Faith, service, dissent Speculation: Last month, Cardinal John O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, suggested the idea of sainthood for Dorothy Day. The co-founder of Catholic Worker movement probably would have dismissed it.


ULUTH, Minn. -- At 1712 Jefferson St. in an east end neighborhood of low- and no-income families, Dorothy Day House been opening its doors for 10 years to people needing housing, food and, on some days, nonjudgmental words of hope. Across the narrow street, which overlooks Lake Superior, is Hannah House, and a block away is Olive Branch House.

These are Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, staffed by a dozen or so pacifists who live in voluntary poverty and embrace the ideals of nonviolence, resistance to abusive state power and prayerfulness. All of it is traceable to Dorothy Day who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement on the Lower East Side of New York on May Day 1933. Nov. 8 marked the centenary of Day's birth.

In the three Duluth Houses, Day's 100th birthday was marked by the customary Catholic Worker tasks - walking extra miles, thickening the noontime soup, coming on strong for plowshares, not making peace with anything but justice and, as Day kept saying in her "On Pilgrimage" column in the eight-page monthly Catholic Worker newspaper, striving to "change the world, making it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended." God, she believed, "meant things to be much easier than we have made them."

On Nov. 9, in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Cardinal John O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, floated the idea that Dorothy Day be canonized a saint. Had he been more educated in Day's thinking, the cardinal would have restrained himself. Toward the end of her life, Day often dismissed those who called her a saint. She would say that to put her on a pedestal of holiness suggests that only a few rare people - saints - can do this peace and justice work. Anyone can do it, she insisted. To leave it to the saints is an excuse for inaction.

O'Connor's proposal is tinged with irony. At her funeral in early December 1980, not one member of the Catholic hierarchy attended the requiem Mass. A Protestant bishop came - Paul Moore - but no Catholic. While alive, Day was never invited to speak to the annual meeting of the Catholic bishops. Small wonder. She spent much of her intellectual energy writing against churchmen who endorsed U.S. war-making. That O'Connor, whose duties have included serving as the church's U.S. military vicar, wants to put a halo over Dorothy Day would have horrified or amused her - for two or three seconds, then back to the works of mercy and rescue that were her life.

When I went to Dorothy Day's funeral, much of the talk was whether the Catholic Worker movement would survive. It was an organism, after all, not an organization: no bylaws, no dues, no trustees, no annual convention, no rules by which Benedictines keep themselves in line, and least of all, no central kitty flush with foundation or government lucre. The prevailing view at the funeral was the faith-based one Dorothy Day offered in her final years about the Catholic Worker movement: "If God wants it to survive, it will."

The divine intentions appear to be clear. By last count, 153 houses of hospitality in 32 states and the District of Columbia are operating. In 1988, the number was 125 in 25 states.

Ministries vary: transitional living, food and clothing distribution, daily soup kitchens, mental health clinics, farming, lecture programs, liturgies, drop-in job counseling. "In general," Dorothy Day said, "every house has a resemblance to a large and disorderly but loving family."

Taken together, the 153 Catholic Worker houses represent the soul of the American Left - what's left of it. No other group - not the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - has been as faithful to nonviolence, service and resistance.

That fidelity has been on display since the summer of 1969 at Viva House, 26 S. Mount St. in Southwest Baltimore. Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh, two of the elders of the Catholic Worker tribe, have served tens of thousands of meals to Baltimore's down-and-outs since ladling the first bowl of soup nearly 30 years ago.

Bickham and Walsh, who are married, live on the second floor of Viva House. Their daughter, Kate Walsh, is a teacher at Frederick Avenue Elementary School and is well known for teaching nonviolent conflict resolution in her classes. After being raised in a Catholic Worker family, of course that would be one of her talents.

Bickham, who works part-time as a nurse, recalls Dorothy Day advising young Catholic Workers about the difficulties of trying to raise children amid the poverty of the streets.

"'Keep some space for yourself,' Dorothy always told us, 'otherwise you'll burn out.' "

Is there a difference between today's poor and the poor of 20 and 30 years ago? "We see differences all the time," Bickham says. "Whole families come now. A third of our guests are children. Many of the adults are the working poor, just one paycheck away from homelessness. If Dorothy saw all the families and kids, she'd cry."

Over the years - I first met Dorothy Day in 1962 and sought her counsel a number of times at St. Joseph's House in New York - I've found spiritual nourishment at more than a dozen Catholic Worker houses. They are places to see sermons, not hear them. They are centers for experiential learning, where the radical - sharing wealth, opposing war, comforting the wounded - looks normal. The Catholic Worker communities I know best are in Washington: Llewellyn Scott House, 1305 T St. N.W.; Mary Harris House, 939 T St. N.W.; and Dorothy Day House, 503 Rock Creek Church Road N.W.

On the notion that altruism and idealism are contagious, I regularly take my students to the Worker houses or have the Workers come to my classes. It's a rare student who doesn't come away thinking, I need to be a better person, I can ease someone's pain, it's time I woke up.

In the stable way that Catholic church interiors once were - confessionals in the back, prayer candles under the statue of Mary and Fulton Sheen tracts in the pamphlet racks - a comforting sameness can be found in Worker houses: pantries stocked with gleaned food, living rooms with sofas sagged from too many bodies flopping on them when the upstairs beds were filled, bookshelves packed with the literature of faith and resistance, Bibles opened to the Sermon on the Mount - "the manifesto of the Catholic Worker," said Dorothy Day - and walls postered with the quotes of radicals, should anyone need bolstering.

In Duluth's Dorothy Day House, a wall near the front door instructs those coming and going with the words of Brazil's Archbishop Helder Camara: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

My host in Duluth was Steve O'Neil, 47, a Chicago-born pacifist who met his wife in the mid-1980s when both were volunteers at the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington, the nation's largest homeless shelter. A few days before we met, O'Neil learned that he wouldn't be going to jail. He was one of 79 anti-war protesters charged with trespassing during a demonstration last April at Alliant Techsystems, a land-mine manufacturer in Hopkins, Minn. "We were found innocent, miraculously," O'Neil said, smiling. "Because we definitely did it. But the judge instructed the jury to consider international law. It did."

Arrests and jail time are common among Catholic Workers. The leading recidivist was Dorothy Day.

In New York, she was caged so often for anti-war demonstrations that guards at the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village had a special cell called "the Dorothy Day Suite."

Of one stretch in 1967, when she was a major figure in the resistance against the killing in Vietnam, she wrote: "When I think of the long sentences served by so many others in so many miscarriages of justice, when I think of the accumulation of prisons, outmoded and futile, that dot the land of the free, I am not particularly interested in writing about my few days in jail last month. I am just glad I served them, and am ready to serve again if there is another compulsory air-raid drill next summer. It is a gesture perhaps but a necessary one. Silence means consent, and we cannot consent to the militarization of our country without protest."

Althought O'Neil in Duluth and the Workers at Baltimore's Viva House are Catholics, they have no organizational ties to the Church of Rome. And why would the Catholic Worker want one, when official Catholic teaching sanctions violence via the just war theory, or when it supplies priests to the Pentagon to be military chaplains, or when its leading universities, Notre Dame, Georgetown and most Jesuit colleges - host ROTC programs. Catholicism is not a peace church in the principled way the Society of Friends, Mennonites and Brethern are.

Another question that won't go away: why would the Catholic Worker want institutional bonds with a church so comfortable that one building program after another is launched.

On Sept. 11 in Washington, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the $50 million Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. The festivities were interrupted when Sue Frankel-Streit from the local Dorothy Day house took the platform microphone to ask, "What message does our Church send to the poor and to the Catholic people when they spend $50 million to build a museum and think tank in a town where thousands have nowhere to lay their heads?"

That wasn't the first time Catholic Workers didn't genuflect to the hierarchy's edifice complex.

In 1986, Michael Kirwan and other Workers picketed the dedication of the $26 million headquarters of the U.S. Catholic bishops, about two miles from three houses of hospitality.

Kirwan, grandson of a 17-term member of Congress, told the prelates: "We feel humiliated and embarrassed for our Church and our witness for the least of our brothers and sisters."

This low regard for building programs is traceable to Dorothy Day. On the question of seminaries and rectories that were emptying due to a shortage of vocations, she reflected: "Why worry...Maybe the Lord is giving us a little reminder that there has been too much building going on, and that it is time to use some of these facilities for the poor, for families."

Whether as an advocacy journalist and editor, a frequently jailed resister to U.S. militarism, an embracer of voluntary poverty or a religious pilgrim who prayed and attended Mass daily, Day attracted legions of followers who, in varied forms of commitment, joined the Catholic Worker movement.

"It is a strange vocation to love the destitute and dissolute," Day wrote in one of her monthly "On Pilgrimage" columns for the Catholic Worker newspaper. But it is one that keeps attracting the young who come to the Catholic Worker houses - whether to join or start their own - to brew the soup or clean the toilets, which is also the work of peacemakers. They are against military violence for sure, but their pacifism resists the violence of economic wars. "We refuse to fight for a materialist system that cripples so many of its citizens," Day said.

With no centralized headquarters, each Catholic Worker house is on its own. Forms of service vary from house to house, but three constants can be found: voluntary poverty, an open door to the poor and a commitment to nonviolence.

To criticism that her pacifism was softheaded and sentimental up against the world's violence, especially as it raged during the Second World War, Dorothy Day wrote: "Let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in cold unheated houses in the slums. Let them come to live with the criminal, the unbalanced, the drunken, the degraded, the perverted. ... Let their flesh be mortified by cold, by dirt, by vermin. ... Let their noses be mortified by the smells of sewage, decay, and rotten flesh. Yes, and by the smell of blood, sweat and tears spoken of by Mr. Churchill, and so widely and bravely quoted by comfortable people."

It's routinely wondered, as it was during Day's lifetime, why do these dissident Catholic Workers stay within a church that demands unquestioning obedience.

How did Dorothy Day, an intellectual, a convert to Catholicism at 30 who had an abortion and a common-law marriage in her 20s, remain loyal to the institution?

In "The Long Loneliness," her 1952 autobiography and a spiritual classic, she wrote: "I loved the church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the church is the cross on which Christ was crucified. One could not separate Christ from His cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the church."

In 1967, with many U.S. bishops backing the war in Vietnam, Day explained her allegiance to the church another way: "Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother."

In early October, Marquette University, host to the Catholic Worker archives, including 300 boxes of Day's papers, held a three-day conference on the life and times of this authentic Christian radical.

In Las Vegas, Nev., recently, hundreds of Catholic Workers, included a contingent from Viva House, gathered to celebrate the co-founder's 100th birth date with a demonstration at a Nevada nuclear weapons test site. They were on hand 10 years ago for the 90th birthday, with police wagons brimming with the busted and for committing what Jesuit priest John Dear calls "the sacrament of civil disobedience."

Then and now, this was a gathering of the American Left at its best - the genuine Left, risk-taking and reflective, and in its seventh decade of service, dissent and spirituality. Many reformers on the Left are hot to do great things, which is where the Catholic Worker goes off on its own. Its record is one of doing small things in a great way.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. and teaches courses on nonviolence at four Washington-area schools.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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