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.