thing. So we get food and put it in grocery bags and give them grocery bags of food. We started teaching English classes because that’s what people told us that they wanted. And then clothes, this is real Catholic Worker, people drop off their used clothes and we make them available to whoever needs them. Again, it’s that Sabbath economics.

And eventually we started the free health clinic. Which blew me away, I mean who could have thought we could do that, but Tensie had worked at a medical clinic at the L.A. Worker and…we have a real clinic. We have the real stuff.

You have a doctor there…

We have four doctors right now who volunteer their time.

And then Tensie has kind of a natural way with sick people…some kind of touch…how would you describe it?

Well she’s in her element. When she’s with people in need and I don’t mean just needy people, I mean people who are in a genuine crisis in their lives, somebody with cancer who’s dying, she’s really in her element. She has a gift. And it’s a gift because she’s really good at it and because she feels nourished by it as well.

Right. But she has a way of just talking to people, of being with people…

Yeah, Tensie’s the deepest person I’ve ever met. And I don’t even know how to articulate the deepness. She has a deep spiritual connection that just lives in her…we’re not gonna cross that bar…just the same thing that attracted me and everybody else. The women in Guadalupe,…she’s their angel. She’s just their angel. Because the people in Guadalupe are poor and come from a culture that doesn’t have all the same restrictions that our culture has…like domestic violence isn’t considered domestic violence in that culture. That’s just the way you do life. So…

And she’s Cuban. So in some sense she’s Hispanic herself…

She’s…her family was Cuban and she grew up with Spanish as the only language in the home. But they left the Cuban environment. They never settled in Miami like most Cubans. They came out here where there weren’t other Cubans around and they settled in a ommunity that had a lot of Mexicans…

So she was kind of in exile…

Yeah, she had the Cuban culture at home, the Mexican culture at school. She’s almost trilingual in a sense because Cubans…she speaks Mexican Spanish and she speaks Cuban Spanish with her family. But she has such a gift, it’s really quite a beautiful thing to behold. It really is a kind of…

Charism.

But I was going to say it’s like God. People truly truly experience God’s love through Tensie. They just do. And that’s a huge thing if you can experience that, especially if you’re having a crisis. She had a nurse who’d been working hospice for years, so had lots of experience under her belt come across some situations that were so deplorable, she’d say to Tensie, I don’t know how you do this. I don’t know how you can do this…But Tensie has a strength. She can tolerate powerlessness…

And really the leper…and that sounds like it’s part of your ability as well.

I’ve seen her come across sad, sad, really impossible situations and she just asserts herself and goes to work on it…

Goes to work on it by?...

Well she’ll do just the physical things, like Mom’s got terminal cancer but she’s only 24 years old and her baby’s born just after she was diagnosed so now the baby’s going to be motherless and the husband’s unavailable and there are no programs because she’s undocumented and Tensie will start scrambling for resources, scrambling for resources. Get the kid into something, to give her mother time to go through chemo…

Some kind of day care, you mean?

Yeah, and then transportation, translate with this woman with the doctor, but to translate in this sensitive, kind way…to help the woman ask the questions that she needs the know the answers to but she doesn’t even know the questions to ask. All that kind of stuff. Logistics, that’s just the physical stuff but aside from that, she can connect on a heart level like no-one I’ve ever known. Almost immediately there’s a deep deep love and connection. Like even more than a sister, it’s hard to describe. She’s just so so good at that. She was like that when we worked at the hospital, she helped me move a little more towards that because if you’re around Tensie, you find yourself wanting to be a little bit more like Tensie. But again, you don’t just decide to be that way.

No, you have to change your whole orientation of heart…

And your priorities. I still have a hard time changing my priorities. On the other hand, it’s probably good there are some things I don’t change. Because that’s just not Tensie’s suit, you know what I mean?

So you complement each other...
Okay, just so we don’t leave it out completely [originally the main reason I was interviewing Dennis at all!], part of your thing has been witnessing, if that’s the way you put it, at a whole bunch of places, but especially Vandenberg…so just tell about that...


PARTS IV AND V COMING UP. NOW IT GETS REALLY JUICY...


3 comments:

  1. This story is so inspiring....it's about knowing what is most important in life..and going for it. That takes alot of courage.

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  2. This story is so inspiring....it's about knowing what is most important in life..and going for it. That takes alot of courage.

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  3. This interview evokes so much within me.

    Because I've been given a heart of compassion for vulnerable populations I became a social worker, so stories of success made by truly caring people-helpers like Dennis and Tensie encourage me, as Debra pointed out, to "go for it" - to never stop striving to positively touch the hearts and lives of those who enter our lives - at whatever cost.

    However, this interview doesn't just provide warm fuzzy feelings. It is terribly convicting. In my own hardships, similar to those of Dennis upon first moving to Guadalupe (often alone, having gone a year without a job or much stability in location or housing) I, unlike Dennis, have found myself losing grip of the hope. Too many things have fallen through for me to cling too tightly to hope (at least, that's been my recently discovered subconscious belief). My response, after an exhausting year of rejections, has recently been to nearly-hopelessly chug through life "rolling with the punches" so to hear Dennis speak of his acceptance and readiness for whatever came his way is extremely convicting.
    The past few months have led me to perceive God's hands-off approach to my life as a lack of care. I haven't yet figured out what it is I am to put my hope in though, since it is no longer him; although I am very gifted putting my hope in myself will only get me so far, as does putting hope in others.
    But, now this comment has turned itself more into a journal entry than a response to what I simply meant to point out to be a very inspiring, convicting, and beautiful conversational story. I just want for you, Heather, and Dennis to know the sharing of his story was beneficial for me tonight. So, thanks!

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I WELCOME your comments!!!