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An Evening with Dorothy Day

I have met a truly liberated woman. Not Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, or Shirley Chisolm, but Dorothy Day, a woman of seventy plus, whose freedom is not put on delicately like perfume as one leaves the house, but rather authentically permeates every facet of her life. Despite her international reputation as a pacifist and co-founder of The Catholic Worker, meeting Dorothy Day proved to be as simple a matter as the woman herself.

On a cold night one winter I found myself turning the car off Manhattan’s East Side Drive and driving west across Houston Street. The area, if not friendly by day, at least is less sinister than than at night. Congratulating myself for every pothole successfully avoided, I pulled up to a traffic light and watched as a man old enough to be my father approached the car. He vainly tried to clean the windshield, making tired swipes while the cold wind off the East River tore across the street. I began to feel nervous. Honking horns signaled the changing light and I moved forward past darkened streets with silent rows of double-parked cars. Caught up in the mood of the place, and momentarily wondering whether my out-of-state plates would attract attention, I glanced in the rear-view mirror, half-expecting to find a patrol car right behind me. Unnoticed, I drove past a semblance of a park where men huddled around small, orange-crate fires to fend off the bitter winter. Then, swinging the car into a space of First Street, I tried to become accustomed to the surroundings. There, across the street, under a simple painted sign was the home of The Catholic Worker, St. Joseph’s House.

I walked toward the building. A few men in the doorway smiled and motioned me into a plain room. The people there nodded greetings and somehow incorporated me, a stranger, into the group. I looked around. From under big faded posters on the opposite wall, rows of long tables reached out into the room. At the far end was an open kitchen area, and in its center, a wooden table where the meals were prepared. Someone had written the words “Joy, Joy, Joy” along the table’s edge. Against the back wall were refrigerator, stove and pots and pans hanging from nails. This room, which served as soup kitchen during the day, was lecture hall on Friday evenings.

Soon the chairs and benches along the right wall were filled. Then, without any noticeable stir, a tall woman, her soft white hair arranged in a bun, quietly walked to the end of the room. A brief introduction was given by a girl wearing tan levis and a yellow sweater, one of the young people associated with The Worker. Then, the older woman began. It was not hard to see why Dorothy Day frequently draws crowds. There is a clear- sightedness and calm about her which are compelling.

While she launched into her subject, it seemed hard to believe that here was one of the grand dames of radicalism. Her confidence and serenity were in marked contrast to the usual radical rhetoric and rousing speeches I had grown accustomed to expect at such gatherings. As I listened, I found myself mulling over certain stages in her life. This was the Dorothy Day who as a collegian rejected all religious affiliation, graduated from the University of Illinois with the credentials and instincts of a journalist, embraced Socialism and Marxism, entered into a common-law marriage with an anarchist, and then, after the birth of their daughter, joined the Catholic Church, drawn to it, as she says, by the great mass of the poor, the workers, who belonged.

This is an incredible story, whose ending is not yet written, about a strong woman with great hope whose name is legend to the Peace Movement and who, with Peter Maurin, co- founded a newspaper and a house of hospitality in Manhattan that has been the inspiration for more than thirty similar efforts all over the world. Dorothy thinks of St. Joseph’s House as “an organism, not as an organization,” and as such it has sheltered the Bowery homeless, innumerable collegians, the Berrigans, William Stringfellow, young conscientious objectors and occasional “nuts.”

A deep concern with social justice has been a characteristic of Dorothy Day from her college days. Over the years this concern has grown and her life itself has become an authentic Christian witness to the gospel. It is simple and without fanfare. In The Long Loneliness, her autobiography, she pungently remarks, “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only by their actions.” When such a norm is applied to her own life, we feel a bit awed by the tremendous freedom of spirit which has enabled her to harmonize word and deed.

The Friday night “lectures” on East First Street are part of a long-standing tradition. This evening Dorothy recounted highlights from her recent trip to Africa and India and shared with us some of her favorite ideas about the concept of work and the nature of leadership. She mused over the loss of Martin Luther King and reminded the listeners of the significance of Caesar Chavez and Julius Nyerere: men who are working for peaceful revolution.

In Africa Dorothy Day wanted to study the aims and methods of nonviolent social change in Tanzania. She was also attracted by the similarity between President Nyerere’s efforts with a “back-to-the-land” movement and Peter Maurin’s own synthesis of cult, culture and cultivation. Were he living, Maurin would have strongly supported Nyerere’s belief that education must not take people away from their villages and that it must speak not only of mental activity, but of manual labor as well.

As she pointed out the similarities between Tanzania’s Arusha Declaration and the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Dorothy praised Nyerere’s thesis that real development of a country is brought about by people, not by capital. And she decried the way in which many governments today expect money to bring about needed reforms. When she was queried about the penal system in Tanzania, however, Dorothy replied with characteristic frankness, “I don’t know a thing about it.” Then, like a good teacher, she passed around a copy of Freedom and Socialism, collected speeches by Nyerere, so all could see the photographs on the jacket. She was eager to familiarize her audience with the personality and philosophy of the Tanzanian president, who has encouraged his country’s political and economic development along Socialist lines.

As the evening progressed, noises from the street outside increased. Sirens wailed, dogs barked, and from time to time a cacophony of violent voices filtered into the room. Once the door behind us opened and a man shuffled in. For a few minutes his labored breathing and deep groans punctuated Dorothy’s remarks. Then the other men shushed him into silence, or, perhaps it was the peace of that room which surrounded him and brought quiet. I thought of Dorothy’s conviction that being aware of the needs of the poor is not enough. “To help the organizers, 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.” A special call, perhaps, but one to which Dorothy Day has been faithful.

Her report continued. I was fascinated. I had expected the rhetoric of high deeds and of sacrifice; instead, I was in the presence of what seemed for all the world like a simple peasant woman.

Rather than taking offense when someone rose to leave after an hour or so, Dorothy showed great delicacy by saying, “I must watch my time. jonas was cheated out of his sassafras tea last week,” thus referring to the length of the previous Friday’s talk which had been so engrossing that at the end of the evening everyone left without taking time to sit down and chat over cups of sassafras tea prepared by Jonas.

The evening’s talk focused next on India. Dorothy had been in Calcutta during the riots of the early ’70’s. The violence of those days and the absolute misery of the city’s poor had overwhelmed her. But she spoke with appreciation of the work of Mother Theresa and her efforts, despite almost impossible odds, to alleviate the lot of the lepers and the poor of Calcutta.

During that visit to India, Dorothy was cordially received by members of the Gandhi Trust, who found in her a spirit and a simplicity akin to that of Gandhi himself. She also received an invitation to return to India as their guest for as long a visit as she wished. Then, turning to the theme of leadership, she said with a smile, “You know, the Women’s Liberation here hasn’t set its sights high enough. In India there is a very different focus.”

In this vein the evening drew to an end as Dorothy’s quick mind offered us reminiscences, thought-provoking insights and her own humorous understatements. Throughout the talk her genuine freedom of spirit was quite tangible and I recalled something Nyerere wrote in October 1959, “We would like to light a candle, and put it on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which will shine beyond our borders, giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was humiliation.” To me, Dorothy Day is such a candle, a truly liberated woman whose light has gone far to dispel the darkness which surrounds us.

Donez Xiques, C.N.D., frequently publishes articles and book reviews. She teaches at Brooklyn College, and is the author of Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer.