Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
Our work at Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas, changed abruptly during the first months of the pandemic. Because of the lockdowns and emergency restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border, fewer refugees arrived from Latin America. We were busier than ever, however, providing food to several times the usual number of people and continuing to help undocumented immigrants who were paralyzed or very sick.
Now that has all changed again. Immigrants and refugees are once more flowing into Houston and showing up at Casa Juan Diego.
At the request of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), we recently received a young Nicaraguan man. ICE employees brought him in handcuffs and chains after he was released from detention. When Felipe (not his real name) came into our Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, he was a little shaken. We told him he was welcome, that he did not have to worry, and that this was a Catholic house. “Thank God,” he replied. He told us that he had been with the Franciscans in Central America for four years before he had to leave the order to help support his family because his father was ill. He came to the United States when life became impossible in Nicaragua. As we talked with him in our library, Felipe saw a picture of Padre Pio and spoke of his devotion to him. We gave him the picture. Felipe quickly used our WiFi to call his mother on WhatsApp so she would know he was alive. His friend and sponsor in Houston picked him up that day.
Samuel was sleeping outside our front door one morning. We thought he might be a homeless man looking for a safe place to sleep. We discovered, however, that he had horrifying blisters on his feet from walking to Houston from Honduras. He had found his way alone to Casa Juan Diego and asked for help getting to his family in New Jersey.
Six new pregnant women came to take refuge during a single month. None of them had received prenatal care during their difficult journeys, and some of their husbands were still detained by ICE. A few of the women were Haitian but spoke Spanish because they had first tried to make a life for themselves in Chile.
Whole families from various countries in Africa arrived, the husbands often bearing the marks of torture on their bodies. Those seeking asylum were sent to Casa Juan Diego by ICE or by centers on the border. People from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the Ivory Coast, from Angola, Mali, and Burkina Faso found each other in joyful reunions. Some people had gotten to know each other on the difficult trip from Brazil or Ecuador, where so many begin their long trek. They had been stuck together in a camp in Panama for months because of closed borders. Venezuelan families also began to arrive.
Our medical clinics have reopened again, providing in-person service to the undocumented. Our houses are full. The Catholic Workers drive people to appointments. Today we have two women with mental-health issues. They and the six pregnant women have many appointments, and the men and women have to check in at Immigration or go to the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) office to have their ankle monitors recharged or replaced if they do not work.
When people arrive, we take them to local pharmacies to be vaccinated against COVID-19. We are sending as many people as possible to stay with any family or friends they may have. We hope not to be overwhelmed, but also to promote family and community reunification.
People who visit Casa Juan Diego often ask how many people we have living in our houses. Sometimes the answer is about a hundred, sometimes less. But it is not just a question of how many live here: to respond as personalists, we cannot just warehouse people. Our guests are more than numbers, our task more than the provision of beds and meals (no mean feat when there are guests from all parts of the world). Each one of them has a personal story that needs to be addressed so that we can help them continue their journey.
Our life was quite different in the spring and summer of 2020. As people in the Houston community began to fall ill with Covid and as restaurants closed, many were unable to work. We were overwhelmed with people coming to Casa Juan Diego to ask for food. The undocumented community knew Casa Juan Diego and felt safe coming here for help. Instead of having people file through the main building to receive food, as we usually do, we had people line up in their cars so that we could load the groceries directly into them. Realizing that our usual Tuesday morning distribution was not enough, we made food available every day except Sunday. On other days people in need of food came to the door, where we had set up socially distanced tables between the Catholic Workers and the lines of people seeking assistance.
Even with these precautions, however, several of the Catholic Workers became ill. When the first one began to show symptoms of Covid, testing was not yet widely available. It seemed like just a cold. Later, when it was possible to get tested, the staff members who became ill quarantined in one of our small houses until they were better, and then returned to work.
We didn’t have enough space for all the food coming from the Houston Food Bank. My son, Joachim, and two other Catholic Workers, Will and Leonel, made a new plan for the entrance of our main building. They tore down a wall and had a contractor make new front doors where the pallets of food could enter more easily. We stopped receiving clothing donations and concentrated on preparing and distributing food.
We could not discontinue our service to the sick and injured who cannot receive help from the government. For many years we have been caring for undocumented people with disabilities, at the request of Houston-area hospitals. But our medical-clinic services did undergo a big change: our clinics closed to the public. We could not have people crowded into our waiting rooms; consultations were done by phone, patients were given lab referrals, and refills were provided. People still came in to pick up their medications, which Casa Juan Diego pays for if they cannot. As soon as vaccines became available for health-care workers, Dr. John Butler, our medical director, made them available to us as a community clinic. Our medical and support staff quickly took advantage of this opportunity.
The big freeze that hit Texas this past Valentine’s Day took us by surprise. The state’s independent electrical grid failed. Our main houses did not lose power, but the smaller houses did. Several staff members had to move from one place to another. We took in men who had been living on the streets and passed out sleeping bags and blankets.
Fortunately, we had planned ahead for the emergencies that often happen in Houston during tropical storms or hurricanes. We had a backup water supply, so when the water pressure in the city became too low, we could carry water to drink or flush toilets. As our women guests helped carry buckets of water up the stairs, one remarked, “This is just the way we did it in Africa.” We lost plants in our garden, which usually provides good vegetables and fruit from our trees.
When Hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated Honduras and Guatemala in November 2020, causing the loss of homes and livelihoods, Central Americans living in Houston came and asked us to help send assistance to their families. We began to give each family something to send their relatives, but soon had to stop: hundreds of people were forming lines at Casa Juan Diego begging for help. With our small staff and the already long lines of people coming here for food, we could not continue distributing remittances. But the Houston families who came here for their relatives, poor themselves, discovered our food distribution, which continued as before.
Many of the families trying to cross into the United States today had their lives destroyed by recent hurricanes in Central America. They represent a growing percentage of people around the world uprooted by natural disasters related to climate change. We agree with Pope Francis when he asks us to respond to this crisis: “This is the work the Lord asks now of us, and there is great joy in it.”
My late husband, Mark Zwick, used to say that anyone can start a Catholic Worker House. All you need to do is have a building, hang out your shingle, and begin. The challenge then is to live the Gospel, specifically the Works of Mercy described in Matthew 25. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin have shown us a way to live as personalists according to the radicalism of the Gospel. This way of life is an alternative to the prosperity gospel and all-consuming consumer culture of American capitalism; to militarism and xenophobia; and to the cruel scapegoating of immigrants and refugees.
Casa Juan Diego began in 1980, when refugees from the war in El Salvador began flowing across the border. Mark and I had lived in El Salvador in a poor area with our children a couple of years earlier. Mark rented what he called the ugliest building in Houston, opened a bank account, and got a post office box. We began to receive refugees and started the Houston Catholic Worker, a bilingual newspaper. Many of those who first arrived at the house were teenagers and had nowhere to go. Soon the house was filled. With the help of full-time Catholic Workers and volunteers from the Houston community, Casa Juan Diego has received countless people in the forty-one years since it opened.
From the beginning, we have prayed the Divine Office in the mornings and have celebrated weekly Mass. This sustains us as we confront the daily challenges of love in action, which can sometimes be a “harsh and dreadful thing,” as Dorothy Day said, quoting Dostoevsky.
There is a tendency among those unacquainted with immigrants or the poor to fear them—to see them as a threat—even as they suffer hunger and uprootedness from everything they know. To hear them disparaged or to know that people have harmed them makes us want to cry out with Léon Bloy:
Christ is at the center of all things, He takes all things upon Himself, He hears all things, He suffers all things. It is impossible to strike a human being without striking Him, to humiliate someone without humiliating Him, curse or kill anyone without cursing Him or killing Him, Himself.... I am in communion of impatience with all the mutinous, all the disillusioned, all those who have cried and not been heard, all the damned of the world.... I know all the reasonable things that virtuous people can say to each other to console themselves for the temporal damnation of three quarters of humanity (The Pilgrim of the Absolute).
At Casa Juan Diego, we always need more people to help us welcome the poor and the stranger. It helps if you speak Spanish or French. It is humble work and it can be hard, but a week, a month, or a year of volunteering can have an impact on many people.