Thursday, April 18, 2013


I'm running a series of posts telling the fascinating story of my activist friend Dennis Apel of the Guadalupe Catholic Worker.

Part I is here.

And here's Part II.

So then I went to visit this priest who was at the rehab hospital, and that was only patients who had just received a spinal cord injury, so they’d just been told they were either paraplegics or quadriplegics for the rest of their lives.

Oh God.

So I would go visit them. And…

Okay, so check these three [white pelicans] out. One of them doesn’t seem to have the [what has now been confirmed as a breeding] bump. And one has a bill that’s a slightly different color. Okay so now you’re sitting with people who’ve just been told they’re paraplegic.

Yeah, I don’t want to get too much into it, but it’s part of the journey is the point. I ended up quitting my sales job and going to work full-time for this priest at the County Hospital.

At USC County Hospital, huge…where the uninsured of L.A. go…

When I say that time from when I was 20 till I was 36…

The ground was being tilled.

I was being a salesman cause I didn’t know what else to do with my life. And then I found something to do with my life.

But inside, where you just kind of champing at the bit, saying…This isn’t quite it…

Well, I knew this wasn’t it. But I didn’t know there was any salvation. And so when I started this process of going around and visiting people, I also went back to church. So I went to 6:30 Mass every morning, for four years, I went to 6:30 Mass and I’d pray, you know that kind of prayer that’s like the real…

Like PLEASE help me…

Yeah, like show me how to get out of sales…you’re gonna see a ruddy duck in a minute…

Okay, you’re going to Mass and you’re praying…

And in conjunction with that was I decided that if God was ever gonna get me out of this sales thing, I had some work to do myself. So I started paying down my debts, because I was…

Living large?

Yeah, I was living large. I went to theaters and restaurants and ball games and I went hunting and golfing and I was given a new car every three years and you can charge things up on credit cards. I had a house…it’s really odd…

It doesn’t seem tumorous. Plus why would they all have it in the same spot?

So what I did was I started paying all those things off. I wanted to get debt-free. And about the time I did get debt-free, I got a call from that same priest, Fr. Don, who had moved to the County Hospital in L.A. and he said, Would you like to quit sales and come work for me. I said, “Sure.”


So he said, Tell me what you need. So I went home and figured out our finances and I went back and I told him and he agreed. So I went back and gave two weeks’ notice at a place I’d been at 11 ½ years.

So you took a pay cut I assume?

Yeah. I went from I think it was 80,000 a year and an unlimited expense account and a free car every three years to …

Health insurance…

Right. And I think it was 29,000, we decided on.

And how was your wife with that at the time?

Well it wasn’t like we fought over it, but she didn’t like that. She liked the expense account. So she was terribly unhappy.

And you were 36-ish?

I was 37, 38 by this time.

So then I went to work at the County Hospital and at the same time Fr. Don was going to a weekly Bible study at the home of Ched Myers, who was living in L.A. at the time. You know Ched?

Yeah. I mean I know of him.

He’s brilliant. He’s a theologian but he’s very much a kind of a liberal, liberal’s probably not the best word, but…

Christ as political activist?

Yeah, political. All of the Bible, especially the Gospels, are very political and how does that apply to today’s world. So now I’m in my re-formation, sort of, because I have changed my livelihood and I’m exposed to all this stuff I’ve never been exposed to. Working at the County Hospital was…a real eye-opener.

Because you see the poor, the poor, the poor.

You see the poor, the poor, the poor, and you see the what Tensie and I call the Beatitudes people. They’re like…people whose lives have been really really tough. They’re in predicaments…

From generations, right? I always, I see these folks in jail and you just sense generations of addiction, of violence, of poverty…

It’s like when somebody asked Jesus, Is this man blind because of his parents? Is it his sin or his parents’ sin. And I never really bought into that thing but there are aspects of people’s lives that are generational.

Right. It’s not their sin, it’s that they receive the burden of the unhealed wound.

So, I really began to feel like I had my feet in two worlds. Because at home my wife was really wanting to maintain that kind of life we’d already had. And I was not only able to do that, I didn’t want to anymore. So the marriage was going, going, going. And it was very painful…

And you had kids, too.

Yeah. Two kids. My son had just turned 18 when I divorced, so they were…raised by that time. But…it became so important to me to regain this idea I had when I was in first grade. That you could live a life differently. And we’re [meaning him, his wife Tensie and their two kids, 12 and 13] a long ways from voluntary poverty but we do live with some precarity in a sense.

You’ve been married to Tensie now how many years?

Eighteen or so.

And just to give a little background of how you live now. You live as the Guadalupe [California] Catholic Worker.

Yeah, we started that, the year before we got married actually. And we started very hesitantly. We didn’t want to be Catholic Worker anymore, we had a very bad experience up in Oakland. And…

Tensie had already been at the Worker in L.A…

She’d been at the L.A. Worker five or six years, she’d been at the [Redwoods] Monastery for a year…but things were falling into place in that direction without us even trying….

So your idea was move to the Central Coast, live…you live off…just to let people know your money situation…

Our intention was that we were leaving the Catholic Worker up in Oakland, we had nothing, we had 200 dollars and an old Volkswagen bus, and our clothes, and some bicycles. And we thought we’d move to Guadalupe…we had explored up and down the coast cause we thought we wanted to be around people who were struggling. And probably Spanish-speaking people who were struggling, since we both spoke Spanish. And so we looked up and down and for a number of reasons we picked Guadalupe. Most of it was that…we walked for hours, hours and hours up and down the Berkeley pier, back and forth, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do. And we got a notebook and this page said What We Know We Want and the other page said What We Know We Don’t Want. That’s the best we could do.

So every time we thought oh we’d really like that, we’d put it on that page and when we thought, we don’t want anything to do with that, we’d put it on the other page. We didn’t want to be big city any more. We didn’t want supporters anymore. We didn’t want to be Catholic Worker anymore.

Supporters meaning people who donate.

Yeah. We wanted to support ourselves. We wanted to be where there was beauty all around. So we’d decided we could to that in Guadalupe. So we came here and we started looking around for a cheap apartment or a studio and part-time jobs. That’s what we were gonna do.

Okay, I just want to interject…cause we kind of skipped over the meeting with Tensie. You met Tensie at…the County Hospital.

What happened was sometimes people at the hospital would have surgeries and they’d be about to be discharged as if they had a place to go and they didn’t. They were street people. So what we’d do was we’d call the Catholic Worker. And Tensie was living there at the time. So we’d call the Catholic Worker and ask if the patient could stay a couple of weeks, just till he got back on his feet, and they’d say sure, Bring him over.

So this guy had gotten a kidney transplant and he couldn’t go back out on the street, his name was Teofilo, and I brought him over to the Catholic Worker house [which is in Boyle Heights, close to County Hospital], and I went up the front steps, and Tensie was on the house that day, and she received him, and that was the first time I met Tensie, I was taking someone from County to the Catholic Worker.

And did you two chat?

Well, no, we didn’t chat very much.

But did you think, Oh, she’s so beautiful?

[Dennis goes into a near-swoon]. Oh. Oh! But we didn’t chat very much, because that’s how I am. My job was to bring this guy over and get back to work. You know Tensie, she loves to talk but…Gotta go. Nice to meet you.

But yeah, she was so beautiful, in both, physically and her spirit.

And she’s younger than you, so she would have been how old at the time?

She was born in ’68 so this would have been ’88 or so…

So she was…

She was 20. You can ask her, but I think she was 20.

Oh wow. Interesting.

No there was no romance. She was just this beautiful person that I’d met. And at the same time, all this stuff was going on in El Salvador. We had what we called the Wednesday morning coalition. We’d all go down to the Federal Building in downtown L.A. and surround the building so nobody could get in or out and get arrested.

“We” meaning?...

Me and all the other activists from L.A. Priests from La Placita, Mike Kennedy, just a group of 100 or so people who would march from La Placita to the Federal Building and surround it, sometimes chain themselves to the door, and get arrested. So I’d see Tensie there, because the LA Catholic Worker was involved….

And the impetus behind it being this deep, deep…heart belief and knowledge of this government that’s so much based on…

It 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.



  1. I think of you transcribing all of this interview and don't even feel badly for you! I remember having to transcribe in a Practice Interviewing class I'd taken my junior year of college. I hated it, but that is perhaps because I wasn't interviewing people as inspiring as Dennis.

  2. I'm enjoying this interview so much. It's so refreshing to hear, in particular, of people who discover their calling later in life after wandering and wondering. Thank you for all your hard work in making it happen. God bless you and Happy Easter (I haven't commented for ages as I was off the internet for Lent.)

  3. I'm looking forward to reading the whole blessed interview. Wow!

  4. It must have been terrifying for Dennis to have discovered his calling much later than most. I am twenty-two and already terrified by the unknown. I know what population I would like to spend my life serving (LGBTQs - possibly teens), and that I want to live in the city, but with doors closing, no strong leads, and the self-applied pressure to succeed I am worried I might never land a profession I am passionate about - in essence, a purpose! I am curious to see Dennis' story continue to unpack itself as he discovers his own...

  5. "It’s not their sin, it’s that they receive the burden of the unhealed wound."
    Did you just nail original sin here, Heather?

  6. Hi Lisa, yes, maybe that's one definition or part of the definition of original sin, though I think each of us "inherits" the unhealed wound of all mankind...thanks for your readership.


I WELCOME your comments!!!