“We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb.”
Dorothy Day was once a Communist who became a leading voice for radical nonviolent Christianity in the United States. She lived a life of voluntary poverty, cared for the homeless, and published The Catholic Worker newspaper and founded a movement by the same name that continues to this day.
Day’s early adulthood was spent as a muck-raking leftist journalist, joining herself with various protest movements while living as part of the sexual revolution of the 1920s. Faced with her second pregnancy, she was spurred onto a religious quest which ended with her conversion to Catholicism, abandoning her boyfriend and keeping her baby. She also kept her passion for the poor and struggles for justice that had marked her earlier years, but now that passion was wedded to a deep spirituality.
In 1933 she met Peter Maurin and they co-founded The Catholic Worker to address concerns of war and poverty from a radical Catholic perspective. The first issue was run for 2,500 copies, but by the end of the year they were publishing 100,000 papers per issue. They sold papers for a penny apiece so that anyone could buy one, but even so they still gave away thousands of copies. The paper didn’t just criticize what was going on, but it challenged readers to make a personal response, most of that writing coming initially directly from Dorothy Day herself.
She and Maurin also founded the House of Hospitality to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless in New York City. That house was the first in what grew to be many Catholic Worker Houses across the country. Before Mother Teresa picked up the dying in Calcutta, Dorothy Day was welcoming the poorest of the poor, the destitute, addicted and dying into the Catholic Worker Homes. She said, “Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.” Religion or background did not matter, only that a person was in need.
Beginning in 1935 through the pages of The Catholic Worker Day propounded a philosophy of neutral pacifism based on the teaching of Jesus. Initially nobody paid much attention to what she said, but when the Spanish Civil War broke out critics from both sides were alienated by her position. The Catholic Church supported the Fascist Franco (as did Hitler and Mussolini). Meanwhile the American left that identified with many of Day’s social positions supported the Republican side, which included Communists, socialists, anarchists and many American leftist volunteers. So Day turned to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi to find a different approach, one rooted in the spirit of nonviolence. Day wrote, “We are not, of course, pro-Franco, but pacifists, followers of Gandhi in our struggle to build a spirit of nonviolence. But in those days we got it from both sides; it was a holy war to most Catholics, just as world revolution is holy war to Communists.” About two-thirds of the readers abandoned The Catholic Worker because of the pacifism espoused in its pages.
Day and The Catholic Worker continued to hold to the pacifist position during World War II. “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount,” Day wrote. “We love our country… We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression.” But for Day action in the face of violence comes through doing acts of mercy not by going to war. Many of the faithful readers of The Catholic Worker went to prison or spent the war years laboring in rural work camps.
Dorothy Day was a strong voice against anti-Semitism as Hitler was rising to power in Europe. The Catholic Worker was certainly the first Catholic journal, maybe one of the first non-Jewish papers in the U.S., to decry the persecution of the Jews growing under the Nazis. She was one of the founders of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. She became a staunch critic of Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery priest who used his radio programs to promote anti-Semitic ideas and who published the spurious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his journal Social Justice. Day could be pointedly acerbic in her critiques of such hate speech, especially when the hate came from a religious source.
During the Cold War missile attack scares of the 1950s and 1960s she was jailed three times for refusing to participate in civil defense drills in New York. She viewed the drills as an attempt to promote nuclear war by getting people to think it was survivable. She saw participation in the drills as complicity in the entire nuclear war preparation enterprise with its waste of billions of dollars in military spending. When the alarms went off she and a handful of others sat in protest on the steps of City Call. “We will not be drilled into fear,” she said. “We do not have faith in God if we depend on the Atom Bomb.” She was arrested each year when the civil defense drill was held until they were suspended after 2,000 people refused to participate in 1961.
Day was nearly hit by rifle fire from the Klu Klux Klan while visiting the racially integrated community of Koinonia Farms in Georgia in 1957. The Klan bullets smashed into the steering column of the car she was driving. By the time of the Vietnam War she was called “the grand old lady of pacifism” and had a strong influence on the rising generation of peace activists. She protested the draft and the war in Vietnam. Day was last jailed in 1973 at the age of 75 years old. She was jailed for taking part in a banned picket in support of striking farm workers and their leader Cesar Chavez.
As her health failed, she was given many honors. Mother Teresa was one of the people who came to visit her. But Dorothy Day brushed off such attention: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” She was the kind of person whom Notre Dame University said was known for “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
Dorothy Day challenged people to always act in love. There was always some sort of action that could be taken in the face of the challenges of poverty and war. She wrote, “Young people say what good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time, we can be responsible only for the action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” The impact of Day’s loving actions for justice and peace continue to multiply through those whose lives were changed by her witness.