header icons

Dorothy Day at Koinonia Farm


Dorothy Day and Florence Jordan

“I have not yet resisted unto blood,” Dorothy Day commented, after surviving a drive-by shooting at Koinonia Farm. She had endured many hardships–jeers, threats, and insults, being shoved into paddy wagons and jailed–but her acts of protest against war and social injustice had never put her life at risk. She had never been shot at. But one night in 1957, when she was keeping night watch at Koinonia, bullets fired from a passing car struck the station wagon in which she was sitting, barely missing her and the other woman who was with her, coming within inches of wounding, if not killing, both of them.

What was this place, this Koinonia Farm, where Dorothy Day very nearly did “resist unto blood”? What had brought her there?

Koinonia Farm was a Christian farming community located outside Americus, Georgia, co-founded in 1942 by Clarence Jordan, a Baptist preacher, and his wife Florence, along with two Baptist missionaries, Martin and Mabel England. It might seem unlikely that Dorothy Day would be drawn to a farm in the Deep South, or to Clarence Jordan, whose Baptist roots were about as far from Catholicism on a Christian spectrum as one could get. But denominational boundaries faded as Day recognized in Jordan a person whose understanding of the Christian life was very similar to her own. Her impulse toward solidarity with Jordan and his community led up to that historic visit—and that nearly fatal night.

Founded in 1942, Koinonia Farm was named for the Greek word for  “fellowship” or “loving community. It was based on the community life of the first-century church: the practice of non-violence; a belief in the equality of all people before God; and sharing a “common purse,” whereby means and goods were shared in common and distributed to each person according to need. All three principles flew in the face of the white mainstream social order of the Deep South in the mid-20th century, but particularly was the second, the racial equality practiced by the community, an affront to the notion of white supremacy and a threat to white privilege in surrounding Sumter County. At Koinonia, located in the heart of the Jim Crow South, white people and black people were living together, working together, sharing meals and worshiping together. In the 1950s, with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Koinonia began to experience violent persecution from its neighbors.

The Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South involved more than the picketing and peaceful demonstrations Day had been a part of, more than being jailed overnight; people were putting their very lives on the line—and at times losing their lives.  Day had known about Koinonia for some time; she was interested in all the centers of Civil Rights activities in the South. But Koinonia held a particular interest. It was more than an outpost of racial equality; it was founded on an understanding of the Gospel very similar to Day’s own.

In the spring of 1957, Day determined to spend the last two weeks before Easter at Koinonia, wanting to share in the suffering of the “beleaguered community.” In a series of letters to the Catholic Worker she describes her visit. Arriving after a 36-hour bus trip, she learned that there had been gunfire the night before, and four of the community’s hogs had been shot.

Day wanted to help in the work of the farm, and she was given the jobs of harvesting fruit and vegetables and helping prepare community meals. On her second day she accompanied Florence Jordan and the Jordans’ young son Lenny to buy seed peanuts in a nearby town. In front of the feed store a man began to follow them, “screaming incoherently,” calling them “dirty Communist whores” and “nigger lovers.” They left quickly before a crowd gathered.

In an attempt to limit the damage done to the property at night, the community began to station a night watch of two people out by the highway. The two people would sit in a car near the public road and, if they saw a car approaching, they were to get out with lanterns and walk up and down the road to make their presence known. Because the men were busy with spring planting, the women were taking night watch duty. On the third night of her visit, Day volunteered to keep watch with another visitor, Elizabeth Morgan. As Day later recalled the incident, she and Morgan were sitting in the car, under a floodlight, Morgan playing hymns on her accordion while Day prayed her breviary. As Day recounted, at 1:30 in the morning a car approached, “slowed up as it passed and peppered the car with shot. We heard sounds of repeated shots—a regular gunfire, and we were too startled to duck our heads. I was shaken of course. There was no other sound from the slowed down car which gathered speed and disappeared down the road.”

Three members of the community rushed to the scene. Ora Brown noticed that Day was trembling and offered Day her coat. Day said, “That ain’t cold, baby, that’s scared.” A decade later she wrote of this experience as “one of situations when I was most afraid.” But she had not come to feel safe, she wrote. “[I]f they want to keep watch, I must help. It is what I came for—to share in fear and suffering.”

Day is widely quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Nevertheless, she is in the early stages of being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church. What is a saint? According to Day, a saint is a person whose life would not make sense if God did not exist. In that sense, both Day and Jordan are easily identified as saints, canonized or not.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XL, No. 2, April-June 2020.