Catholic Worker legacy alive and well in Portland

Street Roots editorial Sept 14, 2012

It’s been more than 30 years since Dorothy Day died, but her spirit remains alive and well.

She was the founder and virtual personification of the Catholic Worker movement that said hospitality will triumph over hostility, and that violence isn’t necessary for, and in fact impedes, great change. It is a concept for organizing and empowering the poor that is incorporated in the foundation of many grassroots groups here in Portland, including Street Roots.

However, the civility of the movement should not suggest that Day herself was anything resembling a shrinking violet in the face of injustice. To the contrary, she was arrested for civil disobedience on multiple occasions, including standing up for women’s suffrage, supporting civil and labor rights, protesting the Vietnam War, and finally, at age 75, in her solidarity with United Farm Workers in California.

In the throes of the Great Depression, the nation was figuring out how to live with a new – and massive – population of poor and homeless on its streets. There was charity, but no solidarity. Day’s initiative in establishing houses and communities for people who were homeless inspired newly energized supporters to offer what they could to this new social stone soup. The Catholic Worker movement also used its own newspaper to broaden the dialogue around economic justice and equal rights. She wrote about not just tending to those in need, but ending the root causes of inequality. She once questioned, early in her life, why so much was done remedying social ills instead of avoiding them in the first place?

The question resonates today.

Our nation’s poverty rate remains at 15 percent, unchanged from last year and still at the highest levels in the past 50 years, according to the U.S. Census figures released this month. That’s more than 46 million Americans living in poverty, with more inching closer to the threshold as the median family income dropped slightly between 2010 and 2011. Equally disturbing in this land of plenty is the report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that more than 50 million Americans struggle with hunger. Our markets and corporations have recovered from the crash of 2008, but the people have not.

So as the Catholic Worker movement approaches its 80th anniversary next year, the need for hospitality, empowerment and public awareness remains as imperative as it was when Day first opened her doors. Since her death 30 years ago, the movement has continued without any figurehead or national leader. But the practice of hospitality and opportunity over aggression and segregation remain in practice throughout Portland. The doors are open. Get involved. Learn more about the remarkable work in our community that is making a profound difference in people’s lives and the health of the community. It is truly better when we share.

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