Unity Acres leader winner of Dorothy Day Award
By Connie Cissell
“As for ourselves, yes, we must be meek, bear injustice, malice, rash judgment. We must turn the other cheek, give up our cloak, go a second mile.” — Dorothy Day
This year’s winner, the 15th annual, of the Dorothy Day Award given by St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Syracuse is Stephen Dickhout, an administrator and long-time advocate at Unity Acres in Orwell. Unity Acres was founded on the ideals of Day’s Catholic Worker Movement so Dickhout’s selection seems a perfect fit.
Known for his tireless efforts on behalf of the homeless men at Unity Acres, Dickhout is reluctant to shine a light on the qualities that make him a winner: sacrifice, selfless concern for the men, a deep spirituality, an innate sense of justice and a natural inclination to serve. For Eileen Clinton, a member of the award committee, the very qualities that Dickhout possesses are the reason why the award is given.
“We choose individuals whose lives emulate the life of Dorothy Day in some ways. We look for humility and charitable service and for the ability to communicate that life to others,” Clinton said.
Father Jim Mathews is pastor of both St. Andrew’s and St. Lucy’s Churches, two parishes that are in the reconfiguration process. “It is possible that this will be the last year that St. Andrew’s offers the award as a parish,” he said. “It is their unique gift and they started the dinner which is a wonderful event. I know Steve by reputation to be a wonderful committed Christian witness who has impacted the whole Central New York community. We’re delighted he’s been selected for this honor. He’s an exemplary person.”
Unity Acres was founded more than 30 years ago by Father Ray McVey and Kate Stanton as an alternative residence to the men struggling with addiction and homelessness in Syracuse. The old tuberculosis sanitarium on several acres in the town of Richland is still a farm-like oasis. Father McVey died of cancer in 1995 and Stanton’s death came six months later. Dickhout arrived at Unity Acres in 1992 after pursuing graduate studies at the University of Toronto.
Dickhout had read a couple of books by Dorothy Day which created a curiosity about Catholic Worker communities.
“I was making calls to different Catholic Worker communities with the intention to arrange a visit,” Dickhout recalled. “I called Unity Acres and [the late] Carol Guthrie answered. She said, ‘We’re two old women and a sick priest and we don’t have time to entertain guests.’”
As it turned out however, the staff at Unity Acres was searching for younger volunteers and Dickhout made the visit staying a week or so. When he returned home to Mayfield, N.Y. he found himself in a job interview with a local non-profit explaining the visit he had just made to Unity Acres. “I realized as I was describing what a wonderful place it was that maybe that was my answer and that was where I should be,” Dickhout said.
The appeal of Catholic Worker hospitality has never waned for Dickhout. Mark Capone, a member of the board of directors at the Acres, explained that Dickhout provides inspiration for everyone he encounters.
“He’s almost taken on an aura of inspiration for those of us who couldn’t do what he does,” Capone said. “I know that Father McVey and Kate were the founders but I’m so pleased at what Unity Acres is doing now. You know that Steve is going to always do right by the men and the Acres. Steve doesn’t put himself before the men.”
Capone drives up to Orwell with Jerry Berrigan most Thursdays. They attend Mass at the Sacred Heart Chapel on the premises. Capone said attending the Mass where Father Bill Jones celebrates leaves him with a feeling of peace that carries through the week. “There’s not a better chapel in the world,” he said.
Dickhout’s day begins at 9 a.m. with a staff gathering where the day’s schedule is reviewed — and the first of several cups of coffee is poured. The organization’s financial health is also something Dickhout oversees. With soaring oil prices, fueling the furnaces at the compound is a priority and an on-going concern. The monthly newsletter also falls under Dickhout’s to-do list. He said he oftentimes reads old newsletters written by Father McVey for inspiration. The donations that arrive after the newsletters are mailed is an important source of income.
The morning meeting also includes Scripture reading and other inspiring writings. Dickhout is very aware of the bar set by Father McVey and he strives to live the Gospel message of Matthew.
“Matthew 25 tells us to meet the needs of the least of our brothers and when we do that we are encountering Christ,” Dickhout said. “We need to meet people where they are. It can be really, really challenging and very few of us do this without faltering. There are very few who can do it with grace and humility and Father McVey was a person who could do that almost all the time. He was very loving, gracious and respectful of the men and he had a real affection for them.”
It was the few years spent watching and learning from the priest and Kate Stanton that influenced Dickhout most.
For Dickhout’s friend Mary Maples, a past winner of the Dorothy Day Award, he simply exemplifies the Gospel.
“We meet in Scripture people we never expect to encounter in real life and Stephen is a living example of the Good Shepherd,” Maples said. “He embodies Matthew 25.”
While he’s on the telephone, Dickhout might also be sorting mail, reminding one of the men of an appointment and writing responses to correspondence he still receives from old friends of Father McVey and Kate. He has the ability to be a true friend to a variety of people — from the men at the Acres to the staff and the literally dozens of people who have some affiliation with the Catholic Worker residence.
Besides working at the Acres, Dickhout also manages to keep up with the social justice community in the diocese and participates in social action whenever possible, traveling or listening to lectures or workshops when it is feasible.
“He really has a Ghandian spirit of living nonviolence as a way of life,” Maples said. “He lives in ways that reflect the compassion and justice of God in the world.”
What Dickhout has to offer to the rest of the community is, at heart, a very simple message:
“When we ignore the Gospel message about taking care of the least of our brothers, really we are committing a grave sin,” Dickhout said. “Every time we refuse to serve them, we refuse Christ.”
The Dorothy Day Award dinner honoring Dickhout will take place on May 1 at St. Andrew the Apostle Church, 124 Alden St., beginning at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 for families, $6.50 for individuals and $10 per couple for the spaghetti and meatball dinner. Proceeds benefit Dorothy Day House. Call Sister Pat Bergan, OSF, at (315) 476-8656 for more information.