Model of Mercy: The Story of Dorothy Day

Dorothy believed in dying to save one's neighbor, rather than killing innocent people in an effort to create peace and end oppression. She Dorothy recognized Jesus, and stood firmly against anyone who approved of inflicting harm to save souls.

by M. J. Joachim

The world had gone mad, embracing the errors of the day.  People were good at preaching about what needed to happen.   Even the Church represented good ideas.   To a young girl growing up, it seemed inconceivable to accept the status quo, and talk about injustice as an idea, when action should take place to combat it.   Dorothy Day became part of the action.   Her life challenges people of all faiths to become Christians, not just with ideas, and easily spoken words, but with our very lives.

When Dorothy was a little girl, she discovered God by reading a dusty old Bible she had found in the attic of her parents home.  Her family was not very religious, so God was not taught as a necessity throughout her formative years.  Dorothy loved books, and the Bible proved to have many things she enjoyed reading and thinking about.  Consequently, she met God face to face in scripture.

A young preacher made his rounds visiting homes in the area, and Dorothy’s mother allowed her children to attend religious services.  Dorothy developed a friendship with God.  She learned about love and Christianity.  She became filled with expectations about Christian behavior, and the people of God.  It didn’t really matter what denomination they were, if they were Christian.   They had obligations and duties far beyond preaching and tradition.  A Christian’s very ideals required that they set an example of taking care of others through works of mercy.  Christianity is not a complacent, glamorous title that makes life easier.  It was a call to service, reaching out to those whose lives are most difficult.

The world would have none of it.  People had to take care of themselves, and if they couldn’t, there were always prayers said for them.  As Dorothy matured, she began to question the very nature of a God who would allow so much prejudice, when Christians talked about how their faith made all the difference.  This example of Christian behavior, which represented a lack of interest and love for people who needed it most, caused doubts about religion and its premise, in Dorothy.  In her heart, she knew that God was full of love and compassion.  Many of the people instructing and representing Christianity, however, were about self satisfaction and righteousness.  They ignored the plight of suffering, to build up their own agendas, defying the very nature of Christianity.

Dorothy became highly involved in the causes of her day, causes that are still valid to each of us, regardless of our generation.  She joined protests that promoted the dignity of people.  On several occasions, she was arrested for being a rebel, and standing up against the status quo.  She lived her life, which meant doing what she needed to do, without answering to authority, or being obedient to the laws of the land.  For many years, God was not a factor.  Dorothy had concluded that God was a fall guy for people who wanted to talk big, and justify poor behavior.  Deep down, she knew that man was the problem, not God.  She knew that she had turned her back on a very special friendship, excusing her error on the example of others.  Dorothy claimed that God was not who He said He is, because His Church leaders didn’t represent Him correctly.

As true friends do, Jesus pursued Dorothy.   He continued to wait until their friendship could be mended.  Dorothy, for her part, never fully abandoned spirituality.  She simply ignored the structure of religion with all of its pomp and circumstance.  She often found herself praying when she walked on the beach.  She recognized that God was much bigger than man, as the waves bounced on the shore, leaving life flourishing in tide pools.  She began to seek God, as opposed to religion.  Dorothy had some wonderful memories of people who loved God from her childhood.  She was gently reminded that a lot of Christians are good people who make a difference in their own little ways.

When Dorothy became a mother, carrying her child within her womb, she decided the greatest gift she could give this tiny person was faith.  It happened that she met a little nun named Sr. Aloysius, who would instruct her about having her child baptized in the Catholic Church.  Dorothy, while recognizing the power of God, was not a catholic.  She had never received any sort of formal religious training, and Sr. Aloysius had the awesome task of teaching the catechism to Dorothy, explaining the need to practice that which she wanted give to her child.  Throughout this process, Dorothy discovered the love of God in an entirely new dimension.  She found herself drawn to the Church, in spite of the fact that some of its people misrepresented its mission.  Dorothy became a convert to Catholicism, and began to practice her faith in ways that would challenge the very authority she made a promise to obey.

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As a convert to religion, Dorothy had to give up some of her rebellious ways.  The Catholic Church did not approve of many of the groups holding protests against war and government.  While some of their arguments were valid, their core beliefs were scrutinized, revealing an opposition to God that could not be ignored.  The Church would not be divided on details within issues, but would stand strong and promote faith at all costs.  In doing so, Dorothy found herself at odds with the Church, because it supported war.  She was a Catholic who believed in a faith that taught suffering and restraint.  Dorothy believed in dying to save one’s neighbor, rather than killing innocent people in an effort to create peace and end oppression.  Dorothy recognized Jesus, and stood firmly against anyone who approved of inflicting harm to save souls.

In an effort to promote Christianity, Dorothy started writing a newspaper titled The Catholic Worker.  The paper highlighted the suffering of people.  She worked for peace at any cost.  She exposed poor working conditions within the community, and world.  She addressed societal problems, pointing to the lack of government and church assistance that could help those in need.  She did all of this while grieving for her own sins, and trying to come to terms with her earlier reluctance to be a child of God.  The task was daunting, because Dorothy had realized that people make mistakes, but they are not evil.  This is a lesson she took sincerely to heart, when her own sins were mercifully forgiven, through her conversion to the Catholic faith.

Dorothy recognized the power of love through Jesus.  She saw His face in the poor and destitute, and she began to serve them.  While she produced a newspaper at her kitchen table, she also served coffee to those who came to visit her.  Many people were interested in her newspaper.  They wanted to meet Dorothy and share their stories.   They joined in Dorothy’s efforts to serve the poor and needy.  As it happened, Dorothy began serving soup to some of her visitors.  She never turned anyone away, and if she was having soup, she invited them to eat with her.  Word spread of her generosity, and soon many poor people were arriving because they were hungry.  Quite by accident, but not without providence, Dorothy was not only publishing a newspaper, but running a soup kitchen.  When people were out of work, she ended up starting farms where they could live and grow their own food, taking responsibility for their environment.  No one was ever turned away.

Throughout Dorothy’s work, which spanned several decades, she strove for peace and justice within the community.  Dorothy was no longer a rebel, but a servant of Christianity, and member of the Catholic faith.  She took this identity very seriously, and joined other Catholics who also chose to participate in life, and not just talk about what needed to happen.  Dorothy had the privilege of meeting Mother Teresa.  She met with bishops and popes, promoting the message of peace and service in response to the gift of faith.  

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Dorothy fought for human rights, and joined protests as necessary to stand up for the oppressed.   As a devout Catholic, she was responsible about who she stood with, making certain that they were not opposing God in their fight.  She continued to stand up for the integrity and dignity of all people, accepting the price of being arrested in the face of injustice.  The Church stood with her because it was clear that she was following Christ, and living His mission.  She was in her mid seventies when she was arrested for the last time.  Dorothy stood with the farm workers of Caesar Chavez, defending their right to a fair wage and decent living conditions.  All the while, she was sending reports so her newspaper could print the stories of those being oppressed, and the world could join her efforts to defend their cause.

Dorothy was a woman of faith.  She attended Mass regularly, even during the week.  She prayed the rosary, and studied scripture.   She meditated on the Imitation of Christ, by Kempis.    Dorothy was a living example of Christianity.  She was a sinner who accepted Jesus, and chose to follow Him in thought, word, and deed.  While her message was about peace, it often caused division among those who didn’t want to hear it, especially those in positions of authority.  Her humility defied their right to enforce laws that were not just, and brought harm to people.  Her work demanded respect no title could ever give.  Titles do not sacrifice and suffer for the less fortunate, people do.  Dorothy proved that one person can make a difference if they choose to follow the life of Christ.  Her example challenges everyone to discover the love of God through acts of mercy.  People need to feel loved, even when they are unable to love in return.  People need a chance to respond to the gifts of life received from the compassion of those who care.

Dorothy Day died peacefully and quietly on November 29, 1980.  The arrangements of her burial were simple and humble.  She was buried in a blue and white checker dress, and laid in an unvarnished pine coffin.  Visitors came for hours to pay their respects throughout the night.  People of every social class, and faith denomination came to remember Dorothy out of gratitude.  Even a few atheists were among the crowd.  She was the woman who met people where they were, and cared enough to accept them.  She was the woman who offered love, hope, and even supplies when no one else would have mercy for their plight.  Dorothy Day was a woman of faith who shared compassion and mercy with people the world dismissed.  Her tombstone says it all so eloquently:  Dorothy Day, November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980, DEO GRATIAS.

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