Tag Archives: poverty

Dorothy Day’s Lessons for the Church

Dorothy DaySo what did I learn about Minstry from Dorothy Day?  Her experience and her teaching offers a meaningful approach to serving people struggling with poverty.  Here are a few lessons:

The Suffering of the Poor.

Poverty was a different beast during the Great Depression, and the politics of the poor was super-charged by the spread and seeming strength of Communism which claimed to be for the poor. While her politics were more sympathetic with Marxism, it was her connection with the humanity of the impoverished and the awareness of their suffering that galvanized Dorothy Day’s passion for the poor. Her turn to Catholicism grew out of her awareness that Christianity was a message of hope to the poor, and that God has a passion for the poor and the marginalized.

If we ourselves are not poor, and we do not truly know anyone who is poor, then we can allow poverty to remain political and theoretical for us. But God knows the poor, and he cares for them. I was struck this past Christmas with how amazing it is that Jesus was born poor. If the goal of the Incarnation was for God to become human and to die our death for our forgiveness, then certainly any human life he lived would have been sufficient. He could have come as royalty, right? But he did not. He entered human life and lived it as most of the world lives it, poor. When we in the church forget that, and we ourselves are not poor, we have lost a vital part of being the Church.

Dorothy Day reminds me that I need to take off my blinders, look past my own problems and supposed “poverties”, and see those whom God cares for, and act accordingly.

To Serve the Poor, Be with the Poor

Distance is the big challenge when we seek to help the poor. Not only is it hard to truly see those who suffer poverty, it is hard to do more than help from a safe distance.  To enter the lives of the poor feels risky and is very uncomfortable. Not that I can speak with great authority, but I do know the fear.  Dorthy Day was convinced that having compassion in God’s way meant living with those suffering. To quote this passage again:

One must live with them share with them their suffering too. Give up one’s privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well as physical.

The houses of hospitality were a place for such living with. Fraught with challenges, as her autobiography admits, it is also a risk that we are called to take. This reminds me of the school of thought now current that involved those of more means moving into a poor neighborhood to throw one’s lot in and to make a difference every day.  I suppose there are different ways of being with the poor, but the importance of such a risk is great as Day teaches. Is not this what the Incarnation is all about too?  Jesus came and “dwelt among us”, to quote John 1.

Day Stained Glass

The Importance of Community

Dorothy Day’s conviction of needing to live with the poor is part of the overall importance she places on community. Here is where the title of the book comes in, The Long Loneliness. Only community can sustain us in the midst of the loneliness of our life:

“The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for him.” Page 243

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” Page 285-6

These are the words that end her story, in the Postscript. It seems this is the great lesson God has taught her over the course of her life and work, and it is what she has to teach us.

The Church is the place where we can, with God’s help, break down the distance between us and others, especially others very different than us. It is the place where in our loneliness we can find the love of God with and in one another.

The Long Loneliness of Dorothy Day

The Long Lonliness, by Dorothy DayI recently finished the autobiography of the American Catholic, and potential saint, Dorothy Day.  She spent her life working for the poor, and doing so in community.  It was an enlightening read.

I picked up this book after reading Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way.  Born in New York, and raised in San Francisco until the great earthquake made her family relocate to Chicago, her father was a left-leaning journalist.  Through her reading and contacts even as a child, she came to identify with the poor, even though her own family was of modest means.  Working for the poor became her life goal from early on:

“I felt even at 15, that God meant man to be happy, that he meant to provide him with what he needed to maintain life in order to be happy, and that we did not need to have quite so much destitution and misery as I saw all around and read of in the daily press.” (p. 38)

She became a journalist herself and was dedicated to the trade union movement of the 1920’s, even being imprisoned on several occasions.  Her first experience of prison strongly confirmed her passion for the poor:

“Never would I recover from this wound, this ugly knowledge I have gained of what men were capable in their treatment of each other. It was one thing to be writing about these things, to have the theoretical knowledge of sweatshops and injustice and hunger, but it was quite another to experience it in one’s own flesh. ” p. 79

After a long struggle with faith, she converted to Catholicism, the faith, as she saw it, of the poor, bringing about the demise of her relationship with her daughter’s father.  During the social ferment of America in the 1930’s she co-founded The Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin, who profoundly influenced her work for the poor.  This was not only a newspaper for the people, but was also a movement centered around houses of hospitality, where she lived in community with the poor.  This living with was very important, as she says in her autobiography:

“Going around and seeing such sights is not enough. To help the organizers, to give what you have for relief, to pledge yourself to voluntary poverty for life so that you can share with your brothers is not enough. One must live with them share with them their suffering too. Give up one’s privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well as physical. ” p.214

The first house of hospitality was in the slums of New York, and was to provide shelter, food, and other necessities for those in need.  The key was the living together.  This was not a place where one received services, but rather lived in community with others.  Day and her associates lived there too.  In time this work expanded to communal farms around New York, including near Easton, PA, not far from where I live.  The houses of hospitality idea spread around the country; there were over 30 affiliated communities by the 1940’s.  And there are over 100 around the world today.

Dorothy Day is a controversial figure due to her counter-cultural and even bohemian early life.  Abbie Hoffman called her the first hippie, which she did not disavow.  She was also a pacifist during the run up to World War 2.  And she had many contacts and sympathies with Communism as an ideology at least.  But her dedication to the poor, which flowed from her Christian faith, has earned her much applause.  There is currently an effort to canonize her in the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict put her mixed legacy well in his last Ash Wednesday address:

In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: “I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!”. The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless, as she points out: “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer … “. God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.

I have always had a great respect for the Roman Catholic Church for the great work it does for the poor, and I was aware of the name of Dorothy Day as one involved in that work. It was good to learn more about her. There is so much more to learn and there is a lot available. She wrote some other books that shed more light on her work and all of her articles written for The Catholic Worker from 1933-1939 are available online at the excellent Dorothy Day Collection (http://dorothyday.catholicworker.org/). I look forward to delving in more deeply.

So what do I learn about ministry from Dorothy Day, this Catholic laywoman?  That’s the next post…