My husband Tim and I met in an intentional Christian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We lived together in large households with other folks, pooled all of our resources together, worshiped, prayed, and shared our lives together. Tim and I were married in the community and the community surrounded us and held us up when our daughter Temma was born and had a cardiac arrest two days later. My identity and vocation is shaped by my experience of living in community. I learned of the writer, activist, and leader, Dorothy Day, while living in community. I devoured everything that Dorothy wrote; her books, her columns in the Catholic Worker newspaper, and books written about her. Dorothy’s life and experiences, her searching, her spiritual hunger, her joy in mystery, sacrament, and symbolism, and her starting and building the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, a physical manifestation of the mystical Body of Christ, all of it profoundly influenced my journey. Day was my heroine, my model for choosing life in community. Temma’s middle name comes from her, Temma Day Lowly.
I recently finished reading a new book about Dorothy Day and her daughter Tamar, written by Dorothy’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessey. No one else could have written so intimately of Dorothy Day’s inner life, the relationship between Dorothy and Tamar, and the relationship between Dorothy and the church. I became lost in the book, remembering and reliving my early community days, the excitement and the great joys of community life together with the difficulties and pitfalls of membership and leadership in such communities; the tension between independence and inter-dependence; the call to welcome all people and the difficulties of realizing a lifetime of caring for many; choosing voluntary poverty and the cost to families; the troubles of struggling for power and authority. Having her daughter Tamar, pushed Dorothy to enter the church. Yet she still loved Tamar’s father, Forster. Dorothy’s fierce and headlong dive into the church led to the dissolution of Dorothy and Forster’s life together and divided father and daughter.
Before starting the Catholic Worker, when Dorothy was still working as a newspaper reporter and writer, she went to cover the hunger march in Washington D.C., December, 1932. “In one of the most grace-filled moments of a life full of grace, Dorothy found herself praying to God. Here I am–what would you have me do?” It was soon after her return to New York city that Peter Maurin showed up on Dorothy’s doorstep teaching a program of roundtable discussions, houses of hospitality based on the bishop’s hospices for wayfaring strangers in the middle ages, and farming communes. Dorothy believed that the Blessed Mother sent her this teacher.
Life in those first Catholic Worker houses of hospitality was not easy. The lack of room, lack of peace and quiet, lack of beauty, lack of money led many in and right back out again. “Yet we sow…even though we seem to constantly fail,” wrote Dorothy. For a while Dorothy sought out extreme piety, harsh and intense spiritual retreats and she demanded that others in the community attend the retreats. Oppressive and cultish behaviors began. It took Dorothy a long time to realize her mistake, that she could not provide faith for another. “Community is sword grass in the hand,” she quoted. Yet, “the world will be saved by beauty” (Dostoyevsky) “and what is more beautiful than love?” she wrote.
My own spiritual hunger, my call and my intense desire to be like Dorothy Day led to my burn-out and illness while living in community. Like her, I struggled with my call to to live a life of compassion for the downtrodden while experiencing an overwhelming need for solitude and a desire to write. Like her, my own daughter pushed me into my vocation in the church, but at what cost for the two of us? That first community where Tim and I met each other also “failed” and yet he and I and so many others who experienced life in that community continue to sow in multiple ways and in multiple places. My calling remains; to build community, to welcome the downtrodden, those living on the margins, to protest war and abuse of power, and also to continue to seek out the mysterious and silent places of the heart to listen to the voice of God.
In working on a Mother’s Day sermon I thought I might focus on Hagar and my web search for “Hagar’s sacrifice” led me to your blog – that was almost two hours ago, time well spent reading it start to finish. Frankly I’m glad you didn’t post more or I’d be here all day. In the text for Sunday Jesus tells the disciples “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” How do mothers sacrifice in ways that lead to greater things for their children? I used to think of Jesus’ words in terms of miracles – feeding, healing, other signs – but now I understand them in terms of reconciliation – and surely the times demand greater things for the sake of reconciliation. Also I think of greater significance, which is often thought of in terms of a resume of accomplishments like a Dorothy Day – but as your story of Temma shows, that is only one small facet of significance. I’m not sure how much of your story I can use from the pulpit I’ve occupied for 27 years – I just turned 70 and find my emotions silence me more now than ever. But your story helps renew a sense of purpose and your blog creates a bit of community for the work of ministry. Thanks
Thank you Rev. for your comment. It is encouraging for me. Blessings on your sermon and on your ministry. I too, find Hagar’s story very compelling. And reconciliation is surely the work of our time. Thank you.
You might enjoy an online album of photos I have that came from a time when I was pastor of a small rural church while living in a intentional community designed to support those in prison for war resistance – we ran a weekly newspaper which gave us some income but also access to cover events of interest – https://flic.kr/s/aHskDtsv4u
Your photos are beautiful. What an experience of community. Pete Seeger was with you?
Our community was formed when a friend was in prison for draft resistance – Philip Berrigan was in prison at the same time, and so we became involved with some of his support groups and actions. A group of us were also active with the War Resister’s League. Some of those photos come from a Berrigan led action at the 50th Anniversary of Pratt and Whitney where Phil and others spray painted “death” and poured blood on fighter planes that were on display. Other pictures come from a War Resister’s League action to unfurl banners simultaneously on the lawn of the White House and in Red Square that read “No Nuclear Weapons No Nuclear Power” The people in Red Square were invited to meet with the Russian government, the people on the White House lawn were arrested and sent to trial. That generated much more interest because the woman holding the banner at the left in the photo is Grace Paley, and putting her on trial was a well covered event. The War Resister’s League also helped organize a mass demonstration in New York City to support the Second UN Special Session on Disarmament – that’s where the pictures of Sweet Honey and the Rock, the Bread and Puppet Theater, Pete Seeger, Ron Kovic, and Bella Abzug come from. Other pictures come from a “Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice” which was undertaken at the time of the American bicentennial. I was kind of the house photographer on these events – along with others – so I helped with the planning and press. After ten years of juggling that work with a job and part time ministry I was broke, our community members were going different ways, and I moved to Vermont to work full time as a pastor and start a family. Once there I tried to find issues I thought the church could unite around – like nutrition for women and infants, rights of persons with disabilities, nuclear freeze, the ERA – there was plenty to do and so I moved into a different phase of life – but I did love reading your blog and being reminded of the strong heritage we share in the tradition of women like Dorothy Day and how there is that leaven still spreading in individual lives and our society.
What a great history. Thank you for sharing. Our communities ended and we have moved on. But still building community. I’m glad to connect with you.
Oh, Sherrie, your articles stirred many memories of our life together in community! Good memories. Thanks for your eloquent article. I like the quote in the title. I’ve heard that INFP’s place a high value on beauty. I know I certainly do, and now I see that you (INFP that you are) do too.
Yes, for INFP’s.
Christ’s Community as an entity might have died, but it lives on in the hearts of many of us. I too seek and nurture commmunity wherever I can find it. My Lord is still number one and more so as I near the end of my days here. Glad to hear from a kindred spirit.