By Charlene Becicka (’13)

David McDermott (’01) explains how his study of literature led
to a life of community service.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community,” writes Dorothy Day in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Day, a social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, has become a well-known figure to Loras students and it was her autobiography which Peace and Justice Coordinator, Dave McDermott claimed, “set the trajectory of my life.”

McDermott graduated from Loras in 2001 and five years later returned to Loras in his current position as the director of the Father Ray Herman Peace and Justice Center. This homecoming weekend, on his 10-year anniversary of graduation, McDermott was the honored speaker of the English Alumni Breakfast. He spoke to the students, faculty, and alumni present about the role of literature in propelling his passion for social justice.

One of the novels that helped shape McDermott’s passion for service is James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The novel is a coming of age story which chronicles the life of a young Irishman, Stephen Dedalus. One of Dedalus’ notable lines from the novel, “I will not serve,” can be read as allegorical of Lucifer’s comment to God that he would rather reign in Hell than serve in heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost. As a young college student, McDermott identified with Stephen Dedalus as he struggled with his identity, but the question of service stuck with him.

In his senior year at Loras, McDermott found himself in a class entitled “Basic Catholic Teaching.” During one of the class sessions, Rick Mihm and Mary Moody of the Dubuque Catholic Worker Movement came to speak about Dorothy Day. McDermott recalls this experience as “transformative.” Fascinated with Day’s ideas about service and social justice, he continued to study her literary works including The Long Lonliness and Loaves and Fishes. McDermott commented that in these works Day represented ideas that he had never seen before, including social justice and pacifism. Day was a radical: “Exactly what I long to be at that point in my life,” McDermott shared. He was inspired. 

The juxtaposition of Day’s “I will serve,” to Joyce’s “I will not serve,” really “resonated with me,” and kindled a growing passion for social justice said McDermott. After graduating from Loras, McDermott spent a year in Sacramento with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He then returned to Dubuque to live in the Hope House, a men’s shelter connected to Dubuque’s Catholic Worker Movement, for three years. During this time, McDermott lived in solidarity with men from all walks of life. His time at the House was “filled with many joys,” but also introduced him to “the underbelly of Dubuque,” including Meth and gambling addictions.

That passion for social change stuck with McDermott, but at this point in his life, a different novel began to resonate with him, Jayber Crow by Wendell  Berry. The novel recounts the story of Jayber Crow, an orphan who returns home to Kentucky after college and witnesses the changes in rural Southern life caused by the decline of traditional farming. From this book, McDermott connected to the idea of the creating a home. There comes a part in life where “you put roots down in a place. Deep roots. So when you live a life well lived, you make connections and relationships.” McDermott and his wife, Stacia, put their roots down in Dubuque and now have three lovely children.

McDermott concluded his talk by stating that his English major has been a “great joy” to him. It has clearly been intertwined with his passion for social justice, a passion which has shaped the events of his life and others’. McDermott’s remarks inspired comments, questions, and discussion among the audience which certainly, again, reflects the words of Dorothy Day, that the “only solution is love and that love comes with community.”







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