Grace nullifies despair in extraordinary ways.
I visited a Dorothy Day House of Hospitality the other day. Sr. Ann McManamon from the Sisters of Humility of Mary, who works at the house, shared with us the extraordinary life of Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day died in 1980, but the journey to beatification and eventual canonization began when she started the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin in the Thirties. Day, a social activist, started a newspaper to bring awareness to others regarding the plight of individuals during the Depression. The newspaper served as an arm of social action, but Day and Maurin determined that they needed to actively engage with the poor, so they started a “House of Hospitality” in the Bowery of New York where people could go for a meal or just a cup of coffee for companionship.
Hundreds of houses have sprung up in the US and abroad, creating a noble movement that is flourishing to this day. Dorothy Day’s social activism and her ideas on service to others has become a hallmark for contemporary Catholic Social Teaching. Day asserted, “Justice and hospitality go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other.”
Sr. Ann told us that one of the original houses in New York was in the middle of a building boom. There were skyscrapers and new developments going up all around them. There was interest in buying the house, so developers could knock it down and build something newer, something bigger and better.
The Dorothy Day Board agreed that the house needed to stay as it is. Although it is an eye sore, it needed to be there if only to remind the other inhabitants in the offices that surrounded it that there were people there in the neighborhood who are poor and in need of assistance. It should serve as a symbol to others that as a community we are engaged in the process of recognizing the problem of poverty — hospitality and justice for the poor exists even in the high rent districts of New York.
These are desperate times for some people. I heard a story about an individual who refused to take a shower in one of the Houses of Hospitality. He was a frequent visitor and accepted a free meal and a place to sleep in peace, but refused a shower. One day one of the workers at the house asked him, “Why won’t you accept a shower?”
The man said, “The prospect of a shower is wonderful. I would love to be clean again. But I can’t bear to think about putting that dirty underwear on again once I’ve cleaned up. I’ve been wearing it for a month and it’s the only pair I have.”
They told him, “We wouldn’t let you wear that underwear again. We burn it and would give you a new pair.”
The man had a shower for the first time in a month. As he cleaned himself in the shower he began to weep with tears of joy in gratitude for the warmth of water and dignity of cleanliness. He was given some new clothes. With the new clothes came recognition of solidarity and understanding that although he may feel alone, there are others there for him; praying for him, loving him unconditionally.
This particular House of Hospitality began when Sr. Ann and her friend Ceil were visiting prisoners at a jail. They were in lockdown mode due to the escape of a prisoner. No one was allowed to leave the prison and they were stranded at the jail for a night. While they were in jail, Sr. Ann was inspired. In the darkness of the cell they discussed how lonely and isolated they felt. They in turn discussed the idea of a House of Hospitality. Ceil said, “If you’re in, I’m in.” That was over ten years ago and the house has been there ever since. Although it’s living on a shoestring budget, it’s making a go of it due to community care and kindness of donors.
I questioned Sr. Ann about the idea of despair. “How does she overcome it?” I asked. It comes to all of us at some point in our lives. Those who attend to the needs of the poor on a regular basis encounter it daily. Sr. Ann was hesitant to answer the question. Maybe it was a dumb question to her, or maybe she wanted me to learn the answer for myself. It’s a big question and one that cannot be answered in a few lines or with a quick remark. It’s a question that needs to be addressed individually nonetheless. It’s a question that may only be answered through service to others.
My takeaway from the service rendered there at the House of Hospitality is God’s Grace nullifies despair. When we serve in the name of love, God’s presence is there. There is hope and through the experience of hope miraculous expressions of God’s love is expressed through our work.
This is why saints fascinate me so much. Although Day has been dead for over twenty-eight years, her legacy of love lives on in the work of Sr. Ann and others who are bringing hospitality and dignity to the poorest of the poor. Saints lives, like Day’s life, are very much alive in the work of kindness and dignity being expressed through the efforts of those who love unconditionally.
The question of despair is an ongoing one, but I feel as though the poetry of the realization of God’s grace takes root in understanding the power of service to others.