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Dorothy Day: From Tragedy To Love

by Thomas M. Crisp

Among the great Jesus followers of the 20th century was Dorothy Day (1897–1980), known widely as the “American Mother Teresa” for her work among the poor. Together with Peter Maurin, a modern-day, Saint-Francis-like itinerant philosopher and day laborer, she founded the Catholic Worker movement, which spawned a vast network of “houses of hospitality,” where Christians would live together in intentional community with the poor or otherwise marginalized, practicing a shared life of voluntary poverty, prayer, study and the so-called corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, and burying the dead [1]. Day practiced this lifestyle among the poorest of the poor in New York City for most of her adult life. She provides a powerful example of what it might look like to follow the Jesus of the Gospels into his teachings and practices in a modern context.

As I reflect on the images pouring from the nightly news, I’m struck by a childhood experience of Day’s thought by scholars of her life to have been a formative influence on her moral consciousness. She and her family lived briefly in Oakland, California, during the early years of the 20th century, and were there for the San Francisco earthquake of 1908. Reflecting on it years later, she wrote:

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies.

Mother had always complained before about how clannish California people were, how if you were from the East they snubbed you and were loathe to make friends. But after the earthquake everyone’s heart was enlarged by Christian charity. All the hard crust of worldly reserve and prudence was shed. Each person was a little child in friendliness and warmth.

Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. They realized their own helplessness while nature “travaileth and groaneth.” It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly, with pity and with love [2].

We are now in the midst of our own crisis, and as in Day’s experience of the San Francisco quake and its aftermath, we too are surrounded by people stripping themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. One thinks here of the doctors and nurses, the food bank volunteers, the Pennsylvania workers who slept in their factory for 28 days to make masks, and so many others.

May we ourselves find opportunity in this time of stress to love our neighbor in such ways; may we be so marked by it that, like Day, we are drawn into permanent lifestyles of radical care for one another, unjudging, with pity and with love.

Thomas M. Crisp (M.A. ’97) is a professor of philosophy at Biola University and a scholar-in-residence at Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. Find more of his writings at

[1] From Matt. 25:35–36.

[2] Dorothy Day, From Union Square to Rome (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 24–25.