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What Dorothy Day Has Meant To Me

Dorothy Day

By Dawn McCarty, Ph.D., LMSW

Almost every day I hear and read about the problems caused by undocumented workers. They take our jobs, overcrowd our social services, take away resources from our children and get away with breaking the law with complete abandon! You would think they are some powerful alien group who threaten the very existence of the rest of us.

The reality is the polar opposite. Rich societies such as ours, with aging populations and declining birth rates, need workers. Workers in societies that cannot or do not provide opportunities for their people need to go abroad to find work. This economic reality cannot be avoided, but it does need to be regulated so that it works for the benefit of all and that it meets some minimal standard of fairness.

Our current laws and regulations on immigration fail on both counts. The system is broken, meeting the needs of only the unscrupulous that exploit the cheap labor of those who cannot complain to the authorities.

If your very existence in a society is not authorized, it means that you have no power. To be in a country without authorization is to live a life of vulnerability, a life of fear.  At Casa Juan Diego we are surrounded, sometimes inundated, by these politically and socially powerless human beings. To be a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego means that you share in this vulnerability as much as possible.

Lots of people are curious about what this means, exactly. Aren’t you breaking the law? Could you go to jail? Isn’t it dangerous to live with homeless people? I always refer people with questions to Mark and Louise Zwick’s latest book, Mercy Without Borders: the Catholic Worker and Immigration. Personally, though, I spend more time rereading an earlier book of the Zwick’s, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, primarily because I am fascinated by the life and ideas of Dorothy Day, founder, along with Peter Maurin, of the Catholic Worker movement.

I first heard about Dorothy in an undergraduate class about the spiritual and social justice leaders of the 20th century. I had some familiarity with the other great men and women covered in the course, but I had never heard of Dorothy Day. There was a picture of her on the cover of our textbook, alongside instantly familiar pictures of Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, and the first thought I had was that Dorothy looked very much like my grandmother.

The small chapter on Dorothy in our book fascinated me. I scoured the library and read all I could find about her life and her work. There was no romanticizing of the poor in her writings. Helping others did not necessarily “feel good.” The influence of poverty on human beings was portrayed as it actually is: ugly. Her openness about her sadness, her interpersonal struggles and her mistakes changed my perception of what was possible for me. I did not have to be perfect, or even smarter or better than I was in order to work for justice, to do what I could to make the world a better place. I did not have to be a talented writer or a great speaker like Dorothy. Being average or even unskilled at something was OK. I did not have to wait for some penetrating insight or grand sign in the sky. I just needed to do the best I could: that was all I could do, but that was enough.

It is easy to get lost in our own fear. We live in a world that exploits these fears. Advertisers scare us in order to sell their products to us. We are afraid of not fitting in, of not succeeding, of not looking a certain way, of not being cool, of being wrong or making a mistake, of not being good enough. And, most significantly, we are taught to fear people that are different from ourselves.

I have heard a number of people over the years remark that we Catholic Workers at Casa Juan Diego must be very brave. I always appreciate their concern, but I cannot help thinking that it is misplaced. The work is not particularly dangerous, at least not physically dangerous, and that is what they are referring to. The fear that sometimes attacks me on my bad days is not fear for my physical safety, but fear that I am not doing enough, that my efforts are meaningless in the face of the overwhelming needs of our guests, that I am just not up to the task, that my faith is too weak.

Then I think back to when I first read Dorothy’s autobiography. She shared my fears and my weaknesses. She prayed about it, sometimes at great lengths, then got up and did what needed to be done. When I try to follow her example, I find that things work out.

For each day in service and solidarity to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in our city, I become less afraid. I stop worrying about the results of my actions; my job is to be faithful, not to be successful. I stop worrying about the hate speech that fills our airwaves, as I know love is stronger than hate.

Wednesday evening Mass at Casa Juan Diego is a long-standing tradition. It is usually an unruly affair with unchurched children unable to stay put and their embarrassed and anxious mothers, the sick, the well, the literate and the illiterate, those that know the responses and the many that do not. At the end of Mass we read in unison a prayer printed on a little white card, usually crumpled, thanking God for showing us, through Dorothy Day, how to see Christ in the poor, the infirm and the migrant, and how to work for justice and peace. It is beautiful. I have never once successfully gotten through the prayer without choking up. In that moment, I know that I am as close to the Kingdom of Heaven as I can be on this earth.

The canonization process by which the Church would recognize Dorothy as a saint requires proof that miracles have taken place through her intercession. Practically speaking, this means proof of miraculous cures of physical illness, and I certainly cannot claim that. But in a broader sense of the term, I can claim without doubt that Dorothy Day is the miracle of my life.

Houston Catholic Worker, March-April 2012