- On March 31, 2014, Irene Fernandez, passed away in her country, Malaysia, after a heart attack at the age of 67. She had decades ago given up the possibility of a safe teaching career for a life devoted to addressing injustice and giving voice to the voiceless. Fernandez was recognized internationally but persecuted by the authorities in Malaysia for her courageous work on behalf of oppressed foreign workers in Malaysia.
She advocated for rural women, helped start a union for textile workers, pushed hard for laws to address domestic violence and rape, fostered consumer education and environmental stewardship and battled the use of pesticides and other abuses of GMO companies. She endured sustained harassment by the authorities for speaking the truth about appalling conditions in detention camps for foreign workers. After a 13 year court battle, the longest in Malaysian history, she was finally acquitted in 2008 of “maliciously publishing false news.” She founded and ran Tenaganita, an organization that advocates for women, migrants and refugees. The steadfastness of her mission and the fact that she was targeted for harassment won her the support of Amnesty International.
She would likely have found a kindred spirit in Dorothy Day. A convert to Catholicism, Day’s circuitous, sometimes painful path to faith seemed only to deepen it and give her great understanding for the life journeys others have to make. At a time when some bishops continue to push their ideological hot buttons, the story of Day’s firm belief in the God-given dignity of all human persons is timely. She believed also in the primacy of conscience and the need to strive mightily to live, not just preach, Catholic social teaching in its entirety. And that is what her grand-daughter, Martha Hennessy gave us a glimpse of in Honolulu, at the Mystical Rose Oratory on the campus of Chaminade University on Sunday April 6. She spoke about lessons learned from her grandmother, about sitting on her lap as a little girl, leaning against her, and hearing her words resonate. “I think,” she said, “that memory is my first sense of the presence of God.”
The Catholic Worker Movement, which Day co-founded with Peter Maurin has remarkably little structure. It is governed by a commitment to hospitality, voluntary poverty—”living simply so others can simply live”—prayer, and non-violence. It refuses tax-exempt status, and has no board, no committees. Just the free giving of those who wish to really live the life prescribed by the Beatitudes.
“It isn’t easy,” said Hennessy. Some asked ”What should I do?” “What can I do, given my health, or other challenges? She offered the answer Dorothy Day would have given” “Do what you can, wherever you can. And pray.”
Whatever your level of commitment, said Hennessy, the idea is to do what Peter Maurin said needed to be done: Blow the lid off the dynamite the church was sitting on: Catholic social teaching.”
Hennessy, who is an occupational therapist, has been involved in working with special needs children on Maui and has spent time on Hawaii island with people who are living off the grid and getting by with very little, while still serving the needs of their neighbors. She spoke with appreciation for both the extraordinary hospitality she had experienced on the islands but also of having seen the “dark side” of paradise. Alluding to reports of meetings of weapons manufacturers, defense ministers, and armed forces personnel in Hawaii, a base for the projection of US power in relation to Pacific nations, Hennessy reminded her audience that in the ethos of the Catholic Worker Movement, there was no such thing as a “just war.”
“I warn my audiences in advance,” she said. “The things I feel I must say are not always easy to listen to. But I think they go to the heart of being truly Catholic.”
Martha Hennessy talked about her grandmother, Dorothy Day in Honolulu at the Mystical Rose Oratory in much the same terms in which she is seen here addressing students of the Peace Fellowship at Notre Dame University late last year.
- Anyone interested in trying to start a Mary House here in Honolulu should contact Daniel.ORegan@chaminade.edu
- Martha Hennessy will be speaking again at the Newman Center on campus at the University of Hawaii, Manoa on Wednesday April at 7 p.m. All are welcome.
- Remembering Malaysian human rights defender Irene Fernandez (thoolen.wordpress.com)