A Spiritual Journey Among the Poor

Dorothy Day’s life and work by the time the 1960s arrived had settled into a regular pattern – although regular is hardly the word to describe the chaos which often prevailed within that pattern. The people whom she and her co-workers served were the inhabitants of a kind of pandemonium which was the creation of both their own tragic shortcomings and the callous disregard with which the wider world treated them.

But Dorothy consistently inspired inhabitants of that wider world to come and join her in trying to do something for the unfortunate. The story of one of these is recounted in the latest biography of Dorothy, John Loughery’s Dorothy Day – Dissenting Voice of the American Century. It is the story of Marc Ellis, son of middle-class Jewish parents, from the affluent Miami suburbs.

He had heard Dorothy speak at his university and decided to put his career on hold to join her in New York. His teachers were shocked but failed to dissuade him. Ellis stayed at St. Joseph House for nine months, devoting himself to the work that had to be done and keeping a diary, which was published by the Paulist Press in 1978. A Year at the Catholic Worker: A Spiritual Journey Among the Poor.

Ellis spent the nine months from September 1974 to the following spring in New York, which Loughrey describes as “the most degraded period of that city’s twentieth-century history”. Ellis’ diary graphically presents to the reader all the sights, smells, chaos, dangers, irrationality, brutality, – and satisfactions – of the house in a way that few other chronicles of the Catholic Worker movement do. You have the odor of people who refused to shower, and the duties that were involved when it was one’s turn to act as house manager for several hours – “taking the house” it was known as.

Taking the house meant, among many other things, a willingness to accept violence without retaliation, defusing and deflecting aggression, and to be infinitely patient. Aggression, emotional and physical, was omnipresent. New York was now one of the most violent cities in the world and all of this inevitably spilled into St. Joseph’s. On a regular basis, one had to confront threats, abusive language, smashed windows and chairs, fistfights, assaults, knives drawn. Life on East 1st Street showed the city at its worst.

In one encounter, a volunteering seminarian was dragged into the middle of the street by his hair. Ellis himself almost had his jaw broken one night in the foyer by a deranged resident, was kicked in the groin another time, and was sexually catcalled by male residents. Living with all this was the price of trying to administer Christian charity in Pandemonium.

Yet Ellis stuck it out. That he did, Loughrey observes in his book, had to do with the fellow Workers who were both personally centered and steadying for those around them. And then there was Dorothy. He was taken by the fact that she wanted to know his background, why he was there. He was taken by how much she enjoyed youthful company. Her belief that they were doing exactly what God wanted in opening their doors to the neediest, most damaged, and least grateful of humanity, those whom others would gladly cast off, was unshakable, and that was remarkable to him.