In 2014, D.L. Mayfield and I stumbled upon one another in the forests and wetlands of Collegeville, Minnesota. We were there for a weeklong retreat called “Writing to Change the World.” We were young and dreaming of what a writing life could look like. I don’t think we were under any illusion that our writing would change the world, but we were holding the realities of systemic injustice in our hearts and bones, hungering for how our written word could both expose the powers that be and energize the imaginations of community and movement.
I remember one night as we walked to Saint John’s University for dinner, we fell onto the topic of Dorothy Day. I had been raised in the Catholic Worker community in Detroit. We talked about hospitality houses, liturgical action, and a faith of resistance.
I am delighted almost a decade later to be interviewing D.L. Mayfield about her incredible book about Dorothy Day, Unruly Saint: Dorothy Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Times. D.L. has indeed found ways to stitch stories, humor, and humanity onto the page in ways that ask each of us what it means to be alive in a time that so deeply calls for love and justice.
Can you tell us a little about Dorothy Day?
Dorothy Day helped start the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 in New York City. In the shadow of the Great Depression, she was someone who fiercely wanted to know what her Catholic faith had to say about the issues of the day–homelessness, poverty, and inequality. She found Peter Maurin, a French hobo philosopher, who told her that the church had the values of social action which could change the world if people only knew about them. Emboldened by Peter’s faith and grasp of both history and theology, Dorothy Day started a monthly newspaper, houses of hospitality for the poor, and farming communes over the next five decades of her life. It became a movement known as the Catholic Worker, the largest group of leftist Catholic action the US has ever seen, and one that continues to this day.
Why does this book matter in this moment?
The first book I read in preparation to write my biography of the birth of the Catholic Worker in 1933 was Studs Terkel’s book of oral histories of the Great Depression called Hard Times. I feel like the late 1920s and early 1930s have so many parallels to today: people are suffering, housing is increasingly unaffordable, we are dealing with the fallouts of a pandemic, and the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. Religious fascism is on the rise, much like it was in the US in 1933. People are drawn towards harsh authoritarianism instead of facing the reality that the system itself in the US is broken, and that it is broken on purpose. The question Dorothy asked of herself and her readers in 1933 remains the same one I have: what are people of faith to do in such a moment in history? Will our faith cause us to disengage with the poor and the suffering, or will it compel us to make their pain our own pain, and work together to make it just the tiniest bit better?
What are people of faith to do in such a moment in history?
What is the most surprising/bizarre/funny/human thing you learned through researching Dorothy Day?
I love how cheeky she was, and how human too. I always think about how they had a cat named Social Justice in the first Catholic Worker house. And she used to borrow her neighbor’s horse to transport bundles of her radical paper and called the horse Social Action. Her neighbor was a fascist, and she just thought it was the funniest thing to use his horse to spread her anti-fascist work, right under her neighbor’s nose!
The end goal would be for people to take Dorothy Day’s writing seriously. I hope my book is accessible to many kinds of people who want to understand the setting for Dorothy’s seminal work, The Long Loneliness. As Dorothy is in the canonization process in the Catholic Church, there is a push to flatten her story or to only highlight certain elements of it. But most people don’t engage with what she actually spent so much of her time doing: reporting and writing about the issues of the day for her newspaper. It is truly radical writing, and mostly gets ignored by folks who only want to engage with parts of her. I read the first five years of the Catholic Worker in particular to inform my view of her. I tried to take her writing very seriously, and would love it if other people did the same.
Do you think that Dorothy Day can help encourage us to take greater risks? To abandon the assumptions and expectations fed to us by capitalism? To turn towards awe and wonder and imagination? Because something big needs to shift right now and it will require risk, cost, and community. How can Dorothy Day wake us up into a new way of living?
When I first started researching and writing the book, I wanted to be Dorothy Day. I don’t think this is uncommon for people like myself–desperate for justice, longing for good role models in Christianity (Especially as we have been so disillusioned by Christian nationalism). Now, I don’t want to be Dorothy. I want to be myself. I want to know who I am and therefore be better able to be a part of the movement today.
I think we get into trouble when we start to have the mindset that there is only one correct way to resist capitalism or dehumanization or Christian fascism. There are so many ways to resist! And so many ways to search out joy and flourishing and meaning in life, even as the empire crumbles around us. The system was crumbling in 1933, and it’s crumbling in 2022. It’s so infuriating and also grounding. The work has always been here. People have always been telling us another way is possible. And when we show up as our full, complex selves, we, too, can join in the resistance movements for decades, instead of burning out like a match.
The system was crumbling in 1933, and it’s crumbling in 2022.
How can Dorothy Day hold us in this moment as we dream into the future?
She was a single mother who was obsessed with anarchists and God and labor movements, a woman who rolled her own cigarettes and went to Mass every day. She loved Russian novels and a good play and eating pie and listening to her neighbors celebrate their seasonal holidays. She was grumpy and overwhelmed and chafed against religious institutions. She was not perfect, but sometimes she really wished she was. She was terribly, terribly complicated. She was a beloved child of God who lived through so many disorienting moments in history, and who speaks to us as someone who came out on the other side of it refusing to hate or dehumanize others. The FBI had a 400-page file on her, J. Edgar Hoover thought her an enemy of the militarized state while Pope Francis praises her as an exemplary American who should be considered a saint. What a woman! She makes my head spin, in all the best ways. She makes me consider how I, too, can be an enemy of a system that hurts people, while cultivating a stubborn love for humanity inside of me. She’s been a good friend to me for many years now, and I hope she will continue to be that for so many other people.
She makes me consider how I, too, can be an enemy of a system that hurts people, while cultivating a stubborn love for humanity.