While strolling through a bookstore in Salt Lake City, I came across a copy of a newspaper called The Mormon Worker, flipped open to a random page and read this:
“(A) Mormon president could utilize this great power to promote the values found in Mormon scripture, such as caring for the poor and needy, loving one another, both friends and enemies, and renouncing war … A look at Mitt Romney’s vision for America’s foreign policy reveals little, however, that resembles any of these most basic and central Mormon values.”
Reading the mainstream press, one would think that there are no Mormon Democrats, forget Mormon social radicals.
The Mormon Worker was founded by William Vanwagenen, a 29-year-old Salt Lake City stockbroker, Harvard Divinity School graduate, and active Mormon.
Two points if the name of his publication sounds familiar to you.
It is taken from the newspaper that Dorothy Day founded in the 1930s and served as the voice of her movement combining her faith with her focus on social justice, The Catholic Worker.
When Vanwagenen read social justice theories on his Mormon mission in Franfurt, Germany, he couldn’t help but find parallels with his Mormon faith. He delved deeper into theology and social justice theory, including the work of Dorothy Day, at Harvard Divinity School and later went to Iraq with a Christian Peacemaker Team. His Quaker roommate Tom Fox was murdered there, and Vanwagenen was kidnapped and held for nine days.
When he returned to Salt Lake, Vanwagenen said, “I kept meeting Mormons who didn’t find anyone else talking about these issues and they were leaving the church. I wanted them to know they were not alone.” Vanwagenen’s publication got a front page profile in the Religion section of the Salt Lake Tribune.
I remember my own first encounter with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. I was a student at the University of Illinois learning about the shadow side of America – its poverty, its history of racism, its unnecessary wars – and looking for a movement that combined a critical social analysis with real-world action.
Somebody told me about St. Jude’s Catholic Worker House, and I’ll never forget the first time I stepped foot in there. It didn’t feel like a social service agency, it felt like a large family. People were cooking in the kitchen, kids of all colors were playing in the living room. A person emerged from the kitchen and asked me to stay for dinner before even asking me my name.
Over a simple but delicious meal, I learned that some of the people at St. Jude’s had given up good jobs to “live in solidarity with the poor” because that’s what they felt commanded to do by their faith. Others were recent immigrants from Mexico or people who had fallen on hard times and needed a place to stay. Dorothy Day’s philosophy was that if every Christian had a “Christ room” in their home, there wouldn’t be any homelessness.
Reading Dorothy Day and spending time at Catholic Worker Houses was the first step of my personal faith journey, a journey which ultimately led me back to the faith of my ancestors – Islam. I learned about the work that my Muslim grandmother does with victims of domestic violence in India. I discovered the writing of Muslim social justice heroes and towering intellectuals like Farid Esack, Ebrahim Moosa and Fazlur Rahman. It’s a story that I tell at length in my essay, A Muslim at the Catholic Worker .
Heroes from other faith traditions have a strange way of showing you places that you never saw in your own. As Marcel Proust wrote: “The true journey of discovery is not in discovering new landscapes but in developing new eyes.”