Freedom to Be and Become

October – November 2005

Mike Scahill

The years 1969 and 1979 were contentious ones at the Catholic Worker. Events and discourse taking place threatened the very core of Catholic Worker philosophy and tradition. It was upon this scene that I arrived at the Catholic Worker and was a minor player in all this through a piece I had written in the June 1970 issue, “Up From Nonviolence: A Catholic Worker in Cuba.”

When I was asked to do a memoir piece on Dorothy I was initially flattered. That soon turned to unsettling anxiety. Of all people who should be asked to submit a memoir of Dorothy Day my name would not , as they say, even make the long list. I was unsettled because of the last time I wrote a piece in the CW it eventually led to my departure. Largely because of that piece, I would not return to the CW for over thirty years. I did eventually return o the CW on a limited basis here in Milwaukee. As I mentioned to one of the volunteers in Milwaukee, it was as if I had left a meeting to step outside to have a cigarette for thirty years, and then went back inside. The same meeting was going on. The issues, problems, even some of the people remain the same.

I arrived at 36 East First Street in the summer of 1969. The house was overflowing with volunteers. I shared the upstairs fifth floor area with Arthur J. Acey, Jimmy, Wong, and a few other volunteers; Ed Forand had a bedroom. I can still picture the scene almost as if they were still there. Little by little, the ranks thinned. I had my stretch of long periods “on the house.” It was in some of these stretches that I got to know Dorothy on a person level. Dorothy had intervals between travels where she was in the house for long periods. I had the good fortune to be covering shifts during one of these stretches. She would linger about after dinner drinking tea. The hectic dinner hour would be winding down. Our conversations were simple and personal. I always thought she found it a bit interesting that I was from Chicago because of her long history i that city. The one specific memory I had of those evenings is that just about every evening, an hour or so after dinner, Dorothy and a small group of not more than five or six individuals living in the house, such as John Geis, Arthur J. Lacy and others, would gather down in the basement for Vespers.

I recall telling this anecdote to one of the young Catholic Workers in Milwaukee who asked me, “What’s Vespers?” In this era of saint as celebrity, if, for example, it were known that Dorothy Day was coming to town for evening Vespers, it would fill up the Cathedral in Milwaukee and tickets could even be sold and it would be standing room only with a request for a second evening. Not once did I–and if my memory serves me correctly–nor did any other of the dozen or so volunteers, ever once join her in the basement. To me, that scenario symbolizes that era at the CW. We were so young, so wise, so secular, so politically sophisticated; so above spirituality. We were all so self-absorbed and so stupid. Who needed Vespers? We had the Black Panthers, DS, the Weather Underground, and the new “Catholic Left.”

It was in this context that I entered the historical legacy of the CW, Dorothy Day, and Cuba. An opportunity came up for the CW to send a representative to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade to participate in the Harvest of the Ten Million Tons, an international effort to help raise the Cuban economy out of its stagnation. Hundreds of international students poured in from all over the communist world. North Vietnam, North Korea, the Soviet Union; a virtual list of representative countries to which Americans were forbidden travel. Dorothy was asked to send one of her community. The issue of Cuba was once close to Dorothy’s heart. She traveled there and wrote often of it in her “On Pilgrimage” column.

I wish to neither over nor understate the significance of traveling to Cuba in the late 1960s. At that time, a trip to Cuba would likely result in a visit from the FBI. For many on the American Left in the 1960s, from the Weather Underground to liberation theologians, all roads led to Cuba. The Catholic Worker itself was not out of that loop. Dorothy herself, along with Dave Dellinger and famed journalist William Worthy, had frequent pieces in the paper about the Cuban revolution.

At the time, I was the least qualified and least likely to go. I was one of the youngest members of the community ad also perhaps one of the least politically astute. I expressed all these reservations to Dorothy. What could I possibly offer? I was some lower middle class kid from the South Side of Chicago. I had none of the political or theological savvy of so many in the community at that time. When I eventually did return o New York, my take on Cuba was at compete odds with CW philosophy. Who was I to say such heresy? What dues did I pay? How much prison time had I done? See what happens when you send some immature neophyte off on a big-time assignment? The Catholic Worker has had some of the finest writers and journalists in the country and you sent him? Those were but a few of the responses.

The article brought swift criticism because if questioned the nature of nonviolence and argued for the right to self-defense. Person of no less stature than Gordon Zahn even referred to it as the Catholic Worker “flirting with violence.” Subscriptions were even cancelled. The article perhaps caused a great stir because  it came on the heels of a Friday Night Clarification of Thought the same month by David Miller, who had been released from Lewisburg Federal Prison for draft resistance. He questioned both his pacifism and Catholicism the night he spoke. Dorothy herself addressed both the issues raised by David and myself in her “On Pilgrimage” column that month. It is those comments I remember most of all.

Here we are some thirty-five years later, with issues just as contentious. The Cuban revolution remains intact but assailed by the tenth US president Fidel Castro has faced. Dorothy is gone. The truly great writers in the Worker on Cuba–Dave Dellinger and William Worthy–perhaps made the most o lasting and eloquent statements of the Cuban revolution. However, note gone is the constant debate and inner soul-searching for those of us in the Church. My last contact with Dorothy was in the late fall of 1070 after I had left the Worker. I wrote her a letter expressing my regret at t any embarrassment or ill feeling she might have had because of my article. As was her way, she wrote me back quickly. She told me I was always welcome back at the Catholic Worker.

In this era of talking heads who say so much and know so little, I often reflect back on Dorothy’s constant reminder that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. She not only allowed but encouraged id-course and discussion on issues that questioned the inner foundations of the Catholic Worker. In a world engulfed by war and a Church divided over such issues as the ordination of women and the ise of contraception and who should or should to be allowed to receive Communion. I long for the voice of a Dorothy Day.

In her June 1970 “On Pilgrimage ” column that ran next to my front page piece on Cuba, Dorothy challenged the community, writing, “It is good for us to be confronted…and recognize that we do not deserve, have not earned the title pacifist or Christian.”

“Being and becoming, “she wrote ” are two different things.”


One thought on “Freedom to Be and Become

  1. Pingback: Catholic Workers: We Do Nice Things, But We Are Not Nice People | visiitor

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