In Manhattan’s East Village, just off the Bowery, crushed-together tenements took the light from the street. Surrounding asphalt and concrete covered and choked out most signs of nature. Only the occasional weed grabbed a narrow purchase on the scant bits of earth amongst the rubbish tins. Even there the Word of God was living and active.
A friend I accompanied had a message to deliver one early spring afternoon in the East Village. We climbed up a few flights of stairs of Maryhouse, a brick building on East 3rd. After an inquiry we were directed to a room. There the diffused rays of the afternoon sun had managed to make it down the narrow internal shaft and through the window. Resting on a metal-framed bed, eyes closed in the half-light, features relaxed, the woman we were meant to see looked much younger than her then 73 years. As she rose to greet us the years slowly returned.
In spite of the interrupted nap, Dorothy Day greeted us warmly and listened to my friend’s message. I would meet Dorothy several more times in the early 1970s when I found time for a break from my studies at McGill University in Montreal. Whether over a bowl of soup at St. Joseph House on East First Street before I returned to finishing up the evening soup kitchen dishes, or at the Catholic Worker farm a couple of hours north of the city at Tivoli, New York, her calm, determined presence would always permeate the space we shared. Through her I had the sharp, piercing and unsettling realization that the path she had chosen of non-violent witness, voluntary poverty and prayer was open to all of us if only we chose to walk it.
During the harsh years of the Great Depression Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement (http://www.catholicworker.org/) with Peter Maurin, a social activist from France. The Catholic Worker newspaper, the first two “houses of hospitality,” and Mary Farm soon followed. The Second World War and the strident period of Cold War military buildups tested their commitment to non-violence. Through the following difficult years of civil rights and labour struggles the Catholic Worker grew under Dorothy’s guidance. It always offered hospitality to the homeless, hungry, exiled and forsaken as a practical witness to their commitment.
“A firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person” marked her pursuit of the wisdom described in the first reading. This wisdom laid bare the false promise of “sceptres and thrones” and other worldly enticements.
The Bowery and East Village have changed since Dorothy died in 1980. Now luxury condominiums and gentrification have driven out many of the poor and those maimed by drugs and alcohol that had been the neighbourhood’s habitués. However, the Catholic Worker Movement continues to serve the marginalized. It still prophetically calls to account a system that creates inequality and injustice. This is true in New York City as well as in the more than 236 Catholic Worker communities worldwide.
The Catholic Worker women and men serving their sisters and brothers in need remain committed to the ideals of Dorothy Day. Her words still resonate. “The biggest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us.”
Named “Servant of God” in 2000, the first step toward canonization (the same year as Catherine Doherty of Madonna House in Combermere, Ont., received the same designation), Dorothy Day continues to challenge and inspire. Wherever we are, we know that we have choices to make.
You don’t have to be called a saint to live a life of service and simplicity. We are all told, like the man in the reading from the Gospel of Mark, “Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We see the man who grieves at the challenge Jesus lays before him. Do we turn from it as well? How has our wealth hardened our hearts and made it impossible to see the needs around us? What “eye of the needle” must we pass through?
In these last weeks before the federal election, issues have been raised that demand a clear response from us. Will Canada provide a safe, welcoming haven for refugees fleeing persecution and violence? Can we effectively deal with the poverty and despair we see on our First Nations reserves, in our inner cities and amongst our elderly and single-parent families?
The facts lie starkly before us: 200,000 Canadians wander our streets homeless; 900,000 people rely on our community food banks each month, a third of them are children; one in seven of our fellow citizens struggle to meet their basic needs; globally one in nine people are chronically malnourished; worldwide 22,000 children, according to UNICEF, die each day from poverty-related causes.
Organizations such as Vote To End Poverty (www.votetoendpoverty.ca) and
Dignity For All (www.dignityforall.ca) point us toward solutions. Maybe our journey starts by asking the questions Peter Maurin did: “. . . why the things are what they are, how the things would be if they were as they should be, and how a path can be made from the things as they are to the things as they should be.” Across the ages Jesus shows us the way.
For many years, writer, educator and outdoor enthusiast Michael Dougherty has been an active community leader. He has been involved with numerous organizations, including the Social Justice Committee at the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse; the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition; the Yukon Human Rights Board; and the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society. In 2014 he received the Governor General’s Caring Canadian award. An adjunct professor at Yukon College, Dougherty lives in Whitehorse.