Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Helping Hand During the Great Depression

When thousands and millions of Americans were unemployed, and even homeless, and when the farmers who produced the nation's food were suffering in the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930's, help was at hand from numerous charitable organizations. Some of them are still with us, like the Salvation Army.

One of the leaders of these helping organizations was Dorothy Day. She created not only one, but several, nation-wide movements to help the poor. But her story begins long before the Great Depression. Northwestern University's Collin Hansen writes:

It is perhaps symbolic that a mover and shaker like Dorothy Day survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As she watched her mother help the earthquake's homeless, Day developed a sensitive heart toward "the least of these." But it was socialism — not the church — that first harnessed her activism. In 1917 police arrested the budding journalist while she protested at the White House for woman suffrage. The activist Day saw little use for a meek Jesus. "I wanted a Lord who would scourge the money-changers out of the temple," Day wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, "and I wanted to help all those who raised their hand against oppression."

Dorothy Day's desire to help the oppressed was an urgent desire, one that sought immediate and measurable action, not merely nice sentiment. The rhetoric of socialist activists would grab her attention. She would discover that, despite the rousing phrases of the socialists, real and substantive action would be more likely to come from spiritual, rather than Marxist, motives:

Nevertheless, the time Day spent in prison tried her commitment to secular activism. She even asked for a Bible and sought comfort from the Psalms. For years after she left prison, Day's interest in Christianity grew slowly but steadily. Love for the poor drew her to the Roman Catholic Church, whose huddled masses she met while reporting among immigrants.

Her socialist acquaintances were mostly opposed to religion, and would not bother to consider the important charitable work which the Christians were doing among the poor. Although not married, Dorothy Day had lived with a socialist man for several years. When it came to love or politics, he would rather dump her than be related to someone willing to consider the spiritual side of human existence.

Day's move toward Catholicism came at a cost. She split with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham, when Day gave birth to their daughter, Tamar, in 1927. Day, feeling the guilt of an earlier abortion, saw Tamar's birth as a sign of God's mercy and forgiveness, and had her baptized. Like many of Day's radical friends, Batterham would not tolerate religiosity. "It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God," Day wrote. "It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God."

Dorothy would eventually prove her talent as a writer, editor, and reporter.

While writing for the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1932, Day met the man who would steer her toward her life's calling. Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former monk, urged Day to launch a newspaper that would spread Catholic social teaching. Maurin supplied the philosophy behind The Catholic Worker, but Day provided the journalistic know-how. The newspaper's pacifism and advocacy for the poor afforded Maurin and Day numerous opportunities to back their words with action. Yet on two occasions things became so difficult that Maurin asked Day to quit with him.

After 1933, the Great Depression got worse, year by year, and the farming crisis didn't help matters, either. In addition to writing, Dorothy Day found it necessary to take action. She began to create institutions, known as 'Catholic Worker Houses', in major cities. These locations would help anyone, regardless of religious belief - the unemployed and homeless.

By 1936, 33 Catholic Worker houses had sprouted nationwide as the growing network of newspapers opened their doors to the down and out. But some staff members lamented Day's commitment to the "undeserving" poor. They preferred to spend the limited funds on socialist propaganda. Day held her ground, and the dissenters left.

In addition to helping the poor, Dorothy Day was committed to the idea of pacifism. Reading the New Testament carefully, she came to the conclusion that it was utter against war.

Likewise, World War II tested the newspaper's integrity. When The Catholic Worker declined to choose sides, two-thirds of their readers quit taking the paper. Maurin wondered if they should give up, since the world evidently didn't want to listen. "God gives us our temperaments," Day remembered, "and in spite of my pacifism, it is natural for me to stand my ground, to continue in what actually amounts to a class war, using such weapons as the works of mercy for immediate means to show our love and to alleviate suffering."

Although she did influential work during the 1930's and 1940's, Dorothy Day lived until 1980. Looking back on her long life, she wrote:

If I could have felt that communism was the answer to my desire for a cause, a motive, a way to walk in, I would have remained as I was. But I felt that only faith in Christ could give the answer.

She was disillusioned by the idea of a central bureaucracy in a distant capital city, which was what the communists and socialists had created. Rather than look to a political or governmental structure to provide a solution, Dorothy Day saw that real action can be taken among the poor and among the oppressed by a spiritual community which is willing to live and work among them.