By Claudia Mathis
Nancy Gwin, parishioner at St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse, has earned the Dorothy Day Award. Gwin will be honored with the 16th annual award on May 5 at a dinner held at the parish, a major fundraiser for the Dorothy Day House.
The Dorothy Day Award is given to a person who emulates the work of Dorothy Day and one who effects change in the church. Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, devoted most of her adult life to ministering to the poor and marginalized.
Gwin was greatly influenced by Dorothy Day and the teaching of radical hospitality. She has consequently modeled her life on Day’s belief of inclusiveness.
Father Jim Mathews, pastor at St. Lucy’s, wholeheartedly endorsed the selection of Gwin for the award. “She is absolutely the most perfect person to receive the award,” he said. “She’s dedicated her whole life to serving the issues of social justice.”
Gwin was born in a small town in Nebraska where she witnessed first-hand the teachings of Day’s radical hospitality. Gwin’s grandmother, a teacher with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and her mother, as a child, had lived amongst Native Americans. “My grandmother taught me to respect people of all faiths,” said Gwin.
Later, Gwin, as a young mother and teacher on the prairies of Nebraska, South Dakota and Oklahoma, interviewed indigenous people who had been displaced from their original homeland by the U.S. government. She and several others made a documentary of the Native Americans’ teachings for archival purposes. “It was amazing,” Gwin said. “Even though our country had relocated them, they were so hospitable to us. It was a real earth-moving experience.”
Gwin is a peace activist in honor of her father, Boyd Gwin, a Missing-in-Action Air Force/National Air Guard pilot. His plane was shot down in January 1953 in North Korea. “As a young woman, I committed to do what I could in my lifetime to make the strong statement, ‘No more war orphans, no more widows or Gold Star mothers,’” she said.
After arriving in Syracuse in 1979, Gwin taught at Corcoran High School and then worked at KS&R, Inc. and the Center of Community Alternatives before retiring.
Gwin has transformed her beliefs into action. “When you act on an injustice,” Gwin said, “It’s a prayer. Other countries will come to us due to our large military force, but we need to say ‘no.’ There is another way, the non-violent way. That is to seize the moral initiative and resist the injustice with active nonviolence, to remain strong strategically, to prevail. It is the way of Jesus.”
Gwin traveled to Nicaragua in 1984 as a delegate with Witness for Peace, a nationwide organization of people committed to nonviolence. She continues to serve in the organization today. Her goal is to travel to the countries of Latin America, meeting people face-to-face, to witness the impact of U.S. foreign and economic policies. She then returns to the U.S. to educate people and to work toward changing those policies for the better.
In November 2009, Gwin participated in a prayer vigil to close the School of the Americas/WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Fort Benning, Ga. because the institution trains in low-intensity conflict and in counter-insurgency warfare. Gwin was arrested and served a 6-month sentence in 2010 in Danbury, Conn. “I wasn’t a bit sorry for doing it,” said Gwin.
Gwin said she learned a lot about the prison system, especially about the imprisonment of women. “These women, many of whom were immigrants, who had nothing, shared their stories, advice and sisterhood with me,” explained Gwin. “A lot of them were there because of immigration issues. Many of the women were going to be deported.”
Gwin worked in the prison education office teaching job readiness skills and parenting classes to the inmates.
Gwin continues to fight for immigration reform. She said that she is very supportive of the Worker Rights Center of Central New York, which is hosted by Plymouth Congregational Church in Syracuse. It educates low-wage workers on their rights in terms of the wage and hour laws, anti-discrimination and health and safety standards.
She also supports the mission of the ACTS (Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse) organization, a diverse coalition of faith communities and community organizations throughout the Syracuse area. ACTS seeks to empower faith communities to act on the shared values of human worth, dignity and justice.
As Gwin was growing up, her mother had a profound effect on her life. “She had one of the most generous hearts,” remembered Gwin. “She told me that it’s important to be respectful of all people. That’s been a thread for me throughout my life.”