Dorothy Day authentically lived out her faith in tangible ways that mattered. Yet, she faced opposition by the society she served. Her contribution has been recognized by those who had distanced themselves during her lifetime. In 2015, Pope Francis singled her out as one of four prominent Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.(1)
Even though Dorothy had no theological training and no positional authority in the church, she has become one of the most significant and influential people in American Catholicism.(2) She had walked away from all that mattered in American culture; family, education, prestige, power; and purposely lived among the poor.(3) Her life, before she accepted Catholic faith, was one fueled by a love for social activism and a struggle to be in a place where she could love and be loved. Her journey through life was one of struggle, loss, pain, and searching. She defined herself as a Bohemian. “She was an unwed mother, a disillusioned citizen, a poor woman, a disaffected churchgoer, an unemployed observer of the human race.”(4) It was through this intense loneliness of searching that she discovered the answer for the long loneliness all humans experience, as love. Dorothy began to understand that love was experienced by living life in community.(5)
As I was reading about Dorothy Day through my summer church history course, I was taken with her spunk and tenacity in life. Over the next couple of posts, I would like to share part of her story with you. The image at the top of this post is from a wood carving created by Fritz Eichenberg as a homage to Dorothy.(6)
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897 as the middle of five children. Her father was a sports writer, covering horse racing, and her mother was a homemaker. Her father was a confirmed atheist who, oddly enough, also carried around a Bible. Dorothy’s family moved to California before the 1906 earthquake shook the area. Due to the loss of her father’s job in the devastation from the quake, they moved to the East Coast. However, it was the kindness of people coming together during this tragedy in California that had a longstanding impact throughout Dorothy’s life.(7)
In her young adult years, Dorothy became involved with social justice, anti-war, and the socialist party. Against her father’s wishes, she pursued a position as a journalist. She wanted to experience the life of those in poverty. To do so she purposely lived on five dollars a month and wrote about it as a means to experience life from this place of hardship.(8)
Something about the kindness of people that Dorothy witnessed after the earthquake and her desire for social justice, helped her discover a desire to know God and to live authentically with the people she experienced in life. In this desire, she pursued many different journalist assignments. She often joined others on picket lines in her concern for social justice. The first time was in support of the suffragists in Washington DC. Women arrested earlier were treated as ordinary prisoners, instead of political activists, and taken to a workhouse. Dorothy, along with 34 other women, decided to protest their unfair treatment. Dorothy’s group was arrested and sentenced for 30 days. They made a pact to engage in a hunger strike to influence fairer treatment. As they reacted to the harsh treatment they received, it was falsely reported that the women were combative.(9)
They continued steadfast in their hunger strike. The lack of food combined with the harsh treatment and isolation caused Dorothy to go in and out of consciousness. During this difficulty, she identified herself with other prisoners and felt a deep need to escape her situation. However, she chose to endure until her 30 days were over. During day six, she was taken to the hospital. After a full 10 days, these persistent women received their demands and were taken to the city jail instead of the workhouse.(10)
Dorothy began to understand from this experience that it didn’t matter if you willed yourself to see the best in someone, they always showed their worst. She didn’t believe in prayer or religion, but she seemed to always place herself in places of prayer. Dorothy experienced prayer as peace. She felt that the “life of nature warred against the life of grace.”(11)
Dorothy felt convicted in realizing that she and the group she hung out with would live around the poor in order to help them but in reality, did not personally give up anything. This wasn’t a true philosophy of poverty. They were motivated by a sense of justice but were not embracing a life of poverty.(12) So, she signed up for a nursing training program during WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic.(13) She wanted to help the poor and began to understand that people, the sick and the poor, wanted to be respected which was more than love.(14)
Dorothy worked at the hospital for one year and left to follow her true vocation of journalism. In a time when the newspapers were stating that worker strikes were unjust and not at all helpful for the workers, Dorothy witnessed the reality the workers experienced. This real-life experience in contrast to the propaganda being shared helped to shape Dorothy’s social justice stand in life and ministry later on. She continued writing for papers, being involved in social justice protests. Another imprisonment experience continued to shape her understanding of and for the oppressed. She began to understand that it was not prudent to believe what people said but to judge their actions.(15)
More of Dorothy’s story will come in following posts. I find it incredibly interesting to discover the early foundations behind someone’s spiritual journey of discovery. So much of how we understand God is shaped by our families of origin, our experiences in life, and our understanding of how the world works. Dorothy’s compassion and empathy for people was fueled by the coming together of people in disaster and something within that saw value in those on the outside. This understanding shaped her life and ministry.
(1) Joan Chittister, “Dorothy Day” 41, no. 1 (2016): 71.
(2) Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001), 514–15.
(3) Chittister, “Dorothy Day,” 71.
(4) Ibid., 71.
(5) Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (Chicago, Ill.: Thomas More Press, 1989), 326.
(6) Eichenberg, Fritz, Works of Mercy, edited by Robert Ellsberg, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 72.
(7) Albert J. Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 64.
(8) Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day, 73.
(9) Ibid., 95–97.
(10) Ibid., 100–105.
(11) Ibid., 108.
(12) Ibid., 110–11.
(13) Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, 67.
(14) Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day, 113.
(15) Ibid., 118, 124-125, 132.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!