Valuing Every Person

In his biography of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, soup kitchens where anyone could come for food and connection, Robert Coles describes his first meeting with Dorothy Day at the house of hospitality on the Lower East Side of New York City:

 “She was sitting at a table, talking with a woman who was I quickly realized, quite drunk, yet determined to carry on a conversation. As I stood nearby, trying to listen in while not appearing to do so, I made a connection between that addled woman and the one I had seen dead on a sidewalk only a few hours earlier.” (Coles recounts that on his way to the Catholic Worker a crowd was gathered around a woman dead in the street.)  “They were approximately the same age and had the same body build (stocky and of medium height) and the same coloring (fair skin, gray-blond hair). The woman to whom Dorothy Day was talking, however, had a large purple-red birthmark along the right side of her forehead. She kept touching as she uttered one exclamatory remark after another, none of which seemed to get the slightest rise from the person sitting opposite her. I found myself confused by what seemed to be an interminable, essentially absurd exchange taking place between the two middle-age women. When would it end—the alcoholic ranting and the silent nodding, occasionally interrupted by a brief question, which only served, maddeningly, to wind up the already overtalkative one rather than wind her down? Finally, silence fell upon the room. Dorothy Day asked the woman if she would mind an interruption. She got up and came over to me. She said, “are you waiting to talk with one of us?” One of us: with those three words she had cut through layers of self-importance a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride” (p.xviii).

Most churches, including my own, are involved in all sorts of ministries that respond to the needs of others. The great danger in these ministries is that we forget that we are all in the same boat. We quickly divide up people between those with something to offer and those in need, those serving and those being served. As we make this division, it is easy to divide people between those who have value and those who don’t. Dorothy Day had discovered that every human being is a child of God, made in God’s image. She had discovered that everyone is gifted and has something to offer. She had discovered that everyone is “poor” and in need.

How might Robert Coles’ encounter with Dorothy Day and this other woman change your approach the next time you serve food at a soup kitchen or host people at the Interfaith Hospitality Network or see someone asking for money on the street?

Roger Greene1 Comment