Meetup: Fields of Forgiveness

by Jim Luken

Meet Karl Fields. 55. Father of five. Pentecostal Protestant. Former convict. House Manager for the St. Francis/St. Joseph Catholic Worker House.

Fields might seem an unlikely person to be heading up a 25-year-old Cincinnati shelter that is Catholic in its roots, its history, and even it its name. But, although he is not quite aware of it, Fields is following in the footsteps of the famous radical Catholic activist, Dorothy Day [1897-1980], now a candidate for sainthood, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the US in the 1930s.

Modeling her organization, to a certain degree, on the Communist Worker Movement of the 20s and 30s, Day published a daily newspaper (The Catholic Worker), and lived with homeless men in shelters (“Houses”) that she established in New York City. To this day there are more than a hundred of these Catholic Worker Houses (CWH) worldwide.

Over-the-Rhine’s CWH stands at the corner of 14th and Walnut. It was established there by a young Catholic layman [and personal friend of the author’s] Jim Mullen, in 1983. Mullen came to own the house himself, and he began living there with homeless “guests,” (as its residents are still called) who trickled in and out over those years.

Fields explains that in its present form, Cincinnati’s CWH has no formal connection either with the (ongoing) International Catholic Worker Movement, or with the Catholic Church itself, although many of the individuals and families that help support his work are progressive local Catholics.

According to Fields, “The part [of the Catholic Worker model] we believe in is to help poor working men.”

Karl Fields asserts that in the “old days” the Catholic Worker House had a more informal and unstructured way of dealing with the often indigent men who stayed there.

“It was just a place for guys who had nowhere else to go,” he says.

Mullen died of cancer in his fifties. Before he passed away, the house was sold to Father Mark Schmieder, who was then a full-time minister at the state prison in Lebanon. Fr. Schmieder brought Karl Fields, fresh out of prison himself, onto the staff in 2002. Before his own death in 2004, the beloved priest, turned the building (and its name) over to an independent board of trustees.

In the early years of this millennium, there was still a lot of turmoil and problems according to Fields. When Fr. Schmieder retired from his full-time prison ministry, the situation began to turn around.

“Things started to get better and better and better,” Karl says. “People began to be held accountable, from the house manager to the staff and guests.”

They developed what Fields describes as a “system:” one with a semi-rigid set of rules and guidelines, as well as objectives which were both positive and clear.

“We want our guests to get clean, to get work, and to become self-sufficient.”

Although there is no charge to live at the Catholic Worker House, the staff monitors, through weekly progress interviews, the status and income of each of its 16 guests. Each of the men is pushed to save 65% of his income for a little nest egg, because the guest may stay at the house for no longer than 60 days.

“The best pat of my job,” states Fields, “is when they move out to their own place and get their own keys.”

And the hardest part?

“When we have to ask someone to leave.”

At the CWH, each of the 16 “beds” is assigned a set of chores, including, of course, weekly dish duty. There are eight and four bed dormitories, and two two-bed rooms. Beds are filled almost as soon as a resident moves out, and the switching of beds is a no-no.

Fields explains that he and his staff do everything they can to promote a three-word program: Safety, Healing and Transformation.

Karl explains. “If there is no safety, there can be no healing. If there is no healing, there can be no transformation. It is our duty to make sure that they have a safe place to recover.”

To achieve that environment, there is a zero tolerance for alcohol, drugs, or threats. Profanity is discouraged. There are two required AA meetings each week at the house. Unless a guest is working the night shift, doors are locked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

During daytime hours, residents must either be at work or looking for work. According to Karl Fields, the rules are strictly enforced. He says filling an empty bed is not a difficult task.

As an outreach to the neighborhood, Fields states proudly that the Catholic Worker House provides a Soup Kitchen (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday—bag lunches in the summer months and sit-down soup in the wintertime. They usually feed around one hundred people, he says.

Karl Fields has a keen understanding of the situation the CWH guests are in. Although he grew up (Episcopalian) in a middle class African-American household, although he always held a job, and always provided nice things for his children, “I was a lost soul for more than 20 years, due to alcohol and drug addictions,” he says.

Fields describes his childhood as basically stable and normal. But, he says, it took many years before the family realized that his truck-driver father was a closeted, functioning alcoholic.

After graduating from Courter Tech in 1973, Karl became an auto-body repairman, a job which gave the young man too much freedom to work as much or little as he pleased.

“But for the most part, I worked hard and I played hard,” he says.

At 21 Fields was married, although, he points out, “I started having kids when I was 18. There were three kids from that marriage and five total.” Karl says he is proud of all of the children and their achievements, in spite what he now sees as poor parenting.

“One thing I noticed. I gave them Air Jordans, but what I didn’t give them was that psychological nourishing.”

He worked at Stearns and Foster in Lockland and then in 1977 he got a well-paying job at Reliable Castings on Spring Grove Avenue, all the while continuing his bad habits.

“Often, on my lunch hour I would drive downtown and get some pills.”

He worked there until October 26, 1994, when, he says, “it all came crashing down.”

During the previous year, after a friend had died mysteriously in his own bathtub, Fields’s wife left him.

“She couldn’t take it anymore, God bless her soul. She didn’t want to come home and find me dead too.”

For drug related crimes, Karl Fields was sent to the penitentiary in Picaway, Ohio. Reflecting on this period of time, he is very self-critical.

“What was rational became irrational. Things I swore I wouldn’t do, I was doing. I had a family. I was raised right. But there was something about me that I obviously didn’t like. How can you love yourself when you are putting stuff inside yourself that will kill you?”

So Fields spent eight long years in the slammer. He has no complaints.

“The way I see it, I wasn’t arrested that day [Oct. 26], I was rescued.”

At the penitentiary, Fields says that he had the opportunity to take inventory of his life.

“When you are forced to be sober, you can really look at yourself,” he says.

There in the penitentiary he would learn the skills that would be essential for his job as House Manager at the CWH. He found himself in a therapeutic program called OASIS.

“They made me look in the mirror,” he says. The program was very confrontational. Inmates had to confront one another on their problematic behavior.

“If I’m checking you,” Karl explains, “I better have myself in order.”

The men called each other “Mr.” and “Sir.” They did what he calls behavioral “pull-ups.”

All the while he was in prison, Karl Fields says he worried about his youngest son. The other children had each embarked on successful careers, but “when I got out, he was real rough.”

Karl says that he was in no position to lecture his son. He doesn’t even believe lecturing works.

“People are gonna be looking at your actions not your words. I started living the way you are supposed to live.”

It took years of this kind of example, but now Fields beams when he describes how proud he is that his son has been clean and sober for seven months. [As we speak, he calls his son on the phone to verify the date].

“Now I talk to him almost every day,” he says with a smile.

Although, by 2002, he was out of the penitentiary, and sober, and doing a job that mattered at the St Francis/St. Joseph Catholic Worker house, Karl found that there was still something missing from his life.

So, in 2007, he married a second time. His new wife, Vanier, was a Holiness minister at Harac Ministries in Bond Hill.

“The marriage completed me,” he says.

At the moment, Fields is battling a form of lung cancer. This new health reality, along with his marriage, put him on track to get his spirituality in order.

“The threat of death does that to people,” he says.

And so, Karl Fields prays every day, prayers of thanksgiving “for what He’s done for me so far. That gives me faith that everything will be all right.

“What I’m trying to get across is, even if you’ve fallen, you can get up. If God forgives us, who are we not to forgive ourselves.”

Meetup is meant to tell people’s stories in their own words. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the interviewee and not those of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, Streetvibes or the staff, volunteers and board members.