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Historia Ecclesiastica

He’s Here

On Dorothy Day Catholicism.


I was confirmed in 1989 at the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Ann’s Church of Somerville, Massachusetts. It was my first Easter Vigil; it included all the readings and ended around midnight. When the time finally came for my confirmation, I was stunned and exhausted and glad that all I had to do was read the words from an index card saying that I affirmed as true all that the Church affirms to be true. That’s when I came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, but my Catholic conversion started twenty-one years earlier, in my hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. 

If you’ve heard of Greenwood, it may be because it was the childhood home of Morgan Freeman and the burial place of Robert Johnson. Also, the alleged incident that led to Emmett Till’s murder took place just outside Greenwood. But my hometown’s greatest historic significance probably comes from its role as one of the major battlegrounds selected by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962 in its campaign for black voting rights. The SNCC philosophy was to go to the toughest places first. When those cracked, the rest would surely follow—hence the focus on Mississippi, and Greenwood in particular.

The White Citizens Council, the organization that led the massive resistance to the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision, had its headquarters in Greenwood. Byron De La Beckwith, the man who murdered the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was from Greenwood. When Beckwith returned home after being acquitted by an all-white jury in Jackson, he was greeted with a welcome home banner hung above the main highway into town. My white working-class family left our small farm and moved to town the same year that SNCC arrived in Greenwood, so some of the most dramatic events of the Civil Rights movement were the backdrop to my childhood. Of course, I didn’t know much about that at the time. My life centered on sports and the First Baptist Church, which we attended twice on Sundays and sometimes on Wednesdays, too. There I grew, at least in stature, learned the Bible, and, during one of our regular summer revivals, even gave my life to Christ and was dunked beneath the waters of baptism by our kindly, hip-booted pastor.

My adolescence began during the late 1960s, and, as I started to discover the world around me and to think my own thoughts, I ran head-on into a brick wall of cognitive dissonance about race and religion. First Baptist had taught me to sing, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” However, during Freedom Summer in 1964, when mixed groups of black and white Christian activists were occasionally showing up for worship at all-white congregations, our church in Greenwood posted ushers outside the doors, throughout the entire service, to turn away any unwelcome guests. We took up collections for missionaries in black Africa. But we rarely lifted a finger for the descendants of enslaved Africans who lived a few blocks away. When I was in middle school, the first few black students came to our all-white school. One of them was a boy in my grade who had the misfortune not only to be the only black kid in the class but also to be named Marcel. He suffered the torments of Hell that year, especially in the locker room before and after gym class. I knew what my white classmates were doing to that boy was wrong, and I never joined in. But I never said or did a thing to stop it. 

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Greenwood was right across the street from First Baptist. I remember seeing their pastor walking back and forth in front of the church, in a cassock, reading his little black prayer book. In my adolescent awakening, I learned that there was another Catholic church, with a school, out at the edge of town. It was called Saint Francis and was staffed by Franciscan missionaries who’d come down from the North to serve Greenwood’s black community. 

In 1968, I was fourteen years old. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the civil rights movement began to falter in the Deep South. The national organizations had all left Greenwood and taken the national news media with them, but, aside from the minimally token integration of the white schools, very little had changed. For example, whites-only restaurants just re-organized themselves as private clubs and handed out membership cards to all their white customers. There were still no black elected officials, or black police officers, or black clerks or salespeople in any of the stores. Throughout the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in and out of Memphis, just ninety miles north of us, to support the sanitation workers union, and on one of those visits he made a side trip to Greenwood to promote the Poor People’s Campaign. Then, a few weeks later, he was assassinated. Black people in Greenwood realized then that nothing would ever change unless they took responsibility for making the change. Three local ministers of black churches formed the leadership team for an organization simply v. Board of Education Movement. One of those ministers was a white Franciscan priest from Wisconsin named Father Nathaniel Machesky. 

Soon after its establishment, the Greenwood Movement called for a boycott of white-owned businesses until their demands for basic human rights were met. The Movement kept a picket line in front of targeted businesses and helped people make arrangements to get their necessities in neighboring towns. My junior high school was just a few blocks from the downtown business district, and I was in the habit of wandering there after school to read comics and magazines at Barrett’s Drugstore or listen to whatever was new at Joe’s Record Shop. One day, as I was approaching Howard Street, the main business thoroughfare, I stood on a corner and saw the picket line right across the street. The people were all carrying hand-lettered signs that said things like, “Justice for All,” “Green Power,” and “I Want to Be Free.” There were several young black people, some not much older than me, and a few older black women. There was a black man in a suit, probably one of the ministers. And there were white people—a man in a clerical collar and two sisters in nun’s habits. When I saw them, something became crystal clear in my muddled young mind and heart. There was another way to be a Christian. I wouldn’t have to abandon Jesus to stand for justice. My conversion to Catholicism took a couple of decades more, but I was lost to the Baptists from that moment on. 

When I was in tenth grade, almost sixteen years after Brown vs. Board of Education, a federal court order finally forced the combination of Greenwood’s two separate and unequal public school systems into one. It happened during Christmas break. In December, we left a high school that was ninety percent white. In January we returned to one that was, like our town, roughly half and half. Mobile classrooms (converted house trailers) filled the spaces around the school building, and a new world began. In Greenwood the transition was peaceful, and, to my way of thinking, entirely positive. Of course, the whites most resistant to integration had removed themselves to a new “segregation academy” at the edge of town. As the months went by and students sorted themselves into cliques and clusters as kids do, I noticed that the black students who were most self-confident and unafraid to speak up for themselves were often ones who had attended Saint Francis School through eighth grade. Meanwhile, among the few white friends I found who shared my enthusiasm for integration, three were Catholic. They were the ones who were with me one afternoon when we handed out anti–Vietnam war leaflets at the federal building downtown. One of those Catholic friends also somehow knew one of the nuns at Saint Francis, and she let him use her address so we could receive bundles of The Kudzu the underground newspaper published in Jackson. 

It was also during this time that a mass market paperback of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan, S.J., appeared alongside the Westerns and romances on the book rack at the Gibson’s Discount Store in town. As the title indicates, Berrigan’s book was a dramatization of his trial (along with his brother Phillip and seven others) for destroying draft records as an act of resistance to the Vietnam War. A little later, in that same Gibson’s store, I found cheap editions of On Pilgrimage: The Sixties, a collection of Dorothy Day’s Columns in the Catholic Worker, and Day’s earlier books, The Long Loneliness and Loaves and Fishes, reissued to mark the author’s seventy-fifth birthday. I bought them all. Of course, I didn’t understand everything I read back then, but I could certainly tell that both of these authors and activists wrote what they wrote and did what they did because of Jesus. And they seemed to see Jesus in a way that had never occurred to me before. They saw him in the burning flesh of Vietnamese napalm victims, in the faces of the homeless men on a soup line, or among the workers on a picket line. To them being Christian seemed to mean joining Jesus in his suffering here and now, which is where you find the hope of new life. In On Pilgrimage, I also learned that Dorothy Day had visited the Saint Francis Center in Greenwood in 1968. This other way to be a Christian just wouldn’t leave me alone.

My halfway house between the Baptists and Rome turned out to be Sojourners Fellowship, an intentional Christian community that had grown up around the work of Sojourners magazine, an ecumenical monthly with roots in evangelicalism that focused mainly on social justice and peace issues. When I joined, there were about forty community members living in four large households. We were all white, but we lived clustered within a few blocks of each other in a low-income, almost all black inner-city neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Some of us worked at the magazine and others worked in a neighborhood ministry that included a day care center, a food co-op, and a tenant-organizing project. Others worked at a variety of regular jobs in the city. All of us turned all our income over to a common treasury and received a household budget for necessities and a very small personal stipend for very small luxuries. The idea was to translate the life of the first-century Church into the last quarter of the twentieth. Every Sunday we gathered for a worship service that was a sort of bootleg version of the Episcopal liturgy. Every Wednesday we had community meetings for discussion or teaching, and every Monday household meetings to deal with logistics, iron out personality conflicts, and share personal struggles. 

We did a lot of good things in those days. The magazine, and its related organizing efforts, played a part in mobilizing Christian opposition to the nuclear arms race and to repression and war in Central America. We also did our bit to keep the priority of the poor front and center during the onset of Reaganomics. However, we also did some really stupid things. For example, we thought that moving into a low-income, black neighborhood would demonstrate our solidarity with the poor and root our life and work in their experience. In reality, we mainly served as urban pioneers for the real estate industry, opening new territory for the massive gentrification that would soon drive the poor people out of that neighborhood.

But the stupid thing we did that is relevant to my story here happened at one of our community meetings. When the community started, the members were mostly young and single, but as the years rolled by, marriages happened, then children. With children came the question of whether they would be baptized as infants, or later if or when they made a personal profession of faith. We were an ecumenical community, unaffiliated with any institutional church. We had members from Catholic, Episcopal, and mainline Protestant traditions who wanted their babies baptized, and we had people from various evangelical and Anabaptist traditions for whom infant baptism was mere hocus pocus. 

So one Wednesday night, we all crammed into the basement of one of our community houses for what became an interminable and utterly unproductive discussion of child baptism. The idea that we were going to settle a question that had divided Christians for five hundred years was patently absurd. And, despite all the talk, we didn’t settle it. Instead, we opted for a compromise in which each family would follow its own inclination, which, in practice, meant that we really believed nothing at all about the significance of the sacrament, if it was, in fact, a sacrament at all.

That was when I lost whatever interest I may have ever had in re-inventing the ecclesial wheel. The vague Catholic inclination that had dogged me for fifteen years began to take a more definite shape. Not long after, I began dating Polly Duncan, who was to become my wife. She had come from Cleveland to join the Sojourners staff. In Cleveland, she had already gone through R.C.I.A., twice, but had not yet made the leap to confirmation. Within three years, we were both Roman Catholics.

We started by attending Mass together at Saint Aloysius Gonzaga Church, a Jesuit parish on North Capitol Street (since closed). Despite all my reading of Catholic authors and relationships with Catholic friends and colleagues, I had still never gone to a Catholic Mass. Saint. Al’s, as everyone called it, was a historically black parish, so the music was familiar to me. They even sang some of the same Baptist hymns with which I’d grown up. In addition, some of the liturgy was familiar from our quasi-Anglican Sojourners services. However, nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced at the consecration of the Eucharist. I didn’t know the vocabulary at the time, but I was simply overwhelmed by the fact of Christ’s real presence. Something inside me said, “He’s here.” And he was; Jesus was there—right there in that room. The Jesus that I’d heard preached about and had accepted as my Savior. The Jesus that I read about and tried to follow. He was there—really and truly and completely. And he had been there for almost two thousand years. I was a Catholic Christian from then on. The rest was just logistics. 

Ever since I officially converted, I have occasionally been asked , “But what kind of Catholic are you?” The implication being, what theological/political camp are you in—progressive or orthodox? My answer is always, “I’m a Dorothy Day Catholic, or at least I try to be.” Dorothy Day satisfied no faction, political or ecclesial. She was, from her teen years, a woman of the Left, a socialist, an anti-imperialist, eventually some sort of anarcho-syndicalist. She never renounced or abandoned any of those inclinations. After her baptism and until her death, however, she was also a faithful daughter of the Church, obedient to all the Church’s teachings and devoted to all Her sacramental and devotional practices. She had no patience for the great cultural revolution of the 1960s and tried her best to keep its influence away from the Catholic Worker. She’d had an abortion during her own wandering youth and so knew firsthand what a grave evil that was. She didn’t join the Church to critique or reform it; she joined the Church to find the peace and serenity that she saw her working class Catholic neighbors find by surrendering to God’s will as it was made visible through the Church. 

When I was confirmed in the Church, we were in the Boston area for Polly to get her master’s degree at what was then Weston Jesuit School of Theology. We lived in an apartment building near Harvard Square that the school had bought to house its lay students. Still, at that very beginning of our Catholic life, Polly and I knew that we didn’t want to cast our lot solely with the intelligentsia of the Church. We chose Saint Ann’s, in the next township over, because it was an ordinary parish of mostly Italian and Portuguese middle and working class Catholics. We chose not to be in a self-selected bubble of “people like us”—Sojourners had shown us what a dead end that could be. Instead, we wanted to join the “Here comes everybody” mainstream of the Church and be held up and carried along by its current. 

For myself, I knew that I needed most of all to not have to be right all the time. I needed to surrender my critical faculties and my God Almighty intellect to something larger than myself. When I read my profession of faith off that index card at Easter, I still had some doubts about a few Catholic beliefs, but when I affirmed what the Church affirms, I surrendered my need to understand or to be right. I became willing to accept leadership, direction, and, yes, even authority. There’s a saying in twelve-step groups that it is easier to act your way into right thinking than it is to think your way into right action. I’ve found that to be true whenever I’ve tried it. Certainly, living as a Catholic from week to week and year to year has, slowly but surely, made me into more of a Catholic. Any doubts that I may have had in Easter 1989 have either been resolved or just don’t matter very much because I trust that the Holy Spirit guides the Church.

My wife and I have lived our Catholic lives ever since. Providence, and our distaste for the East Coast bubble, would eventually take us back to the South, where we’ve been for the past twenty-five years. Here we have lived and worked and raised our four Catholic children in the ambivalent embrace of a culture that, if not exactly Christian, is certainly, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “Christ-haunted.” Polly works for the Church, and I teach at a historically black college. 

As I look back now, I can see that my two conversion epiphanies—on the streets of Greenwood, Mississippi and in Saint Al’s church—are inextricably connected. The power that I witnessed at work on that picket line and that I dimly grasped in the writings of Berrigan and Day was the same one that I encountered in the Mass. It was the Paschal Mystery—the divine life offered as sacrifice and resurrected among us. And that isn’t an abstract theological proposition; it is a living and breathing reality that the Church offers every day in the celebration of the Eucharist. I think that’s what allowed the priest and nuns I saw in Greenwood to step out and do something that could easily get them killed. It’s what allowed Daniel Berrigan to face years in prison and inspired Dorothy Day to live almost fifty years among the poorest of America’s poor and go to jail repeatedly for causes such as peace and workers’ rights. That power equips each of us, in our own little ways, to offer ourselves for others and for a greater good in our families, communities, and workplaces. And it was there all along, waiting for me. 

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort and writes regularly for U.S. Catholic.

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