Serving Behind the Scenes: An Interview with IVC Service Corps Member, Dr. Joe Sclafani

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We continue our good news stories about IVC Service Corps Members (SCMs) serving behind the scenes during the pandemic.

Today, we interview Dr. Joseph Sclafani, a SCM in the IVC New York region. He continues his work online, transcribing the diaries of Dorothy Day. His work supports the Cause for the Canonization of Dorothy Day under the auspices of the Archdiocese of New York. Elaine Ireland, spiritual director for IVC Baltimore, had the pleasure of talking with Joe about his work.

Joe Sclafani transcribes Dorothy Day’s letters from his home office.

Dr. Joseph Sclafani sits at his computer desk, sheltering in place in his Brooklyn, New York apartment a short distance from Kings County and Downstate Hospitals, located in the epicenter of a coronavirus “hot zone.” He prays for the medical staff and reflects on the story of one young woman who, in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, set aside her career as a reporter to work as a nurse at Kings County Hospital. The young woman’s name was Dorothy Day.

Elaine:  Joe, I can’t think of a better story to focus on these days than that of Dorothy Day and her commitment to the poor and suffering. Tell us how you got started with IVC and with this assignment.

Joe:  “First, I want to say it’s been an incredible privilege to be part of this effort made up of more than 100 volunteers working towards this cause of Dorothy’s canonization. There are two other IVC SCMs who are doing important work on this cause as well:  Bill Woods is using his legal expertise to help with research, and Nick Farnham is serving on the communications committee for the Cause.”

“I joined IVC in 2019 after a career delivering babies for 42 years. I spent the last four years of my career in Malawi, Africa as part of an international team developing a residency training program for obstetricians. I knew that when I returned to the states I wanted to maintain my focus on the underserved.”

IVC Service Corps Member Bill Woods uses his legal expertise to help with research.“I was Jesuit-educated all my life:  Regis High School in NYC (‘69), undergraduate at Fordham (‘73), and med school at Creighton (’77). In retrospect, I realize the Jesuit message of being ‘men and women for others’ was always in the background, influencing my thoughts and actions, even when I was not aware of it. After returning from Malawi, I read about the IVC in my church bulletin and here I am, back in the Ignatian fold again!”

“I spent a bit of time scoping out different IVC service site placements that were available and settled on this with the Archdiocese. I’ve enjoyed it from day one.”

Elaine: How aware were you of Dorothy’s life before you started this assignment?

“Not very aware, just the usual stories of her houses of hospitality during the depression, but I’ve learned so much about her voluntary poverty and personal commitment to the marginalized. For example, I wasn’t aware she was arrested and jailed eight times for her social justice advocacy. The diaries I’m working with date from 1935 through her death in 1980, so they encompass the Depression, World War II, nuclear proliferation, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement. She never shied away from any involvement with issues that could negatively impact the poor and disenfranchised. She saw her advocacy work and writing as integral to her mission, and if she were alive today, I think the poor’s plight in the face of economic inequality and climate change would be an important cause for her.”

IVC Service Corps Member Bill Woods uses his legal expertise to help with research.

Elaine:  What are some general insights you’ve derived from Dorothy’s personal writings?

Joe:  Well, I don’t know as much about her early years, but it seems she always had a call to help those in need. For readers who don’t know her story, she was a young reporter in the early 1900s, a feminist and socialist who wrote about the plight of workers and the poor in the US. Her motivation at that time was political but as she matured and went through a conversion, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount awakened her and gave her advocacy a divine dimension and source of meaning. She met Peter Maurin, another social justice advocate, in 1932 and things with the Catholic Worker Movement began to develop quickly.”

“One thing she realized early on is that her role was not to evangelize or to bring Christ to the poor. Christ was already there, and indeed that’s where she would find Him. Her goal was not to change the poor but to elevate them, giving them respect and care, and treating them with the God-given dignity all human beings should be afforded.”

Elaine: Such an important message for us today. Can you describe the tone of her writing? Did she ever express joy or bitterness?

“It’s obvious from her writing she was trained as a reporter. Many of her entries have a kind of dispassionate quality to them. She rarely expressed bitterness, anger, or judgment, although she did get impatient at times with bickering Catholic Workers or the hippies who took shelter at Houses of Hospitality in the 60s and 70s.”

“She saw her role as both bringing to the forefront the horrendous living conditions of the poor, which she did in The Catholic Worker newspaper she started, and serving as a witness to their suffering. With her vivid descriptions of the conditions in the Lower East Side of New York City, she raised awareness of the need for social reform.”

“She encountered everyone, from the poorest of the poor to wealthy donors to government and church leaders, in the same way: she looked to find Christ in each person. Her diaries are filled with the names of individuals from all walks of life, each with a personal story to tell. Dorothy met people where they were, one person at a time. She wrote in one entry about a family with two alcoholic parents and two unruly, nasty kids and how she saw the Holy Family in them!”

Elaine: What can you share about her prayer life and her own relationship with God?

She relied heavily on prayer: daily Mass, the rosary, and compline at night. She practiced the Examen at least once a day, looking for God in everything she had experienced. She also practiced a daily examination of conscience which would sometimes lead to severe self-criticism; on more than one occasion, she considered her life a failure. But she never described a period of loss of faith or a dark night or separation from God. She relied on God as her source of protection and strength. In one entry, she wrote, ‘Just because I feel that everything is useless and going to pieces, it is really not that way at all. Everything is alright. It is in the hands of God. Let us abandon everything to Divine Providence.’”

Elaine: I read a story once about a donor coming through her house of hospitality and meeting Dorothy as she was scrubbing a toilet. As the donor walked away, he said to his colleague, “That woman is a saint.” Dorothy immediately called after him, “Don’t dismiss me that easily!” What do you think she would say about this effort to make her a saint?

“Good question! I think she might want us to consider another definition of sainthood. Her life of prayer, humility, and devotion to God, combined with living among and accepting the poor as Christ did, was her version of holiness. And as I think she was trying to say to that donor, it’s a model open to all of us.  In her Catholic Worker newspaper column, ‘On Pilgrimage,’ she describes a simpler version of sainthood: ‘We have to make the kind of society where it is easy for people to be good…and we have to have good men (and women) to make that society.’”

Elaine: Two final questions:  How does the IVC experience help you in your work at this placement? And what advice do you think Dorothy would give to us as we approach serving our communities that are and will be so wounded by this pandemic?

Nick Farnham serves through IVC on the communications committee for Dorothy Day’s canonization cause.

Joe:  “Oh, the IVC component is so important. Before the pandemic, we would meet monthly and get to share wonderful, exciting, and hope-filled stories with each other. Now we do that via Zoom! This community time is also set aside for spiritual nourishment, something Dorothy would definitely support.  It helps you avoid compassion fatigue and volunteer burnout when you are surrounded by others who lift you up. My IVC companions on this journey help me a lot, particularly during this time of isolation.”

“And what would Dorothy say to us? I imagine she would say all of us are called in some way as ‘saints in the making.’ I think our individual call, along with this time of pandemic, have the potential to usher in a ‘new normal’ for all of us. A more urgent call is being given. I think Dorothy would remind us to approach our work one person at a time, not with the desire or need to change them, but to accept the Christ in each one as they are  She would encourage us to always turn to God for our own healing and as a wellspring of strength and hope.”

“Finally, I think she’d say the words Christ said so often, ‘Be not afraid.’ Dorothy was fearless in her work, and we can model ourselves after her by going unafraid into the darkness knowing God’s light will lead us.”

Elaine: Thank you, Joe, so much for your insights and blessings on your work!

For more information or to support:

The Cause for Dorothy Day’s canonization, contact the Dorothy Day Guild: http://dorothydayguild.org/

The Ignatian Volunteer Corps: www.ivcusa.org

For those interested in learning more about Dorothy Day, there is a new documentary—“The Revolution of the Heart”—airing on PBS. Check your local listings. There is also a new biography:Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century.”  Both the book and documentary are available for purchase on Amazon and other outlets.  

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