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Dorothy Day's Pilgrimage Continues at Casa Juan DiegoNewspaperPoor Teach Hard and Dreadful Love: A Disillusioned Catholic Worker Stays On

Poor Teach Hard and Dreadful Love: A Disillusioned Catholic Worker Stays On

Marion Maendel came to Casa Juan Diego from the Bruderhof. She was baptized into the Catholic Church in March 2000.

It’s another suffocating Houston night. Air, warm and thick as smoke, cloaks the city and settles in folds between the buildings on Rose Street. I sit in my second-story room in Casa Juan Diego House of Hospitality, fan stirring the heat, and read my journal of two years ago.

The entries cover my first months’ experience here, and the writing is definitely familiar. The leaky green pen I remember as well, but the words printed across the college ruled notebook are those of a stranger. Who is this naïve do-gooder, so clinically diagnosing “problems in society” and outlining plans for “helping others?” And those dreams, the square solid expectations and fluffy quotes about serving the poor-I can’t even imagine what they once meant. Smiling, I turn the page.

Outside in the night, a police siren shatters the heavy stillness. My ceiling twirls with red and blue flashing lights, and without looking, I can visualize the scene below my window. Two or three men, quite drunk, lie with cheeks pressed to the warm concrete, hands cuffed behind, as an officer barks commands in very bad Spanish. Leaning into the shadow of the laundromat wall, a handful of the male prostitutes are snickering quietly.

I return to the journal. It’s littered with words as empty as the pages they’re written on: “world suffering,” “the poor,” “social transformation.” My eyes wander over a tidy commentary on “justice,” then drift again with the heavy thump and twang of Tejano music coming from next door. That’s Sonia’s room. She’s a sweet, dark-eyed sixteen-year-old from El Salvador, battered and pregnant by her twenty-three-year old “boyfriend.” And homeless. And scared.

Again I try to concentrate. But now a gasp like a knife comes through the thin drywall, and sobbing, hard, choked, muffled in a pillow, follows after. It mocks the crisp words in front of me. I stand up and shut off the fan.

“Sonia, m’ija, what’s up?”

The journal lands in the trash.

I have begun my third year here as a Catholic Worker. Arriving at Casa Juan Diego fresh out of high school, I had the classic “messiah complex,” and felt ready to save the world. Becoming a member of a vibrant volunteer movement equipped with enormous facilities, and widely known in the Hispanic community did little to convince me otherwise. As I immersed myself in Catholic Worker philosophy, study and discussions, I became enamored with the idea of “serving the poor” and “working for justice.”

Then I met the people. They were poor, yes, and undeniably oppressed, downtrodden and desperate. I had counted on that. But I was unprepared for their concrete humanity, their sheer individuality as persons. They refused to be categorized as passive “problems” simply because I had appointed myself “helper.” My well-heeled, condescending donation of time and surplus kindness was despicable in their eyes, and they were not desperate enough to bow and scrape around it for survival’s sake.

It was the very people I came to “help” who began to teach me that acknowledgement of our common humanity under the pure gaze of God was the first and only point at which our mutual liberation could blossom. “We must be saved together,” I read from Dorothy Day, and the smooth shell of my idealism began to splinter.

A year went by. On the plane trip back from summer vacation, I found myself sitting next to a businessman, who introduced himself as the CEO of a massive German graphic arts company.

“I’m a Catholic Worker volunteer,” I nodded and quickly outlined the CW movement.

Reinart was fascinated. “Tell me about your work, the people,” he begged. I told.He was silent and gazed out the window for a moment. “Let me tell you something,” he said finally. “I admire your courage. I admire your idealism. But I will predict something, too. In about five years, maybe sooner, you are going to burn out and quit.”

A little question mark of worry began to tingle in my stomach. It had been a long, luxurious vacation in the country. The thought of returning to inner city sordidness was suddenly terribly tiring, the endless dark parade of problems and demands, terrifying.

“Maybe,” I conceded, “But how so?”

“Easy. You are going to run out of idealism first. You are going to become hard and cynical, and realize that people are cruel and thankless and undeserving s.o.b.s. And then you’ll get a real job.”

I stared at the seat in front of me. I thought of Marina, a battered woman with two children we had taken in a year ago. Besides giving her unlimited time with us to reorganize her life, we’d arranged work for her, counseling sessions, medical care, and legal assistance. One day she went to a close priest friend of ours, crying that we’d kicked her out without warning, and never done a thing to help. I remembered Vinny, who had run away from our youth house one night, taking with him every single one of our hard-won, portable electrical appliances. The seat in front of me blurred.

“Reinart,” I said, “I think my idealism ran out my first month at work.”

He nearly choked on his coffee. Reinart could respectfully dismiss my transient idealism, but the possibility of another sustaining force had his immediate attention.

“So what’s left?” he demanded, and his eyes were suddenly fierce.

“Absolutely nothing.” The words came hard, but I knew in that moment of resignation a relief as fine and pure as cold water. In acknowledging that my shaky fortress of idealism now lay in ruins, I finally allowed myself to be vulnerable. My “I know, you don’t” approach to those whom I intended to save crumpled, and I became weaker, not more elite. I was shocked to discover that I, too, was desperately needy, empty, poor. And with the death of my belief in “the cause,” came the assurance of another sort of stability, this no longer blind and shifting, but open, painfully open, and solid like a rock. Into that gaping wound rushed a healing liberation, a new forgiveness, a fresh capacity to love and be loved in faith, with God as the Source of compassion this time, not myself. It is a faith I still do not wholly possess, but it flits above the outstretched hand of my heart like a bright butterfly, and I know it to be the truth.

To have the vision in our hearts and minds of a new social order where love and justice truly reign is imperative, yes. This vision is usually what compels us to examine our lives so that we may live, work and love in a manner consistent with the Kingdom of God, and it can reveal to us the concrete, practical ways of conversion. But if such a vision remains in the abstract realm alone, it is useless, and eventually becomes an obstacle to any real transformation or liberation, whether personal or social.

It is easy to be in love with a concept; “mankind,” “the poor,” “the masses,” for such abstractions hold all the seductiveness and untainted security of a fantasy. But when they encounter the concrete man, the concrete poor person, their cleanness is revealed as emptiness, their whiteness as sterility, and their sweetness as a cheap perfume which evaporates too quickly.

Tolstoy tells the story of a trainload of Communist agitators on their way to a Siberian labor camp. All of them have glorious dreams for the creation of a new society, where each will live in beatific harmony, justice and peace with his neighbor. But so removed are their ideals from the filth and chaos and humanity around them that they cannot translate into a single loving action. As the train rattles on through the icy night, they refuse to even make eye contact.

The inevitable disillusionment we experience early on in our journey here leaves us in a bleak, inner winter, but we can allow its empty ground to provide the spring seedbed for a truer love, the “harsh and dreadful love” talked of by Dostoyevsky and Dorothy Day. This love is active, with little use for visionary dreaming.

If I truly believe in the dignity of the human being, then I must also believe in the dignity of the bag lady waiting in our entrance hall, who complains that she doesn’t like what I got her for dinner, and demands a tour of the accommodations before settling in. If I want to write about justice on my computer, I need to realize that the extra sweatshirts in my closet are property belonging to Sonia next door.

Purely philosophical dreams of love and justice are only given meaning when we begin to know poor people as people, and not obstacles, or objects to be acted upon. Then, slowly perhaps, can a society where love and justice flourish as by-products begin to grow. Cuban-American theologian Roberto Goizueta, has called this phenomenon the “scandal of particularity,” where only the option for poor persons, not “the poor” exists.

The particular is indeed a scandal. “People come to join us in our ‘wonderful work,” Dorothy Day once said. “It all sounds very wonderful, but life itself is a haphazard, untidy, messy affair.” Here we are confronted with inconveniences, frustrations and concrete rewards unknown to dreams. Helping a child walk for the first time, celebrating survival on New Year’s Eve with a group of battered women, appreciating the relief of a starving, footsore immigrant family as they collapse on the sofas in the entrance after weeks of walking attests to a Gospel message rooted in the sacramentality of the human experience.

Faced with such raw distress, we must sometimes let go of all preconceived responses to a person’s difficulties, including the desires to play savior or superman, and only let the pain rip into our hearts like a pruning hook. We must let it slash off the dead limbs of our coldness, cynicism and self-dependency to prepare for the new growth of compassion. Sometimes all we can do is weep in the brokenness of our human condition.

In this spirit, we learn with our guests to accompany the condemned Jesus of the poor, who wept for the world. Rather than let our lack of answers drive us to despair or anger, we can simply weep with and for Ricardo, whose teenage son was killed in gang crossfire; for Sara, fifteen, raped, pregnant, and kicked out of her house by incredulous parents; for Lupe, with her eyes swollen shut from spouse abuse, for Agustino, who rang the clinic doorbell yesterday, blood dripping from his clumsily slashed wrists-“I did it, I did it again”-his eyes huge with a child’s terror.

Some nights I hold my head and ask myself, and God, what it is I think I’m doing here. We are, in the countless eyes of our critics, a foolishly blind group of idealists, obsessed with band-aid work. No amount of food, clothing, shelter, the “works of mercy” can stop the flow of desperate people that pours through our door. No amount of love, understanding, patience, giving, can immunize against the cruelty of human nature.

And yet, when I feel we can give no longer, when I want to turn my back on the whole business, when my utter inability to love frightens me so, and the futility of perseverance jeers, then, in that singular moment of brokenness, comes the still, small voice of the spat-upon Christ. And it chides me for thinking I can do this on my own, for hoping I can change people when I cannot even change myself. It shows up my small cold heart which I don’t want to see, and then it offers me the redemptive Love of God forever young, which gives of itself, and gives, and gives, and gives and gives, without weighing the benefit, without considering the worthiness of the recipient, without imposing conditions and worldly calculations of immediate results. And in that “useless” Poverty of Inefficient Love, and only in it, I can go on.

Thus we work out our liberation with fear and trembling. And laughter. And hope. And we each cast our little pebble, as Dorothy said, into the pool of humanity, and watch the rings expand, knowing that in God’s upside-down Kingdom, every menial task done in this Love is graced with an eternal significance.

Several days ago I was working in the dental clinic assisting with a routine filling on Julio, a street crack addict who worked nights as a prostitute. As I took his patient bib off, and told him we were done, he continued to sit in the chair.

“What is it?” I asked.

He shook off the daze and got up. Then he picked up his baseball cap, put it on firmly backwards, walked to the door-and turned back.

“I guess…pues, I’ve just never been treated this well before.”

His grin was crooked, and he was near tears.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 6, November 1998.