On a tour several years ago, In the punk band I used to play bass in, we played and stayed regularly at some of our dear friends’ community house in the run down, east end of Nashville. It had the usual aesthetic of these types of communal ramshackle dwellings. There was one object that always had me thinking even days after leaving that house; hanging above the kitchen sink was a fairly simple rag, probably had been used for some utilitarian purpose previously, but it had a simple inscription sewn into it now. It read, “Everyone wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes- Dorothy Day”. Who was this person? I had heard her name echoed before, yet had no idea who she was. Her simple challenge struck my soul so tenderly and had me desiring more of this wisdom she was seemingly willing to share.
Back home it began a journey to find something about her and her life. I walked wonderingly into Eljay’s Used Books back when it was still on the South Side. I searched the shelves…nothing. I wandered to the front desk and asked if they had anything referring to someone named ‘Dorothy Day.’ The clerk looked at me with a stare as if I was speaking a foreign language, and then asked “Wait, was she a journalist of some time ago?” I, not knowing the answer, responded with a “maybe” and waited for any hint of hope. “You know what? I think we got something about her in a few weeks ago!” as she began to dig through this towering pile of books behind the desk and I strayed away with little hope that it was leading to anything promising, and then she shouted back at me with excitement, “Here it is!” It was Dorothy Day’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.” I quickly handed her the $2 she had requested. The simple, frail figure portrayed on the front cover beckoned me to dive in immediately - which doesn’t happen often to this hesitating reader, who grew up equating reading with school – a negative connotation for this recovering, young punk.
With each page I was more and more drawn into her story, walking right along with her. Her portrayals of the New York slums, May Day in Union Square, and her journalism with the Socialist papers spoke to my story: my struggle to find myself, my kick-against-the-pricks attitude that was fueled by my love for punk and anything that was against the status quo. I wished I had been alive in those stories, raging in the streets alongside of comrades, screaming at the corruption of a system which was imprisoning the radicals demanding the rise of a new system – for the people! My heart was there, and I thought I knew where the story was going. Then, the character of Peter Maurin surprised me as it did Dorothy.
She struggled with his foreign philosophy of “Personalism” where the revolution wasn’t about picketing Washington for change. Revolution didn’t wait to be handed to you with permission from the governing authorities, but you had to ignite a revolution, one person at a time, heart to heart. “The best way to meet the man on the street is by meeting the man on the street!” This was against the top-down mentality of most of the radicals at that time. It had a sort of offensive but refreshing sting to it, and it got me thinking. The Catholic Worker Movement was born out of this tension and the love for the poor and the desire to stand in solidarity for liberation with the oppressed. This drew fresh breath into the hearts of many people, who, like me, were desiring the true gospel – one that stepped down from the tiers of power and was among the poor --of spirit, and of pocket.
The Jesus that Dorothy emulated spoke of a new kingdom in his “Sermon on the Mount,” one different than the Empire, where liberation was serving one another, the poor, the outcast, where the last become first and the first become last – in an almost paradoxical circle of jubilee-distribution of value for all people. I had found the first of many “saints” in my life. Despite my Charismatic Protestant upbringing, I have found that out of my many spiritual heroes, a large number are Roman Catholics. Of all the recent saints I’ve come across in my ecumenical journey of reconciliation, it has been Thomas Merton who has been my guide into a renewed understanding. He has stretched and challenged me to the core. I am a busy body, a go-getter, always trying to maximize my productivity on whatever project is on my to-do list. Dorothy’s work spoke my language of action, but it was the partnership of Merton that brought balance to that very action – a balance I find I need to maintain the journey. His words often echo when I find myself trying to take on too much in some sort of messianic complex: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”
It is now just a little over a year since the purchase of our humble little house in the historic neighborhood of Hazelwood. Things are slower than an earlier version of me would hope to see, but I can celebrate the slow subversive work of trying to create a new community. We call ourselves the Greenway Community House of Hospitality (thegreenwaycommunity.org) and we strive to live into the tradition and example of the Catholic Worker Movement. After some volunteering with some dear friends in Kansas City who run the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker, I knew that this was what I had to get my hands calloused and dirty doing. After all, if I wanted revolution, the dishes need to be done. So, there’s four to five of us living together in a simple rhythm of prayer, meals, shared resources, and hospitality. Space is made available for as many as two resident guests currently, with the hopes that after our slow renovations we can double that capacity. Already we have learned so much about our own limits and healthy ways to build consensus and make decisions together. We‘ve failed, hurt feelings, and have said farewell to more than one housemate as we try to learn from our mistakes. Yet, we can certainly celebrate one year of this crazy little thing we do. Life together is never easy, but I believe I can honestly say it’s been worth every moment.
The alternative to this “filthy rotten system,” as Dorothy called it, only finds its solution in love for one another. This kind of love is not often found in the systems and structures we’ve been handed. We can’t wait for our hierarchies to fix the problems for us, we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for! I believe we need to create and cultivate these spaces where more than a Band-Aid is applied, where the whole person in all our brokenness can be embraced. Though we shouldn’t delude ourselves with thinking we can solve all the problems we see, let us begin making steps together in what we can do for the causes of justice, peace, and love. There are plenty of opportunities that lie directly in front of us; they greet us in small ordinary ways. The balance of Dorothy and Merton invites us to live into a humble yet active journey that demands giving and receiving, marching and sitting in stillness, community and solitude. We can’t do this alone, we need each other – a network of co-conspirators willing to work with calloused hands, but tender hearts. Resistance is creating the alternatives, and like Momma Teresa said, “Let us do small things with great love.” Let’s get washing these dishes!
To learn more about the growing Pittsburgh Catholic Worker Network, contact email@example.com; for info about the monthly Merton Study Group, contact Carol Gonzalez, Teacher41@aol.com or facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/300631609998427/
(This article was written for the NewPeople - the editorial of the Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh, March 2013 issue)