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Travel Guides: Dorothy Day

Johann Christoph Arnold

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  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thanks for reading. Had you previously known of Dorothy Day's life and work? In what ways does her legacy challenge you to put your faith into daily deeds?

In this excerpt from his book Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapped in Life’s Hells, Arnold reflects on a person who has “stretched me to understand life’s battles in a fuller, more fundamental way.”

How should we live when we realize that God is present in everyone we meet? “The mystery of the poor is this,” said Dorothy Day, “that they are Jesus, and whatever you do for them you do to him.” Founder of the Catholic Worker (a loosely organized movement of urban hospitality houses for the unemployed and homeless), Dorothy’s vision penetrated the off-putting external appearances of the many “worst thieves” she served, and saw divinity: “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Her life was accordingly a radical one, and her friendship influenced me deeply from the first day I met her in the mid-1950s, until her death in 1980. When she passed away in the cramped Lower East Side room she called home, hundreds of thousands mourned her. Archbishops compared her to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the New York Times spoke of the “end of an era,” wealthy admirers organized a memorial mass, and unemployed men wept. Who was this old woman?

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Dorothy’s early years were marked by dramatic twists and turns – journalism school in Illinois, travel in Europe, and writing jobs in Hollywood and New York. It was a whirlwind youth, and left her reeling from a broken marriage, an abortion, and a series of unhappy relationships.

In 1926 Dorothy had a baby, Tamar – an event that changed her, or at least cemented an earlier yearning for a more wholesome, fruitful life. Long attracted to Catholicism (despite her bohemian excesses), she turned to the Gospels, and found in them the beginnings of a faith. Soon she experienced a deep-going conversion.

Friends and acquaintances laughed at her “religion,” but Dorothy was not to be deterred. While admitting that the Christianity she knew was far from perfect, she argued that the just society they were all looking for must be built on God. Not that she was content with conventional church life. Having grown up on Dickens and Sinclair, she identified with the working class and sought, in her own words, a faith that would “not just minister to slaves, but . . . do away with slavery.” And so she threw herself into what she called the “works of mercy,” feeding and housing the homeless, writing and speaking out against the evil of war, demonstrating on behalf of migrant workers, and marching against the death penalty.

Articulate and outspoken, she upset people of every ideological camp. The Vatican felt she was too cozy with Communism; the secular press was embarrassed by her faith. Conservatives chafed every time she went to jail for civil disobedience; left-leaning friends applauded her subversiveness but found her ideas on morality far too straight-laced and “traditional.” Dorothy’s concern was never politics as such, however. It was the love of God, which she claimed is meaningless unless it finds expression in love to one’s neighbor.

It is not love in the abstract that counts. Men have loved a cause as they have loved a woman. They have loved the brotherhood, the workers, the poor, the oppressed – but they have not loved man; they have not loved the least of these. They have not loved “personally.” It is hard to love. It is the hardest thing in the world, naturally speaking. Have you ever read Tolstoy’s Resurrection? He tells of political prisoners in a long prison train, enduring chains and persecution for the love of their brothers, ignoring those same brothers on the long trek to Siberia. It is never the brothers right next to us, but the brothers in the abstract that are easy to love.

Dorothy’s words remind us that while it is tempting to try to change the world in sweeping ways, our actions all too often fall short of our ideals. And thus she reminded her coworkers that it is the person next to us whose needs we can best attend to, and whose hurts we ought to heal first. She not only spoke of this invisible or “little” way, but devoted herself to it tirelessly, year after year.

During the Great Depression, Dorothy spent her days serving bread and coffee to homeless men. When New York’s next recession came, in the early 1970s, she was still doing the same thing. A cynic might have trouble with this; Dorothy did not. To her, even the most modest attempt to solve poverty was valid, because it was better than doing nothing:

What we would like to do is change the world – make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended for them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute . . . we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.


From Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapped in Life’s Hells.

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Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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