Igniting a Revolution of the Heart

Matthew S. Vogel

Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was once approached by a young man struggling with a major life decision, seeking her advice. To paraphrase (these are my words, not hers), she responded with three succinct points: 1) stay close to the poor; 2) be accountable to your community; and 3) this sounds like an ego trip to me. I have seen first-hand how compelling these deceptively simple ideas are. Before graduate school, for several years in the last decade, I lived and worked in the New York Catholic Worker community.

This is a part of the larger Catholic Worker movement that Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and Peter Maurin (1877-1949) started in the midst of the Depression, and is a community trying to meet the basic needs of those living on the streets while struggling to confront those systems, structures, and attitudes that have cast them out. The New York Catholic Worker consists of two houses of hospitality in New York City and a farm a couple of hours north. When I lived there, roughly twenty-five to thirty people lived in each of the city houses at any given time. Some twenty to twenty-five of the residents in each house had come to the Worker from the streets. Our life together centered around three practices, as it had since the 1930s: the daily practice of the Works of Mercy; regular worship and prayer; and involvement in broader work for justice and peace, whether organizing for the closure of the detention facilities in Guantánamo, or protesting the ongoing U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, or working for justice for immigrants and their families. It was here that I first heard this story, and it is from out of my Catholic Worker experience that Dorothy Day’s three points continue to challenge me today.

Staying Close to the Suffering

First, “stay close to the poor.” It is no accident that this comes first – it was certainly a touchstone of Day´s life. The question of proximity, of whom and what we place ourselves amidst and among, is absolutely central, for there is much truth in the saying that where one stands determines what one sees. And hears. And experiences. What we see, hear, and experience in turn largely shape how we understand and evaluate the world around us. And, together, all of these directly inform how and why we act in the political realm.

Staying close – physically close – to the poor and suffering, to those pushed to the margins of our society, is crucially important for Christians, just as it was for Jesus, who consistently and constantly chose to remain close to people who were poor and oppressed – for there we are sure to find God. Such a choice is a revolutionary act, and after making that leap, one soon sees that no particular political program or policy will ever bring justice in its fullness. Even with the most sympathetic government, people will still suffer, yet we know that God will still be choosing to stand with those who do, a recognition that there is work yet to be done. The struggle for justice, then, is not one that can be attended to only once every four years, simply in the polling booth. Dorothy Day knew that it is truly a personal struggle, a daily fight we must each undertake against those forces that dehumanize and crush, and for dignity, justice, and peace, and that this struggle happens in the streets, schools, and stores, as well as the halls of power and privilege.

Daily at the Catholic Worker, I was confronted with my own prejudices and assumptions – about myself, about others, and about what we were doing.

For those of us who are more privileged, for whatever reason, this is certainly not an easy process. At least it hasn’t been for me. Daily at the Catholic Worker, in myriad ways I was confronted with my own prejudices and assumptions – about myself, about others, and about what we were doing.  But it was the building of relationships with the other residents and the many people who knocked on our door in need that, for me, inaugurated what Dorothy Day called a “revolution of the heart.” This revolution began in me nothing less than a new life, spiritually and politically, which gives me the faith and strength to continue the work. Though I have not always been sure where I would arrive, it has always been clear with whom I need to be traveling.

The lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow often described poverty, oppression, and marginalization as forces of death, forces that literally kill people. Physical proximity to the death, dehumanization, and destruction hanging over poor people and neighborhoods clarifies for us that a politics concerned solely and abstractly with agency budgets and party platforms, with government policies and programs, is itself impoverished and cannot but be blind to real and lasting justice.

Committing and Submitting

Second, “be accountable to your community.”  This is a paraphrase of Dorothy Day´s advice to the young man, who was in a religious order, but it captures an important aspect of what she meant. There is much talk these days about community. At times there seems to be a “community” for everything. Everywhere I turn, I’m invited to become a part of – or I’m informed that I am already a member of – various communities, whether or not I have ever met anybody else in that community or ever will. Day’s second prescription invites me to something deeper, however: Before I can be accountable to a community, I need to be sure the community is capable of demanding accountability from me, and that I am capable of hearing – and heeding – those demands.

The kind of deep commitment and involvement in struggles for justice that “stay close to the poor” demands can only meaningfully be sustained with other people. We cannot do this alone; we must build communities not only to sustain the struggle and us in it, but to be attentive to the signs of the times and the Holy Spirit, and to hold each other accountable to the demands of the Gospel and to those we join in the work at hand. We must seek out and build up communities marked by conscience, commitment, action, even resistance – creative, audacious communities that are excited to “build a new society within the shell of the old,” as the Catholic Worker says, adopting an old IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) slogan.

A political life focused strictly on voting sees its touchstone solely in terms of the solitary voter in the voting booth. However, in social justice communities twe can support marginalized people to take back power that is rightfully theirs.

Elections, though, reinforce the idea that the political life is a solitary one: A political life focused strictly on voting sees its touchstone solely in terms of the solitary voter in the voting booth. However, in communities that sustain and grow movements for social justice and nourish and empower their members, we can support and act with those who have been pushed to the margins to take back and rebuild the power that is rightfully theirs, power to make demands and seek change, power that cannot go ignored. This work is not something to be undertaken every few years or only in connection with elections or political parties. Its demands are constant and constantly expanding, and require people personally engaged over time. Such communities, though, must be those to which we can commit – and submit – ourselves. Together we can discern the way forward, and together we can, and must, hold each other to our commitments. But, this can only happen if we let it, if we take responsibility and allow ourselves to be taken to task.  In organizing against Guantánamo, we have deliberately worked not simply to bring people together for demonstrations, but to create a community of people throughout the country who are committed to closing down Guantánamo and to building relationships with each other as well as with those who are or have been locked away in that prison nightmare. These relationships not only push us to ask each other what we are doing to close Guantánamo, but run deeper, pressing us to unearth the roots of the injustices in Guantánamo – and to take them on as well.

Accountability operates on two crucial levels. These communities cannot survive, much less thrive, if their members are not accountable to one another, as Dorothy Day understood. With that, though, accountability to the people alongside whom we struggle, those who daily face the dehumanization of oppression, is irreplaceable. Without the former sense of accountability, a community lacks any real sense of obligation to draw and hold itself together. And without the latter sense, it binds itself too tightly, making itself its only reason for existence. Without both senses of accountability, such a community will suffer from a deadly hubris.

The Spiritual Base

This hubris goes directly to the heart of the third admonition: “sounds like an ego trip to me.”  Dorothy Day knew we need perspective, especially on ourselves, to remain faithful and committed to these struggles. Humility is crucial, and the temptations leading us away from it are legion. Communities can be very helpful in this, connecting us to people different from ourselves, who see things from other vantage points but maintain the same, or similar, commitments of conscience. The habit of listening also becomes a critical responsibility. Opening oneself to the experience of another and being challenged by it not only makes the way for accountability but relativizes one’s own limited experience. 

However, as Dorothy Day’s life shows, nothing can replace a deep spiritual base for reminding us of what is most important, and in giving the strength to continue to struggle, really struggle, for justice, day after day. If it all depends strictly on us, if everything depends on the work we do or decisions we make, we are bound to lose heart, because we will fail and we will lose. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story if we live and work together, along with those who suffer, and stay grounded in a spirituality that is alert to the injustices that daily affect and shape people’s lives, including our own.

It can be tempting to think that we’ve done our political duty if we help elect the candidate we think is the right one, but these three short admonitions should give pause. They tell us that the customary frame for our political responsibilities is too narrow, that our understanding of the origins and effects of political policies and programs is too shallow, and that our view of our own responsibilities is too limited. In staying close to the poor we learn that the least worst candidate is not nearly good enough. We discover that various political and governmental programs still leave people suffering, no matter who gets elected. Once we commit ourselves to struggling alongside those who are poor and suffering, then settling for such programs, even if they are the best we can hope to obtain from the current political climate, is simply not an option. This is one approach to a truly “preferential” option for the poor, as the ecclesial language has named it: Learn to see the questions of justice and politics surrounding us every day from the vantage point of those who are excluded, and build communities capable of struggling together for lasting justice, moving beyond the confining boundaries of political parties, government programs, and electoral politics. Injustice becomes a deeply moral and political matter personally, and we become impelled to take personal responsibility for the injustices we see. As injustice and inequality pile up upon the backs of the marginalized, can God be asking for anything less?

Matthew Vogel is in the final year of a joint M.A.R.-J.D. program with Yale Law School and intends after graduation to shape a law practice committed to social justice.