02 December 2013

good day, dorothy!

One of the benefits of living on the Maryknoll campus is easy access to multiple libraries - the Fathers and Brothers have a library, the Sisters have a library, and the Lay Missioners have a library. Books are everywhere!

come on people - read a book!

Well, I just finished reading All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest, and found it really fascinating. So I decided to blog about it.

very interesting read with lots of pictures to look at!

While I first learned about Dorothy Day back in high school, it was fairly surface level and, as I recall, a bit biased in its presentation. Not cool!

In this blog post, I'll attempt to give a fairly straight forward bio of Dorothy Day. But there's more! I also want to call attention to things that I felt inspired and challenged by while reading about her life.

Who was Dorothy Day and why was she a big deal?
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1897. Several experiences early on, particularly during a time in which her family lived in Chicago, helped shape her faith and social consciousness that would go on to guide her life's work and make her a pretty big deal.

just like ron burgundy, dorothy day is kind of a big deal.

Some of those important experiences early on include:
  • Dorothy's father was a journalist and anti-Catholic. Dorothy would go on to become a journalist herself, but unlike her Dad, Dorothy came to embrace the Catholic faith later in life. 
  • Prior to embracing the Catholic faith, Dorothy discovered a friend's mother, a devout Catholic, praying at her bedside. In that moment, Dorothy said, "I felt a burst of love toward her that I have never forgotten." Basically that planted the seeds for her interest in faith and Catholicism.
  • For a time, Dorothy's father was out of work, and this exposed Dorothy to the shame people feel while living on the down and out. 
  • Enter books! Dorothy began reading books that stirred her conscience, prompting her to begin taking walks in places that people tended to avoid (aka poor neighborhoods). Dorothy had an ability to find beauty in the midst of urban desolation. I want that too!
  • Enter more books! Dorothy's readings in college continued to draw Dorothy in a radical social direction. Her conviction that the social order was unjust would continue from her adolescence until her death, though she never would identify herself with any political party. 
a younger dorothy day…keeping it realz.

After family endeavors in the city of broad shoulders, Dorothy moved back to New York and entered the real world where she worked as a journalist at a number of socially-conscious papers.

Several pivotal events happened during this chapter in her life:
  • In 1925, Dorothy discovered she was pregnant. Now here's the deal. Dorothy had actually been pregnant once before as the result of a love affair with a journalist, but this resulted in the great tragedy of her life: an abortion. Dorothy's second pregnancy, however, was viewed as nothing less than a miracle. She saw the Catholic Church as "the church of the immigrants, the church of the poor" and would go on to have her daughter, Tamar, baptized in the Catholic Church. This pretty much cemented Dorothy's place in the Church as well. Oh, and for those that want to know, Dorothy was not married when she had this child and ended up raising Tamar alone.
  • In 1932, Dorothy was on a trip in Washington, D.C. reporting for two Catholic journals, Commonweal and America, on a radical protest called the Hunger March. Given that the march was organized by Communists, and that Dorothy identified herself as a Catholic, she only watched the protesters parade through the streets from the sidelines. But not being involved in the protest pained Dorothy. After witnessing the march, Dorothy went to a nearby church and prayed through tears, asking God to shed light on what talents she possessed that may be used to help the poor and the oppressed.
  • The next day, back in New York City, Dorothy met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant, who would change her life. Peter embraced poverty as a vocation and believed in a social order instilled with values of the Gospel. A born teacher, Peter would speak to Dorothy at length about his vision and beliefs. He said that Dorothy should start a newspaper to publicize Catholic Social Teaching, which she readily embraced. Dorothy believed that her work experience and religious faith had prepared her for this moment.

On May 1, 1933, the first copies of The Catholic Worker were handed out on Union Square for a penny a copy, "so cheap that anyone could afford to buy it." Readers found a unique voice in The Catholic Worker, and publication quickly soared. It expressed dissatisfaction with the social order and took the side of labor unions, challenged urbanization and industrialism, and was not only radical, but also religious. The Catholic Worker did not merely surface issues to its readers, but also called upon them to make personal responses to the issues at hand.

not the original masthead but the one they ended up using

For the first six months, The Catholic Worker was only a newspaper, but as winter approached, homeless began to knock on the door. Peter Maurin's essays in the paper called for renewal of Christian hospitality to the homeless, for in this way, Christians could respond to Jesus' words, "I was a stranger and you took me in." These essays advocated that every home should have a "Christ Room" and every parish a house of hospitality to receive the poor. Surrounded by people in need and volunteers excited about the ideas found in The Catholic Worker, these concepts were put into practice. Dorothy's apartment became the seed for many houses of hospitality to come.

bread line outside of the catholic worker in new york city

The impoverished guests found that, unlike most centers of charity, no one at The Catholic Worker was trying to convert them. A lone crucifix on the wall was the only clear evidence of the faith of those welcoming them. The staff of The Catholic Worker received no salary, only food, board and occasional pocket money.

Catholic Worker became a national movement and went on to promote issues such as:
  • Founding member of the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism in the 1940s.
  • Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
  • Farmworkers rights in the 1970s.
  • Nonviolence and pacifism throughout the years. Dorothy believed nonviolence was at the heart of the Gospel and fervently promoted the works of mercy.
oh, you've come to arrest me?

Many objected to the radical nature of the Catholic Worker movement and justified their position with quotes from the Bible. Didn't Jesus say that the poor would be with us always? "Yes," Dorothy once replied, "but we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is our making and by our consent, not God's, and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change."

It was that spirit of revolutionary change that, long before Dorothy's death in 1980, many began to regard her as a saint. At their 2012 annual meeting, the Catholic bishops of the United States unanimously recommended the canonization of Dorothy Day. The process is currently underway with the Vatican, where things tend to move slowly.

"don't call me a saint. i don't want to be dismissed so easily."

How does Dorothy Day's life speak to me?
Dorothy Day was branded a radical, a socialist, a communist, and an anarchist, to name a few. But I don't care about those titles. I care about what she did. People often assign labels to others to conveniently define them, to narrowly box them in, to create fear, and to foster an "us vs. them" mentality. I am not interested in that kind of thinking.

While reading about the life of Dorothy Day, I found my heart burning within me and a fury of questions whirling around in my mind.
  • What does solidarity with the poor really mean? 
  • What should this look like in the context of my life? 
  • How little do I do, or rather, how far do I go?
  • What do the consumer decisions I make say about my values?
  • Where do I encounter the very face of God?
Dorothy Day, informed by her faith and life experiences, chose a vocation of poverty. For her, this meant not only living a simple lifestyle, but also immersing herself in the daily reality of those living on the margins of society. I feel not only inspired and challenged by her actions, but also drawn to them.

So what is the legacy of Dorothy Day? Well, in her words: "If I have achieved anything in my life," she once remarked, "it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."

What will be our legacy?


dorothy day, servant of God

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