Dwight and Leia Smith: The Catholic Workers
"When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist."
—Dom Hélder Câmara
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In January 1993, Dwight and Leia Smith, members of the Catholic Worker movement, began volunteering at Isaiah House in downtown Santa Ana. The massive, two-story, 100-year-old building is a far cry from the minimalist, (very) expensive condo/lofts of the Artists Village, just a pebble's throw away, but 50 previously homeless women (and their children) call it home. The Smiths began running the Hospitality House in 1997 and serve more than 2,500 meals each week to people at their home and in the Civic Center, doing it all with the help of volunteers donating time and money.
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Since the downturn in the economy, the already-slim safety net for Orange County's poor has become increasingly difficult to negotiate, as floods of people (especially women and children) end up on the street. With every social service foundation stretched thin, to what do the Smiths owe their longevity in the movement?
Dwight laughs. When he started, he says, he tried to rescue everyone, that it was a "huge struggle not to be a narcissistic pinnacle of redemption," and what saved him from that spiritual hubris was being a "member of a team": his wife, the Catholic Worker community, its volunteers and even the Catholic Church "when it can get out of its own way." Her work in the movement gave Leia the opportunity to "take things beyond my beliefs and opinions" into the realm of action, calling it human beings' collective goodness "that allows us to sense that we belong to each other no matter what."
Age, poverty and the stress of care-giving can take their toll, however, and the Smiths have had health issues to contend with over the past years. "Health care is still the last night terror," says Dwight, who went without it for many years—until Obamacare. It came not a moment too soon, said his doctor: Smith was a major contender for a heart attack if he'd gone much longer without.
When Leia's doctor gave her the news she had cancer, she went home, sat on her bed and pondered with clear-eyed gratitude what appeared to be a limited future. "How lucky am I?" she thought. "I'm doing what has value. I have everything I need. How many people get to think deeply about why the world is in the condition it's in and also see their place in it?"
The harmony of heart and soul that co-exists with activism sustained them, and both are healthier than they have been in years. Leia recovered from her bout with the Big C, and Dwight's issues are controlled by medication and dietary change. "We get to experience the very best of people, "says Dwight. "Our lifestyle is a lot less damaging than others, so we need a lot less recovery."
When asked to impart a last message to Weekly readers, their thoughts turn (again) to others: Leia says the house has an ongoing need for donations of new (not used) underwear for men and women, as well as socks, razors and deodorant. "Hygiene is important to people," bestowing dignity on an often undignified situation, she says.
Dwight requests you write or call the five members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and ask them who cares for the 400 people per night helped at local armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana the eight months of the year they're closed. You can find contact information for the Board of Supervisors at ocgov.com/gov/bos.
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