Here’s a long-standing social movement that was created during the Depression and has survived and even grown over the last thirty years without a leader.
May 1 marks the 79th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s great achievement: a movement whose vision of activist faith couldn’t be farther from the moralizing of the religious right that has seemed to define Christianity’s incursion on politics since the 1980s. The Catholic Worker, which Day founded with Peter Maurin, a French immigrant, was — and remains — a philosophy, a social initiative, a way of life. Its understanding of personal responsibility maintains not that we all must rely on ourselves, but rather that we are all beholden to better the lives of the less fortunate. On May 1, 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, Day took to Union Square handing out the first copies of her newspaper, also called The Catholic Worker, which delivered the message of compassion and justice at the cost of one penny; the price has never gone up.
The movement has always sought “a new society in the shell of the old” — peace, less disparity of wealth, an end to economic exploitation, violence, racism and so on. Its goals can seem broad but its methods are intimate and practical. Around the country and in various parts of the world, Catholic Worker communities exist as households where lay members, typically committed to voluntary poverty, often live among the homeless and needy they are aiding. It is a model for Occupy Wall Street — like that more recent movement, it is decentralized and decisions are largely made by consensus — which has said it will hold protests around the country on Tuesday, historically a significant day for the labor movement. There are no headquarters or board of directors and, since Day’s death in 1980, no leader. Things have hardly faded: in the past 17 years, the number of communities has grown from 134 to more than 210.
The oldest of these is in New York —in two buildings in the East Village, one primarily for men, the other for women — and a visit there offers lessons in the kind of radical empathy we rarely get to witness. Mr. Hart lives among 25 or so mostly homeless men at the St. Joseph House on East First Street. Every Friday he cooks for the 80 to 200 nonresidents who show up each weekday for a midmorning meal.