Today marks the 134th celebration of Labor Day, set aside as a day to honor the contributions American workers have made to the country’s economy. While for most the holiday means no class or no work, the day serves as a remembrance of the struggle of workers and unions for fair wages, reasonable working hours, and other safeguards against exploitation. It is a good day, then, to introduce my work this semester through Loyola University Chicago’s Ramonat Seminar. The seminar’s focus this year centers on the twentieth century history of the Catholic Church’s social justice activism in the US, specifically highlighting Dorothy Day, a socialist-turned-Catholic who devoted her life towards humanitarian work. Day co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper (along with Peter Maurin) which advocated for the poor and working class, as well as for racial equality and pacifism. She was involved in strikes and speeches and established houses of hospitality and communal farms throughout the country that provided social services and employment. She states the movement’s goal in her autobiography: “As Peter pointed out, ours was a long-range program, looking for ownership by the workers of the means of production, the abolition of the assembly line, decentralized factories, the restoration of crafts and ownership of property” (Day 220). In observing the seeming indifference of the clergy and laity towards the poor and oppressed, she hoped to awaken the Catholic conscience to social ills– many of which were afflicting newly-arrived Catholic immigrants. She inspired many to take up this call.
Labor Day represents the progress that has been made in improving conditions for workers, but it also signifies work that still needs to be done. Bernie Sanders’s surprise success in the Democratic primaries captures the strong sentiment among American youth and others of persisting economic injustice. The activities of contemporary grassroots movements, such as Black Lives Matter, prove that other social issues of the past remain, even if in a more subtle form. At the same time, new problems have arisen that will severely affect future generations, specifically environmental concerns. It is in this context that I will begin my exploration of the Catholic Church’s engagement in social justice during the previous century. In understanding the past, I hope to better understand and respond to the present.
A form of Catholic social justice activism taking place in Chicago today is seen in the Church’s outreach towards refugees being resettled in the city. Rogers Park itself is a neighborhood in which many individuals are placed. It is a personally important issue to me, because I have been involved in serving refugees since arriving at Loyola. Though there has been a steady inflow of refugees into the US over the past few decades, media attention on refugees has perhaps never been greater. The global humanitarian crisis has sparked mixed responses, with immigration fears causing the rise of far-right political candidates in much of the West clamoring for non-entry. But it has also spurred other groups into taking action to help the stateless.
Groups such as Chicago’s Catholic Charities work as voluntary agencies (“volags”) to support resettled refugees in the city. Volags organize refugee placement and provide housing, food/clothing, and employment support for the first few months. The goal is to help refugees become acclimated to their new environment before reaching self-sufficiency, although limited funds and a high caseload for each organization makes this challenging. Many local churches and school groups aid volags, especially beyond the time that formal volag obligations end (Loyola Refugee Outreach is Loyola’s student organization dedicated to this cause), being involved in a range of support services such as teaching English to refugee adults. The work has been essential in addressing the needs of some of the most vulnerable individuals living in Chicago.
Before wrapping up, I feel that it is important for me to note my perspective. Despite being raised as a Catholic, I no longer identify with the Church and am viewing this year’s material through a secular lens. This being said, my prior religious experience means I have a fairly good understanding of Catholic doctrine and teachings, which will certainly be an aid this semester.
My classmates and I will engage in the coursework this year in ways that few other classes make available. I am looking forward not only to delving into American history more generally, but in engaging with the city of Chicago in (what I expect to be) my final year here. Lastly, I wanted to leave my Jesuit institution with a deeper understanding of the organization’s mission, and I am confident I will accomplish this end through this year’s Ramonat Seminar.
Day, Dorothy. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981. Print.