“If your brother is hungry, you feed him. You don’t meet him at the door and say, ‘Go, be thou filled’ or ‘Wait for a few weeks and you’ll get a welfare check.’ You sit him down and feed him.”
So says Dorothy Day in a vintage clip of her sharing her philosophy of helping society’s poor and homeless in the new documentary “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” which will be airing nationally on PBS stations.
The one hour film was created by Christopher Award-winning documentarian and founder of Journey Films, Martin Doblmeier, whose 30 year career has seen him profile people with a deep commitment to loving God and neighbor. Past subjects include German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis.
Doblmeier joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss Day’s life, work, and faith. He noted that even in her early years, when she was a communist, Day felt haunted by God. She tried to suppress her religious sensibilities, but they were always bubbling back up because she was drawn to activities, such as reading the Psalms.
After giving birth to her only child (a daughter named Tamar) out of wedlock, Day wanted to marry the father, Forster Batterham. But he had no interest in making that kind of commitment, which led her to take stock of her life. Having read Thomas à Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ” and other religious literature, Day had Tamar baptized in the Catholic Church and soon decided to become Catholic herself.
Even after her conversion, though, Day still wasn’t sure of her place in the world and how to live out her faith. Then, she met a French man named Peter Maurin, who insisted that she needed to understand Catholic social teaching. He said, “You need to start a newspaper. You need to think about how you can respond in a creative way to the needs of the poor. You have to start living the beatitudes in a very different way.”
Day found Maurin annoying at first because he wouldn’t leave her alone. But finally she came to the conclusion, “Maybe this is the man that God [sent] to me. Maybe this is the voice that I need to be listening to.”
Together, Day and Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement, which involved publishing their own newspaper and opening houses of hospitality where the poor could live and eat together. In addition, Day adopted “voluntary poverty” herself. Doblmeier explained, “Day felt as though you can’t be serving the poor from the top down. It creates the wrong dynamic. In order to truly serve the poor, you have to live together with them and be poor like them.”
That’s what Day did, and her commitment attracted many young people – and even people today, 40 years after her death – to join that community. It especially had an effect on a young Martin Sheen, who was a struggling actor in New York at the time and who Doblmeier interviewed for “Revolution of the Heart.”
Doblmeier said, “Martin Sheen actually took advantage of the Catholic Worker House. He comes in, he doesn’t know who Dorothy Day really is. He just knows that he’s going to be able to get a hot meal and be treated with respect. But he sees, from the ground up, how they treated the people there and he was forever grateful for that. So I think his willingness to participate in the film, it was one small way that he wanted to give thanks for the way that he was treated when he needed to be treated with some love and kindness and understanding because it was not a good time in his life.”
The philosophy that motivated Day’s approach to her work is called personalism. Doblmeier said that she believed “we are each called to do something on an individual basis, to help the person in need in our midst. And when I speak a lot at college campuses and seminaries, I get a sense oftentimes that people believe that the problems of the world are so enormous, how do you change all these structures that have been in place for so long? You can become easily discouraged…Dorothy Day was advocating [the idea that] individual people may not be able to change the whole world, but they can have an impact on the life of the person who’s right there in front of them. And that’s an empowering concept. You don’t need permission. Dorothy Day never asked for permission to start the newspaper. She never asked for permission to start the homes for the poor and the homeless. She just did it…We’re in an election cycle right now, 2020, where there’s going to be a lot of conversation about the role of government in picking up all the social services and identifying the needs within our society. Dorothy Day didn’t think like that at all. She thought that we as individuals had the first line of responsibility to take care of the poor in our midst. And she lived that every day.”
That idea, which is brought out in the film, can broaden our understanding of Day. She is often thought of as being a progressive in light of her anti-war stances and pacifism, even during World War II. But her idea that we as individuals have the primary responsibility of helping the poor could be seen as a conservative idea by modern standards.
Doblmeier observed, “She certainly didn’t step back and say, ‘Which way’s the leftist or the progressive way? Which is the conservative, or the right way to go about this?’ I think she simply thought, ‘What does the life of Jesus Christ and the gospels, and the traditions of the Catholic Church, what do they call me to do and how do they call me to respond in the midst of all of this?’…She is actually a very traditional Catholic. She attends daily Mass. She prays the rosary. She studies and loves the saints…And yet, at the same time, that empowered her to act in ways that we would consider to be a political, social, economic radical. I wouldn’t say leftist. I would say radical. She identified the problems and went after them and charged with full force into each one of the conflicts that she felt as though she was drawn into.”
Throughout her life, Day engaged in serious and difficult work. And many pictures show her as being serious. Yet Doblmeier found an audio clip of Day talking about joy. She said, “Frankly, you can have a sense of joy just in serving the people that are in need around you. And a sense that your vocation is being fulfilled.”
Doblmeier said, “I think that was a wonderful line, especially for young people…[who ask], ‘What is my place in the world?’ They think in terms of career. I don’t think Dorothy Day ever used the word career, but she did use the word vocation. So vocation was something that she felt very clear about: the idea that God is calling you to some kind of place in the world. And if you can find that, you can find joy in doing it. When you look at the film, I’ve been told a couple of times that she looks dour sometimes and very serious other times. But we found a photograph of her smiling. It was a very private, quiet moment when she was actually reading to an elderly woman in bed. And I used that with [her quote] that we can find joy. There’s joy in serving other people. Even though they’re poor, [they] give back to you what it is that you’re giving to them. And that becomes your vocation. And in the midst of doing your vocation, feeling as though your life has a purpose, you can find unspeakable joy.”
(To listen to my full interview with Martin Doblmeier, click on the podcast link):