A scrappy blog this month, as I’m recovering from some medical attention.

For the past two terms, we’ve been in a group studying the life and work of Dorothy Day, the American Christian activist and journalist. She started out as a journalist around the end of the First World war, working for newspapers that championed the poor. Even then, she was a bold activist, and got sent to jail more than once for her part in demonstrations against injustice. Being on a low wage herself, she took rooms in slums among poor people. But along with this, she lived a pretty ‘bohemian’ life, with a series of partners and hard drinking.

After her daughter was born, everything changed — or rather, all was transformed. She became a Christian and then got to know an eccentric visionary called Peter Maurin. With him, and many helpers, Dorothy began to offer hospitality to the poorest of the poor. They set up premises where people could come for food and a bed, no questions asked. Millions of people were unemployed in the US before the Second World War, and there was little welfare. Long lines of people would form up outside the houses of hospitality every day. Dorothy’s associates also set up small farms where out of work people could raise food, and where they also held retreats.

But alongside all this direct action, they started a newspaper, which quickly achieved a huge circulation, despite being produced on a shoestring. Just as St Paul’s abilities that had been directed towards persecution were transformed into his zeal for the gospel, so Dorothy’s gifts as a writer were redirected into writing on behalf of the poor. She aimed to reach the conscience of Christians, many of whom lived in a comfortable middle-class bubble, isolated from the sufferings of the millions out of work.

After the War, the kind of people to whom they reached out changed a bit. There was more employment, so the long lines of unemployed people diminished. But their policy was radical: they accepted anyone, however much of a misfit or troublemaker he or she might be. They aimed to obey the commands of Christ as literally as possible through the traditional ‘works of mercy’. And at the same time Dorothy, as she reached old age, continued to wield her pen and speak from platforms, trying to raise the consciousness of society about injustice of all kinds, including war.

What I’d like to highlight in this inadequate survey of Dorothy Day’s life and work is how her writing and her activism worked together. They complemented each other. When she wrote, she described the work that her houses of hospitality and farms were doing; she portrayed individuals who came to them; she underlined the extreme charity, the total acceptance, that they extended. And she did all this in prose of the finest quality. Her pieces were carefully designed to elicit a response. The portraits were vivid and did not spare the details that were sometimes sordid, but they were always written with love. Along with this, she reflected theologically (if that isn’t too academic a word) on what they were doing and how much she felt they fell short of what they would like to have done to help those in need.

It all shows how being a writer and being an activist are not necessarily incompatible activities.

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