Prior to this year, the last time I dressed up for Halloween I was Dorothy Day. My Facebook memory post for that day reminds me that I had at least 15 conversations with people about DD that day, I passed out at least 50 copies of my newspaper, and only had one person ask me if I was a hobo. See the picture below, and you can tell how their question was a valid one.
I began to know of Dorothy Day several years ago, when my family and I started spending time with the Catholic Worker/Radical Christian community in Bloomington, Indiana. I have gradually learned more about her over the years, and everything I have learned fascinates me, inspires me, and helps me think about what it means to live out my faith in the context of a broader political and social system that I don’t always love or agree with.
As I have been thinking about what might happen in the wake of the US presidential election on this coming Tuesday, I have been thinking more about Dorothy Day, and how I am called to live in the world, no matter who wins and loses on Tuesday.
In case you don’t know much about her, I think it important to give a little background. This information comes from my brain over the years, and a variety of sources, including Wikipedia. Don’t tell my students 🙂
Dorothy Day was born in 1897. As a young girl of 8, she survived the San Francisco earthquake, and talked in later years about the memories of seeing people help each other in the rubble. Her father was a journalist, and during a period of his job loss, she and her family lived in a tenement in Chicago. It was this experience that opened her eyes to what it was like to live in poverty.
As her father’s job situation changed for the better, they moved elsewhere in Chicago, but Dorothy would go out for walks throughout the city. She said that this time gave her direction toward her vocation, and that she felt the calling of being linked to the lives of people who were struggling. This direction toward her calling was also shaped by the books she read, including The Jungle, which is set in Chicago in the meat packing industry, which was another backdrop for her long walks throughout the city.
She won a scholarship to college at the University of Illinois, but left after a couple of years to move to New York and work as a journalist. She marched and demonstrated in front of the White House for women’s right to vote in 1917, and she was arrested for this, serving 15 days before being released. While this was her first experience with incarceration, it would certainly not be her last as she was arrested many times over the years for her social justice work, and she served her last sentence in 1973 at the age of 75 for her protests with farm workers in California.
Sometimes I have asked students just to look at her in that moment of solidarity with farmworkers (below) and tell me what they see. I always love their responses, and my question to them is usually this: How do we get to that place of peace and resolution amidst chaos and injustice and violence in our world today?
I think the answer to this question of how we get there is rooted in some of Dorothy Day’s work in her “Catholic Worker” years. Particularly, the ideas of personalism, non-violence, the works of mercy, and “the little way” are key.
Personalism is “taking personal responsibility for changing conditions, rather than looking to the state or other institutions to provide impersonal ‘charity’ (https://www.catholicworker.org/cw-aims-and-means.html)
Nonviolence includes “refusal to pay taxes for war, to register for conscription, to comply with any unjust legislation” and includes “participation in nonviolent strikes and boycotts, protests or vigils” (https://www.catholicworker.org/cw-aims-and-means.html)
Works of mercy are grounded in the Gospel. Day’s vision for Catholic Worker houses of hospitality was that these would be places to practice acts of love and radical hospitality. She believed that these acts were necessary “so that the poor can receive what is, in justice, theirs: the second coat in our closet, the spare room in our home, a place at our table. Anything beyond what we immediately need belongs to those who go without” (https://www.catholicworker.org/cw-aims-and-means.html)
Finally, “the little way” is an idea that Dorothy Day learned from the writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux. The concept of “the little way” is similar to personalism, but with the reminder that change starts with me, and that no action is too small if it is an action that is rooted in justice. As she wrote later, “a pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions”.
These are ways I can live more intentionally in the world. Even though the directions aren’t always easy or convenient or clear, it is work that I can do while simultaneously working for change at larger system levels.
So…whatever has happened in the election world, when I wake up on Wednesday I am planning on living like Dorothy and encouraging my family, my faith community, and my students to do the same.