The Common Good
November-December 1997

An Inspired Complainer

by Jim Forest | November-December 1997

Celebrating Dorothy Day's 100th

November 8 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dorothy Day, uncanonized saint of the homeless. She was also one of America's most inspired complainers. For most of her life she kept saying things aren't the way they should be, and that it would be a far less cruel world if those who go to church cared for the poor half as well as they take care of their Bibles.

The driving force in her life was her intense awareness of beauty. In her mid-20s, trying to explain the religious conversion going on in her own life, she would ask atheist friends, "How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things?" From age 15 until her death, she found beauty in places and faces that most people are glad to avoid. It started in Chicago after reading Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, a story set in an area of stockyards and slaughterhouses of the city's South Side. Sinclair's vivid description of filth in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although what Sinclair had hoped for was to stimulate more profound social change. "I aimed at the public's heart," he said, "and by accident hit it in the stomach."

He reached Dorothy's heart. She often strolled the newest addition to her family, her brother John. "I walked for miles, exploring interminable gray streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair's story." In the midst of urban desolation, she found "tiny gardens and vegetable patches in the yards." Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. "Here," she said, "was enough beauty to satisfy me."

AN EXCEPTIONALLY BRIGHT student, at age 17 she was in college on a scholarship, but she found classrooms less engaging than slums. She dropped out and moved to New York City. At age 18, she was one of the few female reporters working for a New York daily newspaper and probably the only one writing about strikes and homelessness rather than engagements and weddings. At the same time she rented a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. The kind of neighborhoods she had been attracted to as an adventurous adolescent became her home for life. When she died 64 years later, in 1980, she was still living in the same neighborhood, but by then part of a community of hospitality.

Another turning point in her life was pregnancy. Feeling that she was in the middle of a miracle, she was overcome with a longing for her child, once born, to be baptized in the Catholic Church. For her radical friends, this was among the world's most benighted, oppressive institutions. For Dorothy, it was the church of the poor, a church with roots reaching back to the beginning of Christianity, a world rather than a national church, a church in which sacraments were more important than sermons.

Both mother and daughter were baptized in 1927, which brought to an end her common-law marriage. Dorothy remained single for the rest of her life, which in part explains the title of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

For six years Dorothy looked for a way to connect her social conscience with her religious conversion, a search that gave birth to the Catholic Worker movement in May 1933. Originally it was just a newspaper, but within weeks of its publication the first house of hospitality-her apartment-came into being simply because Dorothy couldn't turn away a homeless woman who had seen the paper and came asking for help. Today there are nearly 175 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, not to mention the many more places of welcome that wouldn't exist had it not been for Dorothy Day's struggle to live the gospel with directness and simplicity.

"We are here to celebrate Christ through the works of mercy," she said. This meant for her not only feeding the hungry and providing shelter to the homeless but refusing to cause anyone to go hungry, refusing to destroy anyone's home-thus her opposition to war, a source of intense controversy in a time when American Catholics were busy proving their patriotism. It was largely thanks to the impact of Dorothy Day that the Catholic Church produced more conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War than any other church in America.

At the core of her life was her experience of ultimate beauty-Christ's face hidden in the faces of America's human castoffs. "Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor," she used to say, "are atheists indeed."

JIM FOREST, a Sojourners contributing editor, wrote Love is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day and co-edited A Penny a Copy: Readings From The Catholic Worker. His latest book is Praying With Icons (Orbis).

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