DOROTHY DAY - Advocate of the voiceless, Healer of the untouchables

Quotes of Dorothy Day:

If I have accomplished anything in my life, it is because I wasn't embarrassed to talk about God.
Love is the measure by which we will be judged. (She often quoted St. John of the Cross)

People say, "What is the sense of our small effort?" They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.

We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all. The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. Don't call me a saint - I don't want to be dismissed that easily.

Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed. What I want to bring out is how a pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is like that.

If we are the reason for others to feel unhappy and misunderstood and wrongly accused, then we are caught in sin ourselves.

I don't think of the Passion as the Crucifixion. I think of His whole life as "the Passion." When I think of Jesus I think of someone who was constantly passionate; I think of all His experiences as part of His Passion: the stories He told, the miracles He performed, the sermons He delivered, the suffering He endured, the death He experienced. His whole life was a Passion - the energy, the love, the attention He gave to so many people, to friends and enemy alike.

A community is what St. Paul told us to be - where our differences are granted respect by one another, but those differences not allowed to turn us into loners. You must know when to find your own, quiet moment of solitude, But you must know when to open the door to go be with others, and you must know how to open the door, There's no point in opening the door with bitterness and resentment in your heart.

Quotes on Dorothy Day:
Dorothy Day taught me that justice begins on our knees. I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more of a praying person than Dorothy Day. Jim Forest, co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship

Few people have had such an impact on my life, even though we never met. . . . Surely, if any woman ever loved God and her neighbour, it was Dorothy Day. The late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York

What she tried to practice was "Christ's technique," as she put it, which was not to seek out meetings with emperors and important officials but with "obscure people; a few fishermen and farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women."

She has been called New York City's Mother Teresa, Servant of the Poor, Battler for Justice and Champion of non-violent conflict resolution. Dorothy Day, born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York was a suffragette, a social and political writer, and initially rejected Christianity. Before her conversion to the Catholic faith, a love affair with a fellow journalist ended with an abortion. This was followed by a brief and unhappy marriage to a literary promoter. She then entered into a common-law marriage with biologist and anarchist Foster Batterham. Finding herself pregnant with his child she was determined this time to have her baby. It was the birth of her child, Tamar Teresa in 1927 that triggered Dorothy's religious transformation. Her baptism and that of Tamar led to a permanent break with Batterham who was a staunch atheist. Thereafter began her lifetime commitment to integrate her Catholic faith and her radical social values.

Day became a peace and justice activist within the Catholic Church, and is regarded by many as the mother of 20th century spiritual movements, particularly the Catholic Worker Movement which she co-founded with former Christian Brother Peter Maurin in 1932. With her kitchen as the editorial office, they published a newspaper to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote the peaceful transformation of society. When the maiden issue of The Catholic Worker paper was distributed on May 1, 1933, the US was suffering its fourth year of the Great Depression, many banks had collapsed, 13 million workers were unemployed and shantytowns for the homeless had sprung across the country. Within 6 months, the initial circulation of 2,500 copies of the newspaper rose to 100,000 copies.

The following year in 1934, Day and Maurin put into practice the theories of economic justice and Christian teaching written in their paper. In the midst of the slums of New York , they founded the St. Joseph House of Hospitality, a refuge for victims of the Depression, and possibly the first Catholic soup kitchen in .

By 1940 the Catholic Worker paper reached its peak circulation of 185,000 and the Hospitality House had expanded to a network of thirty communities and work farms around the . After Maurin's death in 1949, Day continued at the helm of the Catholic Worker Movement, successfully steering it through the social concerns of the 1950s to the 1970s. Throughout those decades, Day unabashedly and consistently spoke out, condemning fascism, nuclear weapons, and wars. She ended up being arrested countless times. Her balance of radical social beliefs and conservative doctrinal views enabled her to raise awareness, within and outside the Catholic Church, of the struggles for social justice and human rights. (If she were alive in today, she would probably protest in front of Parliament House against having a casino resort here.)Today there are 185 Catholic Worker hospitality houses in the and ten countries around the world. The network of hospitality houses remain true to Day's commitment to non-violence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Worker communities continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.

Dorothy Day died November 29, 1980, Staten Island, New York . Living a life of voluntary poverty, she left no money for her funeral. It was paid for by the archdiocese of New York . In 2000, she was proclaimed Servant of God and the cause of her beatification is ongoing.

I knew very little of Dorothy Day until she was introduced to me during my theological studies at the Loyola School of Theology, Manila, in 1999. Since then I have been a great admirer of Day, but my knowledge of her was only in the abstract. The opportunity to have a more concrete experience of her spiritual legacy came last month when I visited a Catholic Worker Community in Boston.
Haley House, the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in Boston is located along Dartmouth Street in South End Boston. From the convent of the Daughters of St. Paul in Jamaica Plain, I was dropped off at the Forest Hills subway station and took a 20 minute train ride to Back Bay . From Back Bay it was a 10 minute hike to Haley House. Amidst the crisp biting winter air, I shuffled against the slush of the previous night's snow melting on the sidewalk and with the help of a map, eventually reached Haley House. When I opened the door, the scent of coffee greeted me and the warm air of the house immediately caused condensation on my glasses. I was welcomed with a bear hug, as warm as the house, from Sr. Linda Ballard, osc, the volunteer coordinator and the person I had been in contact with.
The morning meal program at Haley House had already started and volunteers were busy serving and chatting to a number of guests, a couple of whom I noticed were sleeping at the table. I was briefly introduced to the volunteers and after taking a few photos (not directly at the guests I was warned), I offered my services. "You can help with the laundry!" Sr. Linda suggested. So I found myself folding and putting away aprons and rags right in the middle of the kitchen. As some guests came forward to the serving counter for a second helping of breakfast (there was oatmeal, cornflakes, toast, coffee and tea), we exchanged greetings and smiles.
Later in the morning, after all the guests had gone and the cleaning and mopping was done, I joined in the group sharing of the volunteers, some of whom were students at Boston College . They shared on their experiences that morning and on the importance of a personal encounter with each guest. We then moved to the main topic to be discussed that day: the causes of homelessness. It was agreed that the main cause was the lack of a support network especially from family or friends. Instability on different levels (jobs, relationships, health) and the lack of motivation were other contributing factors. It was also pointed out that although some may have family, they did not experience love in their family and thus turned to the streets. Another possible situation was like the case of Eddy, 41 (who I briefly met) whose family lives in Brooklyn, New York but because his parole does not allow him to leave Boston (which is in the state of Massachusetts ), he is unable to return to his family. Eddy was in prison for 20 years and has had a conversion experience. Today he is determined to lead a productive life. After several visits to Haley House, he himself decided to be a volunteer, helping to serve the guests and do the washing up of dishes. The sharing concluded with the question, 'How does society treat the homeless?' The final answer was sadly, 'as a stigma.'
It was interesting for me to discover that the 7 members forming the live-in community at Haley House comprise of non-Catholics. Yet the community is catholic, in the universal, inclusive sense of the word. While most come from a Christian background, there is also a Buddhist in the group. The head of the community is Judy Laris Nichols, a 'post-denominational' priest, ordained in the Episcopalian church. When I asked her where she celebrates mass, her answer was "anywhere - but most especially in the margins." Judy explained to me that the meals program at Haley House is supported from food donation as well as from a food bank (an organisation that distributes USDA - United States Department of Agriculture - surplus, that is donated food that does not get eaten in restaurants) and bulk purchasing. A Clothing Room (all donated clothes) where people can come and get clothes (including the community members) is also available at Haley House. As many of the guests are jobless, they are able to obtain nice business coats for interviews from the Clothing Room.
Besides the jobless and homeless, Haley House also serves the working poor. All guests are treated with dignity and volunteers are reminded that the House is not a place to give handouts to the poor but a home to welcome guests and treat them with respect. As an important part of Day's philosophy, they have a commitment to non-violence and there is never an armed police officer in any Catholic Worker House of Hospitality. Members have to intervene with unruly guests before they exacerbate with violence. If they cannot behave they are barred from the house. There have been occasions though when members and volunteers have been hurt, including Joy Williams, a live-in community member, who suffered a blow from a drunk guest.
Joy Williams, 24, joined Haley House two years ago immediately after graduation from college with the desire to "have a higher understanding of myself in relationship to the world." However she admits that she does not see herself sustaining in this service for a long period because of the energy involved, "I always have to maintain a calmness, even though I sometimes get scared and frightened. The people are always so much bigger. But we try to create a community space filled with mutual respect." As for Dorothy Day, whose room she occupies now (a tiny room where Day used to stay on her visits to Haley House) Joy is in awe of her, "I admire Dorothy's courage and the risk that she took, and I am happy to know there are so many here who are of like mind."
Not only like-minded but also with a heart as big as Dorothy Day is Kathe McKenna, who with her husband, John, founded Haley House in 1966. Their shared compassion for the homeless drew them together and they started taking men lying on the streets back to their apartment for a place to stay the night and something to eat. Kathe and her family now live across the street and she is still very much involved in the activities of Haley House. As with other Catholic Worker houses, Kathe shares that food at Haley House is just the vehicle, "What people are almost always hungry for is relationship, and so that is always emphasized. The soup kitchen is the avenue to break down barriers between people who received a lot in life and have chosen to connect in a very intimate way with people who do not have those privileges, and who are each learning from the other in ways which are often mysterious."
Having personally known and met Day on many occasions, Kathe gave me further insights on the woman she too greatly admires, "Dorothy's heart was with the poor, she had a great passion for the poor. But her real vocation was as a writer. She felt the need of the social concerns of the day and as she threw her lot with the poor, she saw things from their perspective. She integrated her life and lived with the poor and was privy to their needs. Dorothy's two-fold mandate was: 'comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.' She had a wry, dry sense of humour, was quite reserved but always contemplative and lived a rigorous spiritual life."
The spirit of Dorothy Day lives on in her followers. My grace-filled encounter with the members of Haley House at their ministry was a great humbling experience. I was much edified by their generosity, commitment, compassion and zeal. Through them I encountered Dorothy Day. In her time, as well as today, forlorn guests – be they homeless, jobless, without friends or family – are able to experience an Easter moment when they are welcomed with the warmth of hot food and a genuine smile at Haley House. Their darkness turns into light - even if the light lasts as long as they are in the soup kitchen or, as in the case of Eddy, a light that illuminates and gives them new life.
There may not be a Catholic Worker Hospitality House in Singapore, but I realise that we are each called to provide the hospitality of our hearts to others, most especially those who hunger for love, understanding and respect, the bases of any relationship. When we are able to open the doors of our hearts with a sincere desire to offer the love of Christ, we too offer an Easter moment to others. Ultimately we too experience that Easter moment when we are able to hear Jesus saying to us, "Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me….a stranger and you welcomed me…." Let us celebrate our Risen Christ this Easter and always through works of charity and mercy from the gracious hospitality of our hearts.[Postscript: Since 1966, Haley House has expanded its mission to include a Bakery (with a job training program), a Magazine (on entertainment and social awareness), Low Income Housing, and a Farm, all in support for the jobless, homeless and the poor. More information on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement is available at]
(published in the CatholicNews March 2005)

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