While working toward his undergraduate degree at St. John’s University in Minnesota years ago, Peter Gathje – now professor of Christian ethics and associate dean at Memphis Theological Seminary – felt called to practice the lifestyle of the monks at the Benedictine monastery affiliated with the academic institution.
Gathje entered the monastery during his last semester of college and remained a monk for three years, ultimately leaving primarily because he felt he was, at the time, simply too young to make such a deep commitment.
“But I retained an interest in community life and a regular discipline of prayer,” said Gathje, who was raised Catholic and said monks are often associated with the image of a hermit. “There’s a real commitment on the part of the Benedictine monks to practice a kind of practical Christianity.”
Gathje taught high school for several years before enrolling in graduate school at Atlanta’s Emory University. At the suggestion of his adviser, Gathje’s thesis focused on the city’s Open Door Community, a residential community in the Catholic Worker tradition that provides hospitality to the unsheltered and visitation to prisoners.
Gathje ended up not only living at Door of Hope while focusing on his master’s thesis, but he remained there after graduating with his master’s degree.
“That cemented my own commitment to that way of life – a commitment to social justice issues as being integral to being a follower of Jesus,” he said.
Gathje then received his Ph.D. from Emory after writing his dissertation on the Berrigan Brothers, a pair of Catholic priests – siblings and renowned peace activists – who further inspired Gathje’s commitment to peace and justice.
After teaching at Kalamazoo College for some time, Gathje in 1996 accepted a teaching position at Christian Brothers University, relocated to Memphis and spent the next decade teaching at the private Catholic university at 650 East Parkway S.
In 2006, Gathje joined the faculty of nearby Memphis Theological Seminary, which he said he enjoys for its diversity of faiths and ethnic backgrounds. He says more than 30 denominations are represented in the seminary student body, and students include African-Americans (about 50 percent), whites, Asians and Latinos.
“It’s an interesting cross-section and it’s fun to teach with that kind of theological diversity. … I enjoy it a lot and the faculty has a lot of freedom to develop new courses and try new ways of doing things,” said Gathje, whose teaching and research interests include Christian discipleship in relation to poverty, racism and homelessness, nonviolent social change, and the death penalty and war.
He’s written two books, “Christ Comes in the Stranger’s Guise” and “Sharing the Bread of Life: Hospitality and Resistance at the Open Door Community,” and edited two other works, “Doing Right and Being Good: Catholic and Protestant Readings in Christian Ethics” and “A Work of Hospitality: The Open Door Reader.”
Courses he teaches at the seminary include Faith Perspectives on Labor and Justice; Spirituality and Social Justice; Christian Political Thought; and Poverty, Imprisonment, and Resistance Theology in Atlanta: The Open Door.
This fall he’s also teaching a hands-on course called Farming, Food and Faith, which will take place in fields and pastures, with students visiting rural communities and spending time with farmers.
He’s also active with a number of peace and justice organizations, including the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing and the Workers Interfaith Network.
In addition, Gathje was part of a grassroots group that roughly 10 years ago founded Manna House, 1268 Jefferson Ave., a safe haven and place of hospitality for homeless individuals, which also remains active around social justice issues affecting the homeless.
Manna House is in the same area as both Catholic Charities of West Tennessee and Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
“We were looking to be in that general area,” Gathje said. “Several of us were members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, so we knew people from the streets in that area.”
Today, Gathje, along with Kathleen Kruczek, who owns the Manna House property, direct the hospitality house, a private nonprofit based on the Catholic worker philosophy and tradition. Run on donations and operated entirely by volunteers of many denominations, Manna House receives no government funding, enabling it to avoid bureaucratic involvement.
He said many organizations that cater to the needs of homeless individuals often fail to treat them with respect and dignity.
“We make a great emphasis on getting to know people’s names. … We don’t call people clients; we call them guests,” he said.
Open three days a week, Gathje says the facility provides a place for relaxation, showers, sack lunches on Mondays, and a monthly foot clinic, as homeless people often suffer foot problems. After a meal, guests have their feet washed and are then seen by a podiatrist.
“It’s really just a place of sanctuary … to be a place where there are clear expectations with everybody about how we interact with each other in a way that’s hospitable, friendly and open,” Gathje said. “And it’s worked.”