Shes no radical, just an elementary Catholic
How does God look when one is 83, mother of 12, grandmother to 32 and great-grandmother to 20?
Much more real now, said Jane Emerson. I think Im much better friends with God and I hope that God feels the same way. My chief sin is I dont pray. I read.
Currently shes on an Octavio Paz kick, plus reading all she can about Mexico. Mexicos poor have been part of the Emerson outreach for more than a half-century.
Jane and William Archibald Emerson had 12 children. One son died of cancer at 34. The children are artists and municipal court clerks, auto mechanics and Federal Reserve officials. They are married or divorced or separated or remarried. They live in places as varied as an apartment in Oregon and on a boat in the Virgin Islands.
The Emerson children, their myriad spouses and partners, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren represent a multiracial -- especially African-American -- multicultural world. Their span of religious interests range from deep involvement in the local parish to fundamentalism to self-realization.
Earlier that day, Emerson had been a lector at the 8:30 a.m. Mass at Christ the King Church in San Diego. The older I get, the more I think faith is a gift. But Im not pious, she said, checking off another fault, Im impious.
Emerson will bristle if anyone refers to her as the parish radical. To her it is elementary, not radical, that to be Catholic means caring about the poor, elementary that the church has to risk alienating people -- particularly its own.
Catholics who radically touched her life and social thinking include Dorothy Day and Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founders respectively of the Catholic Worker movement in the United States and the Young Christian Workers (and much else) in Europe. Both groups still keep her on track. She edits the local Catholic Worker newspaper and is president of the remnant of the Cardijn Center with its Mexican American Neighbor Outreach -- MANO -- south of the nearby border.
Emerson, born in St. Paul, Minn., was a 19-year-old sophomore at St. Catherines College there when Day, whod just started The Catholic Worker newspaper, visited. I liked what she said about simple living. Bill and I always tried to live that way, and raise the children that way. Simply, said Emerson, comfortable in her armchair in a small, flower and shrub-surrounded house.
She met the Belgian Cardijn when he visited San Diego in the 1950s. Early influences persist.
Occasionally, she said, a reader of her newsletter complains, For heavens sake, get away from this political stuff, they say. Lets talk about feeding the poor. They just dont get the connection, Emerson said.
Catholic Workers on the board sometimes say, Why dont you make it more newsy. And I say the point is to educate people, hold a mirror up to them a little bit. Were writing it for the people that send us money and we risk alienating them. But thats what were supposed to do. We arent writing this for the people we feed.
Even at college, Emersons work as editor was probably getting her in trouble. About to enter her senior year -- she had been class president for two years and editor of the newspaper shed helped start as a freshman -- she was in line to become student body president.
The dean decided otherwise.
She and Bill had been engaged for three-and-a-half years, so Emerson quit and they wed. Emerson recalled, We had four daughters when my husband, a teacher who was practically born with cardiac asthma, in the winter of 1943 was so ill his doctor just said, Bill, you either leave Minnesota or you dont ever work again. So we moved to San Diego.
The city was crying out for teachers, but it was wartime and there was no housing. Finally they found accommodation in wartime quarters, 400 isolated units at the end of Point Loma.
They were the most efficiently engineered houses you can imagine. There wasnt a wasted inch, she said. And the people -- we had neighbors getting PhDs, and the people across the street were poor white crackers from Texas. I dont think either of them could read or write. But their seven children -- as they got children, we did too -- were just as intelligent and capable as any children. Id lived in a rather sheltered, protected environment. It was great for me.
The family was constantly expanding. My youngest son -- hes now 42 -- was born the same year that his oldest sister was off at college.
The Emersons bought a house in Ocean Beach that remained home well beyond Bills death in 1971.
Bill had a doctorate in English literature, taught at [San Diego] City College. He could have taught English literature, which he loved, but he was particularly fascinated and good at teaching people to read and write. So he never left. He just stayed there.
We had it all planned that at 55 he would retire and we would have some children in high school, but our income from retirement would be equivalent because we would have much less expense, she said. But he never got around to it. His life expectancy was 54 -- and he thought he was very smart -- he lived to be 57. He died with his boots on. He taught the day he died. It was asthma that finally got him. And cigarettes.
Of course, people said, Why did you have so many children? I said, Well, my husband didnt want me out in the world competing with him, said Emerson. I never had any problems having children. It was a very joyous, healthy thing. Pregnancy is not a disease. I kept having children. He kept killing himself to feed them, which was not a very good idea, but thats the way it worked.
After Bills death, Emerson moved deeper into community work. Cardijn Center started a senior center for Spanish-speaking people. We hired a young man from Tijuana with a degree in social work to run it. I worked half-time.
Her next and last paid post was in child nutrition, and after that I just became a worker for love.
In the 1970s a young woman named Julia Doughty, attending a local college, learned about Dorothy Day just at the time that San Diego started redeveloping downtown. Everydays paper had accounts of how many more SROs (single room occupancy hotels) were being closed, said Emerson. They were tearing them down, and more people were on the street. This very thoughtful young woman wrote to New York for the names and addresses of everybody in San Diego county who got The Catholic Worker. The newspaper, started by Dorothy Day in the 1930s, is published out of New York and goes to readers across the nation.
Doughty sent out a note to San Diego subscribers saying that there was going to be a meeting. She was only 20, 21. She got it all organized, Emmerson said. So she had this meeting, and we came and she explained it all and practically handed out jobs to people. She owned a little truck and she got Christ the King Church to let us use their kitchen and the Episcopal community services to let us use their place to serve these meals. Of course, we started feeding 50, 75 people and ended up in about three years feeding 1,000 a day, and it still goes that way. Ecumenically.
All over the county. Theres a Quaker couple who own a book store and who started a homeless newspaper called Street Light. Theyre just remarkable. Theres a woman who must be my age who is in charge of the hands-on social services at the Christ Lutheran Church in Pacific Beach, and shes been doing it for years. Our Catholic Worker president, Michael Jennings, whos in his 50s, is a natural born Catholic Worker. The donations seem to come in -- its just beautiful to see how many people are out there doing something. Emersons still out there, too, serving on the food line.
She doesnt mind speaking out as editor or standing up in church. But shell not go to public meetings to speak out these days. Age has its privileges, she says. In addition, she said, I dont want the world to think Catholic Workers are just a bunch of old ladies.
National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998