As I write this, I am still reeling from that part of Pope Francis’s speech to the Congress where he singled out Dorothy Day as one of four great Americans to be honored for their work and service. Dorothy Day was the inspiration for Mark and Louise Zwick starting Casa Juan Diego. For thirty-five years, following the philosophy and practice of Dorothy’s Catholic Worker Movement, Mark and Louise have quietly provided hospitality and hope to thousands of undocumented immigrants and their families in Houston. Casa Juan Diego has also been a gift to the many volunteers and full time staff that come to work and live. For many of us it will have been our best opportunity to try to live out the Gospel.
During the Pope’s speech, there was much applause, but it seemed to me that many in his audience really, really did not want to hear what he had to say. Bad enough that he opposes the arms trade and the death penalty, his message on environmental degradation, inequality, and the con-nection between them seems threatening to the advocates of governmental policies that increase both. But I think I have some idea where these folks, and their billionaire backers, are coming from. In fact, my hands are far from clean.
I spent this past summer, like many before, in central Mexico. This summer was especially meaningful. I spent much of the time in one-on-one conversation les-sons with Marta, a Spanish teacher that I had not seen for 10 years. It was wonderful to see her again. After catching up with each other’s lives, she started off the formal lesson by asking an open-ended question to get me speaking in Spanish: “What is the one thing that would help to improve the problems of the United States?”
My first thought was defensive and, I think, unworthy. I didn’t say it, but I was thinking “Problems of the United States? How about the problems of Mexico? What about the impoverished people I see wherever I go, the old men and women, ancients really, begging in the streets?”
But I did not want to seem defensive, and the Spanish language neurons in my brain had not yet warmed up, so I just asked her what she meant. What problems was she talking about?
Marta, like most Mexicans with media access, that is to say, most Mexicans, was very familiar with the recent round of anti-migrant, anti-Mexican rhetoric in U. S. politics. All the talk about sealing off the border and anchor babies and immigrants as killers and rapists, well, it is hard for Mexicans not to take this personally. “What is wrong with your country?” was really her question, “why do your leaders say these things? You have everything but still feel you need more! You are afraid of the people who cut your grass and build your buildings and take care of your babies!”
I thought awhile. The best answer I could come up with was that Americans are not bad people, but we are disconnected from each other by a great and growing gap between the rich and the poor. And, that this separation is toxic to everyone. For the “haves”, it is a spiritual poison that leads, like Lazarus, to craving more and more while turning our back on those outside our door, those that we could help with the crumbs off our table.
For many of the global “have-nots,” on the other hand, the choices are grim. In many places it has come to this: either you and your children die where you are, of illness, starvation and war, or you leave all that you know and cherish to become a stranger, exploited, in hostile places, shunned by people who are afraid that you will take from them some of what they have in abundance.
Not all immigrants are fleeing immediate death, of course. Some of them have just lost hope that life in their own country can ever improve, a particular kind of tragedy to which the Pope might have been alluding during his recent trip to Cuba.
In 2010 I spent several weeks in Cuba myself as a guest of the University of Havana. I cannot remember now what it was that I expected, but it turned out to be the most difficult professional experience of my life. Horrible, is actually what I tell people. The premier educational insti-tution in that country, the “Harvard of the Caribbean,” could not afford air conditioning except in one tiny room, where, of course, we American academics got to hold our sessions. Think of Rice University in July without air conditioning, without toilet paper in the rest rooms, for that matter – the University of Havana could not obtain that, either. Five decades of a U.S. embargo have taken their toll, not on the Cuban govern-ment, our excuse for the embargo, but on the Cuban people.
Admittedly, the extremely poor are much worse off in Mexico, or in the United States for that matter, than in Cuba, since Cuba has a far better “safety net.” Cubans are, by and large, healthy and educated: healthcare and education are free. People do not live in destitution in the streets of Havana like we have grown accustomed to seeing in American cities. Along with no conspicuous destitution, I did not see any conspicuous wealth: no yachts in the harbor, no Porsches on the highways. Some Cubans are doing better than others, of course, but the gap is nothing like that of the U.S., or Mexico.
I have been in much poorer communities, places where there was no running water, no medical care, where dogs died in the streets from starvation. Even in such places, I was a person of privilege. I had credit cards and an American passport. I could get what I needed when I could no longer endure the living conditions for another minute. I could catch a bus, pay a taxi, find whatever I needed or get to wherever my money could get me to restore my safety and comfort. The poor were horribly bad off in these countries, sure, but people like me did all right.
This is not the case in Cuba. It is not just the poor that cannot obtain the comforts we take for granted, and toilet paper is only one example. Cuban college professors, my colleagues, could not get them either, nor could physicians, nor attorneys, unless they had some source of “hard” currency, such as remit-tances, or could stand for hours in a toilet paper line. It is one thing when the poor do not have access to the goods and the services they need. I am used to that, but when people like me could not get them either, well, equality is something that I believe in with all my heart, but it was hard in practice. I could not buy what I needed because it simply was not available. I could not effectively com-municate with the airport, or even check the status of a flight. The electricity in our hotel went out every day and it was hot, and access to the slow and expensive Internet meant faking our way into a hotel down the street.
The world was upside down. Intellectually, I real-ized that I was immensely better off, materially anyway, than just about anybody in Cuba and that I was sharing with them only a tiny bit of inconvenience, for only a short time. But I was having difficulty reconciling my belief in equality with the actual experience of it. I was ashamed of my resistance to even a time-limited depri-vation, and to just how desperately I clung to my privilege. I did not want to face the relationship between my excessive comforts in the U.S. and the lack of just about everything that I “needed” in Cuba. I left that country with an over-whelming sense of hopelessness that sometimes still bothers me today.
When I returned from Mexico to the United States this past summer, I found that Casa Juan Diego was facing its own Cuban crisis. Cuban migration to the U.S. has increased massively recently, and many of the newly arrived have appeared at our doors. All our houses are jammed full. Unlike our guests from any other country, the Cubans are lucky in a sense. Because of the Cuban Adjustment Act, a piece of cold war legislation, Cubans are “legal” as soon as they set one foot on U.S. soil. But even though they do not have to worry about being hunted down and deported, no one wants to leave their home and all they have known, their families and many times their children, unless they have to. They come needing hospitality and care to recover from the dangerous journey, and help to begin again, just like all the others.
So, at Casa Juan Diego, we deal with whatever each world crisis brings to us. Our call is to serve the poor and marginalized of whatever country by focusing on individual persons. It works, and it works because of what the Pope said to Congress about Dorothy Day: that her extraordinary commitment to social justice was possible because it was lived out in direct care and concern for every individual person that came to the Catholic Worker for help.
As a Catholic Worker, you are constantly challenged, with each new guest, with each new person in need of care, to understand their situation and to do what you can to help them. With every new ring of the doorbell, we see, in the faces of human beings, the chasm between the rich and the poor and the consequences of the massively uneven distribution of the world’s wealth. Really, what we are trying do as Catholic Workers is to somehow rectify, or at to least make more bearable, what inequality has done to our guests. This is the beauty of the Catholic Worker Movement, how we do our small part to help the world, how we grow to hope and justice. Not through some grand gesture, but by giving away what we have to those in need until the day when there is no more need.
Houston Catholic Worker, November-December 2015, Vol. XXXIV, No. 5.