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Road least traveled

NCR Staff

Mark Andersen took the least traveled road among the roads less traveled. He came to Catholicism by way of punk rock. It’s been some journey, its stages marked by concert posters, newspaper clippings and personal struggles that he recounts with irony and humor.

Today, seated on a tilted office chair -- tilted because it’s missing a wheel -- Andersen, 41, tall, fit, with close-cropped hair, transformed through a series of conversions, works with the elderly poor of Washington. He assists people in the depressed Shaw district with simple things, like getting groceries. He coordinates volunteers, finding people to telephone or visit elderly people who live alone. He also helps them in efforts that are considerably more complex, like threading their way through bureaucracies that provide essential aid.

On the wall of Andersen’s office at Emmaus Services for the Aging there’s a black-and-white poster from a Patti Smith concert. It’s an appropriate poster, an icon of the path he’s traveled, for, in a sense, Smith was there when Andersen’s journey started in his bewildered teens.

He pinpoints the moment well, the moment his journey started. Its memory is recorded in his work-in-progress autobiography, Dance of Days:

A prairie wind blew the remnants of autumn’s leaves down the streets of Plentywood, Montana. A longhaired kid in dusty jeans and cowboy boots, crouching against the frigid wind, stepped through the doorway into a tiny record store.

The heat of the cramped room that was Garrick’s Records and Tapes caused the boy’s wire-rimmed glasses to cloud over. After taking off his work gloves and wiping the haze from the lenses, he shuffled through the bins, pausing to pick up one particular LP. The boy studied a stark black and white photograph of a woman who had a defiant gaze and disheveled hair. As he did, excitement flickered in his eyes, a faint smile crossing his face. It was the record he had been looking for.

The year was 1975. The album was Patti Smith’s “Horses.” The kid was me. I was 16 years old, taking a break from hauling grain to the nearby Farmers’ Union Elevator. The youngest child in a farm family, I lived out in the countryside on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, fifteen miles from the nearest town or paved road.

I had grown up immersed in conservative Christian pieties and love-it-or-leave-it patriotism. By the mid-’70s I was estranged from those beliefs, feeling suffocated by the narrowness of my world. From what I knew, Patti Smith seemed like a kindred spirit. When I first played “Horses” on my plastic dime-store stereo, it took only Smith’s deep sandpaper voice and the lines -- “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine” -- to know that I had been right.

From Patti Smith to the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” Andersen said that he found music that told him he was not alone, that the pain he felt was real, that the world was insane, not him.

A quarter-century later, experience has him told he was right about that, too. The world is insane. Long before then he’d decided he stood for sanity.

He became the bogeyman in every Reaganite’s nightmare: a political science master of arts motivated by punk’s hard-driving sound whose lyrics attacked conventional society and expressed alienation and anger. Andersen’s vehicle for expressing his rebellion was Positive Force, a long-lived Arlington, Va., punk rock collective he helped found.

“Early punk rock was about social transformation,” said Andersen, riffling through desk drawer files for more news clips, “and Positive Force was one of the very first organized expressions of this impetus, this spirit in the punk rock world.”

The impetus brought the FBI snooping around in the 1980s when the collective papered Washington with “Experts Agree: Meese is a Pig” posters. (Edwin Meese III was Reagan’s attorney general.)

The collective, only now closing the doors of its house -- though not its organization -- was devoted to fundamental social change and youth empowerment. Its motto came from the lost kid on the prairie: “Isolation is the biggest barrier to change.”

Andersen grew up isolated, he said. “I was facing a lifetime of manual labor. I didn’t fit into any of the social groups because I didn’t drink or use other drugs, I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t part of the Christian kids anymore. Basically I had this music and certain gifts that were intellectual gifts, mostly.” But those weren’t highly valued, he said, in Sheridan County, Mont.

High schooler Andersen went from wrestling grain into elevators to wrestling with political science and history at Montana State.

Groups like X-Ray Spex, The Jam, Generation X, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers, all went with him on his dime store stereo.

All the while, music remained the touch-of-a-button hard-driving reassurance Andersen needed long after he’d gone through the surly-at-home, semi-suicidal ponderings, years beyond the shoplifting charge and the other scrapes.

He’d stopped going to church -- “punk rock was as fierce a frontal assault on those pieties as could be imagined,” he said. Today, though, he sees it differently. “Looking back, the punk rock experience was for me a spiritual journey,” he said. “Radical negation, negating what seemed to be false. The positive side of that is searching for something that’s true.”

Andersen was a good student, worked for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and by 1984 was on the World Bank-CIA-State Department career track in the master’s program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

But punk rock was opening a broader field of possibilities even than Johns Hopkins, for Andersen had discovered Washington and was appalled by what he saw -- the poverty of it -- and in the nation’s capital. Although he was on an academic track to becoming a Cold War warrior in the service of the American Empire, he followed a different beat. The Positive Force collective was born. Andersen had traded isolation for involvement. It was The Clash’s radical and creative social ethic versus Reaganomics. Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols versus Meese.

“Washington was raw shock,” he said. “A country whose ideals were on these beautiful monuments, with homeless freezing to death on the streets in their shadow. World War II veteran Jesse Carpenter froze to death just across the street from the White House just after I moved here. It broke my heart,” said Andersen, a personification of the sort of bleeding heart the Reaganites satirized and fought.

The Reagan administration, and its distaste for poverty programs, “was a great catalyst for political action,” Andersen said. Reagan and, for Andersen, Central America. He went to Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras in 1985.

An El Salvador moment

“Hotshot grad, the radical culturalist who knows all the critiques, I was just humbled,” he said. “There was an El Salvador moment that lingered, and I’m glad for it,” he said. Someone invited Andersen to attend a gathering of Salvadorans battling oppression.

They met in a surprisingly large room under a church, people drifting in over a long period so as not to attract attention.

But it wasn’t a meeting. It was a Mass to commemorate the 15th anniversary of their San Antonio Abba neighborhood Christian base community. Andersen recalls watching the people receiving the Eucharist. “In that moment I saw what God’s reign might be about.”

The experience faded, but did not disappear.

Andersen’s Washington roots and activism sank deeper into the issues, with The Clash’s “if I close my eyes it will not go away” telling him he had to deal with what he saw and felt.

There was a secondary element to the punk rock, too -- the clash with the hippies, the anti-Vietnam generation, whom the rockers felt had sold out. Hippie activist Jerry Rubin had become a Wall Street yuppie.

The Clash’s “Hate and War” was self-consciously the hippie “love” -- peace and love -- turned around. “We were saying, ‘Look how you sold out your ideals,’ ” said Andersen. “You created illusions, not the least of which were drug illusions, as if those were somehow the road to liberation.”

Andersen, in his own words, stepped “off the face of the earth.” He lived in the collective’s furnace room, let his driving license expire. “I was radically estranged from society,” he said. Yet he was fighting to make some sort of peace between how he saw U.S. society -- his revulsion at the sight of the poor, whether in El Salvador of the District of Columbia -- and his sense of his own privileged possibility and revolutionary tendencies.

His conscience’s goad was that “punk rock was challenging people to live by their ethics.”

Punk was also anti-Christian in the era when the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition tried to define Christianity for Americans.

By the late 1980s, Andersen was shifting from the Washington Peace Center to a part-time job at Emmaus, sponsored by five churches, housed in the offices of the imposing National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle. He was delving into new challenges as outreach coordinator for the elderly there when Catholicism reared its strange spirit in several ways.

Ironically, Boston College professor Mary Daly was one of those who kicked the door partway open. “During that woolly radical anti-Christian period, I was aware of her,” Andersen said, “and read The Church and the Second Sex. That was nothing compared to Daly’s Beyond God the Father, demolishing the patriarchal, repressive apparatus, demolishing Christianity,” he said.

“One thing she mentioned though, just in passing,” said Andersen, “was, ‘There are some who argue that Jesus was a feminist.’ To which I say, basically, yes. I checked her footnote to Leonard Swidler’s article, ‘Jesus was a Feminist,’ sought that out, and it began the revolution. I began to see Jesus as distinct from the doctrines of church, that Jesus’ life and teachings were still a prophetic critique and challenge and a revolutionary one. It began to open my heart. The second part was reading the late Penny Lernoux’s The Cry of the People,” a journalist’s 1980 account of U.S. involvement in oppression of the poor in Latin America. “I had seen in some philosophical sense that Jesus might not be the enemy,” he said. “ Lernoux made it clear that there were people in Latin America living out, at the risk of their lives, the notion that Jesus might have revolutionary possibilities to offer us for the present time.”

Jesus the ‘commie punk’

Influenced by Swidler, Andersen wrote in Positive Force’s Off Center magazine an article titled “Jesus Was a Commie Punk.” It was designed, he said, “to engage folks in the underground in a re-assessment of Jesus as friend rather than foe.”

Jesus was re-engaging Andersen, too. Andersen met workers such as Marie Dennis (now with the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office in Washington) and Franciscan Fr. Joe Nangle of the Assisi Community, whom he accompanied on a Pax World Foundation trip to the Middle East.

But key, he said, was meeting Meridith Welch, a Vincentian volunteer working at Emmaus. “She gave me a window into the very vibrant Catholic volunteer network. She works with Youth at Risk in Boston now.

“Bottom line is one day we were hanging out at the Vincentian volunteers’ house, talking about this stuff,” said Andersen, “and she invited me, as they were heading out the door, to a Mass for Jim Lindsey, incoming director of the Catholic Network for Voluntary Service, at Catholic University.”

During the Mass there was a litany of saints. It included people like Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, César Chávez and Mitch Snyder.

“I felt a little like I was back in that church building in San Salvador. They had a litany of saints.”

Andersen wondered if there was a Catholic place for him in Washington. Welch suggested he try “St. Al’s” -- St. Aloysius, the Jesuit parish on Capitol Hill. One Sunday, Andersen went.

“I had come home,” he said. “The upbringing I’d had, the values I’d received through the gospel, had basically oriented me toward seeking the truth.” He’d arrived without denying the crucial role punk rock and the collective Positive Force still play in his life. He went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the church’s official rite for new members. It was “a great experience,” he said because the group at St. Al’s was small, with a lay leadership team and priest “willing to listen to a lot of questioning.” They would keep guiding the discussion “back to the essential,” he said: “following Christ, through a challenging and open-ended Catholic vision.”

These days Positive Force volunteers, along with others from Howard and George Washington universities and local churches, work with the Emmaus elderly.

A decade ago, it was an unkempt, testy Andersen, hair awry and dressed in raggedy clothes, still living in a ramshackle commune, who applied to Emmaus for a part-time job as “street outreach worker” in the Shaw district.

Emmaus director Diane Amussen “must have detected something beneath that exterior,” Andersen said. “Her faith in me was a precious gift.”

Soon he was a fixture in the people’s lives in rundown Shaw, with seniors who ran out of food or medicines or needed someone to talk to or help fight the drug traffickers taking over the building.

He tells of fixing a vacuum cleaner in one apartment while homicide squad detectives dug errant bullets out of the refrigerator from a fatal shooting next door.

“Another time I helped convince a desperately ill and paranoid 94-year-old blind woman, haunted by the ghosts of abusive relatives, to let an ambulance take her to the hospital,” he said.

He had become a member of what was known locally as “the SWAT team for the elderly.”

Andersen’s concerns for the District of Columbia’s persons at risk don’t end with the elderly. Read behind some Washington Post headlines, such as the 1998 candlelight procession for slain prostitutes. Note the organizers and sponsors: St. Aloysius, Asbury Methodist and other churches -- and Positive Force.

Counterculture still

He carries the message where he can.

When the Washington archdiocesan young adult ministry organized its recent Jubilee Justice and Service Challenge for “20- to 30-somethings from across the D.C. metro area,” Andersen was on the fliers inquiring, “Would you like to meet other young Catholic adults, learn more about your faith, and serve those in need?” with his e-mail address (emmausdc@aol.com) and phone number (202-299-0429) listed as contact points.

Positive Force represents counterculture. Still.

Washington is gentrifying. House prices are soaring. Andersen is at the center of countering the implications of those trends for the poor. Emmaus and Positive Force are collaborating on creating a community center in Shaw. Elements envisioned are a Catholic Worker Bookstore/Peter Maurin Center; a performance space, art gallery, anarchist info-shop and archive; Emmaus and its work for the elderly; the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and Jews United for Justice, and the Washington Peace Center.

“The hope is,” said Andersen, the center “will become a venue for bringing not just Catholicism, but the punk-radical arts community, direct service, interfaith understanding and justice work and community organizing.”

“The idea,” he said, “is to try to break through the barriers -- age, race, culture, faith -- as well as transcending the arts versus service, versus culture wrangle, and provide a model for a just community renaissance, as opposed to gentrification.”

As a Catholic -- he formally took the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil in 1997 at St. Al’s -- he does not see himself as an ex-punk. Andersen is punk still, though more quietly aflame. Fame has never been the spur. His personal hopes for what the Catholic church might be in the new century are high. To him, the church making peace/amends with the Jewish community is an important priority.

He believes Catholicism needs to open itself to punk energy along with “new ways of celebrating Mass, being church in ways that bring in what is real and true in youth culture and counterculture -- through the possibility, indeed the necessity of the inculturation that the spirit of Jesus represents.”

If Jesus is back in the forefront of Andersen’s life, Patti Smith is back, too. She dropped out from public life with her husband to raise their children, and recently returned to performing.

Andersen and Patti Smith have perhaps been on parallel tracks. The concert poster on Andersen’s office wall is current. Her song “People Power” has lyrics drawn in significant measure, Andersen said, from the messianic banquet images in Isaiah.

Andersen, the advocate for the elderly, remains close to his convictions. As his autobiography reaches the end of its final draft, he’s linked up with a New York publisher who came out of the New York punk scene.

Beyond its role as a personal tale, the autobiography is provocative, compelling social history.

It’s also a handbook for those pushed onto, or stumbling along, a road less traveled. With only, at first, music of alienation as a traveling companion.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones@natcath.org

Iconography of punk

Punk, or punk rock, source of international iconography that developed and flourished in the last half of the 1970s, is first and foremost a harsh, driving form of “shock rock.” Punk, its label taken from prison lingo, is also an attitude and a style. The latter may be best known by the brash forms it took on the street: shaved or partially shaved heads, spiked hair, odd-colored hair, pierced body parts and lots of black.

As an attitude, punk signifies teen rebelliousness and alienation, façades for a movement that critiqued consumerism as it celebrated and attempted to reclaim the inner city. The inner city spirit sometimes took the form of “squatting” -- taking up residence in abandoned buildings and the like.

Musical icons included Patti Smith and Television, whose performance base was New York, and the Sex Pistols, who inspired British youth and made Britain one of the movement’s hotbeds. Other well-known punk groups included The Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Damned, the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

In the 1980s, some U.S. youth influenced by the punk movement described themselves as “hardcore,” using a façade of alienation as a cover for their disavowal of tobacco, drugs and promiscuous sex. The “grunge” movement, characterized by slovenly dress, was another outgrowth prevalent in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

According to www.britannica.com, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Web site, punk’s highest point of impact came with Nirvana’s success in 1991, a success that coincided with the rise of Generation X. Members of that generation, born in the 1960s, often identified with punk’s “charged, often contradictory mix of intelligence, simplicity, anger and powerlessness,” according to the Britannica article.

Its underlying philosophy of social transformation rarely developed into organized action, but street demonstrations against the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle earlier this year had at their root some of the punk movement’s concerns.

--NCR Staff

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000