by Frank Walker
On December 30, 1997, Danilo Dolci, "the Sicilian Gandhi," twice a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and once (despite being an explicit non-Communist), the recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize, died at seventy-three of heart failure - a political maverick to the end.
(This obituary appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Fellowship)
Danilo Dolci was born near Trieste in 1924, son of a devout Slav mother and a sceptical Italian father who worked for the railways and became a station-master. Danilo trained as an architect and engineer. As a student he published works on The Science of Construction and The Theory of Reinforced Concrete. He was hailed as a man with a brilliant future.
Danilo Dolci first came to Sicily for the sake of its ancient beauty. He was specially interested in Greek buildings and had decided to spend a week or two at Segesta studying the ruins. But the man with a professional interest in Doric temples was also and above all the man of conscience and loving-kindness. What kept him in Sicily for the rest of his life and made him throw away a lucrative professional future was the island's present wretchedness. During his visit a baby died of starvation. The giant misery of Sicily was a command to him. Something simply had to be done about it.
Danilo settled down in Trapetto, a country slum. He married one of his neighbours, a widow with five children. From their small house with none of the usual conveniences he launched his campaign against the misery that surrounded him. Alone he stood, faced by the hostility of the Church, the government, the landowners, the Mafia. Surely, only with a flame of faith in his heart could he face hatred, corruption, ignorance, superstition, brutality, indifference, poverty, dereliction and despair. But face them he did, and won his victories. He lived on the level of those he was trying to help, attempting to leaven the lump with love and knowledge so that it would rise up of its own accord.
First there was the giant problem of unemployment. Work, Dolci insisted, is not only a right, it is a duty. Inspired by this idea, he organised his famous 'strike in reverse' in which the jobless protested by going to work. Dolci and the unemployed began work on a local road that was badly in need of repair. They were arrested. There was no violence, for Dolci was a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and believed in a non-violent approach as a matter of principle. He provided schooling and education and persuaded parents to allow their children to go to school. As a result of his tireless campaigning three dams were built, bringing irrigation, energy, and new jobs. He persuaded the government to bring new industry from the north, and a new life for the slum dwellers. Fearlessly he exposed and faced down the Mafia, again and again being threatened with prison and death.
"Without charity knowledge is apt to be inhuman," wrote Aldous Huxley in his introduction to Dolci's book To Feed the Hungry, "and without knowledge charity is foredoomed to be powerless. Today a new Gandhi, a modern St Francis, needs to be equipped with much more than compassion and seraphic love. He needs to be something of a scientific expert and make the best of both worlds, the world of the head no less than the world of the heart. Only then can the twentieth century saint hope to be effective. Danilo Dolci is one of these modern Franciscans-with-a-degree . . ."
Dolci was a great writer. His books are remarkable accounts of the society he surveys, and their accuracy and insight have helped to give a realistic basis to any schemes for improvement. Above all he has given a voice to the abandoned, forgotten, despairing, nameless, suffering people of Sicily. Unforgettably he enabled peasants and fishermen, mothers and prostitutes, street urchins, outlaws and bandits, police and mafiosi to tell their stories. Of the Sicilians he said, "There is God in these people like the fire beneath the ashes."
Prophets are rarely honoured in their own countries. Italians disliked Sicily's dishonour being openly shown to the world. Dolci was attacked and subjected to a torrent of lies and abuse. Even the Church in Sicily failed him. It was suspicious and, incredibly, often seemed more sympathetic to the Mafia than to those like Dolci who so bravely exposed the Mafia's crimes. Dolci left the Church because he found it too narrow, and in its manifestations in Sicily actually harmful.
In the 1960s Danilo Dolci became almost a cult hero-figure in Northern Europe and America. Young people idolised him and committees were formed to raise funds for his work. In recent years all that faded. People found newer and to them more glamorous causes. Dolci did not repine but went on with his work. Indeed it was a case of "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat these two imposters just the same."
The world is full of suffering and evil, all too often in the grip of Giant Despair. We need to refresh ourselves with the stories of people like Danilo Dolci who have broken down the prison of Giant Despair, not only for themselves, but for so many others. They are the light of the world that the darkness shall never overcome.
Dear and Blessed Danilo Dolci, give us some of your warm-heartedness, your devotion, your encouragement, your bravery, your insight.
The Rev. Frank Walker