Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series by James Day that shares the stories of strong women forging ahead to make a difference, while courageously bucking the trending indifference. To read previous stories visit occatholic.com
Leia Smith; Catholic Worker, Isaiah House,
A day after I met with Leia Smith at Orange County’s Catholic Worker, Isaiah House on Cypress Avenue in Santa Ana, I received an email from her. It was a quote from Dorothy Day. “We are called to be saints, Saint Paul said,” the quote began. “Nothing less will work. Nothing less is powerful enough to combat war and the all-encroaching state.” The fiery co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and newspaper Catholic Worker continued, “To be a saint is to be a lover, ready to leave all, to give all. Dostoevsky said that love in practice was a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams, but if ‘we see only Jesus’ in all who come to us; the lame, the halt and the blind, who come to help and ask for help, then it is easier.”
But Dorothy Day knew both the realities of human failings and the pervading cynicism of the secular world. “Don’t call me a saint,” she would often say as a provocation, as a way to shake people up. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” And yet it is saintliness she strove for until her death in 1980. It is a life and message that continues to resonate today. Her cause for canonization is underway.
The above passage was originally written in the April 1958 Catholic Worker issue in Day’s Spring Appeal for that year. Work in such not-for-profit ministry requires those in it to wear many hats. Here at Isaiah House, collecting enough toiletries for distribution is just as important as the bigger logistics. Leia and her husband Dwight know this well. They have made Isaiah House their home for 20 years.
The Catholic Worker, as Leia puts it, “confronts our unwillingness to love.” Co-founded by Dorothy Day and Catholic activist Peter Maurin in New York in the early 1930s, the movement spoke directly to the disenfranchised, providing practical assistance while infusing Catholic social teaching as a way of life, such as the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and his landmark 1891 labor encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Over the course of the 20th century, Day found herself continually at the center of social justice issues while continually working out what it means to live a Catholic life (consider her memoir, From Union Square to Rome, and her autobiography, The Long Loneliness). She was one of four Americans specifically mentioned by Pope Francis in his address to United States Congress in September 2015.
Isaiah House is one of 240 Catholic Worker communities, first established in 1987. While it provides shelter, serves 3,000 meals a week, and offers items such as clothing, its mission is to create, in Pope Francis terms, a “culture of encounter.” It strives to go to the root of the most important matters of life. In doing so, those involved inevitably meet Christ—and again, Matthew 25 emerges as a touchstone.
This also includes recognizing and solving the crisis of children ensnared in homelessness—1 in 30 in the United States, or 2.5 million children. It is a stark reality, Leia points out, few are addressing.
Isaiah House is the beating heart where delving into the greater good drives Leia. In true Dorothy Day fashion, Leia strives for faith beyond ideas. In this way, she has noted how the words and actions of Pope Francis have prompted an influx of dialogue in recent years. “Pope Francis is constantly providing witness and words that challenge us to go deeper spiritually and to reflect on our work in new ways,” she attests.
In the days after the meeting, I was left with a rather startling image—startling, but ultimately unsurprising. It was none other than the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What he looked like, how he reacted to the hysteria around him. How he, and as a result the Gospel accounts, are entirely without irony. There is a matter-of-fact veracity to them. And perhaps that intimidates people so accustomed the populace is to the veneers of political debate, religious proselytizing, and indeed the globalization of indifference.
This matter-of-fact veracity also radiates from Isaiah House and other ministries whose lives constantly witness to people’s lives teetering on the precipice. People who know suffering tend to dive to the heart of the matter.
They have little time for anything other than the truth.