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Why Volunteer?

The stories of the men are incredible. They must endure so much suffering just to arrive at our door, beaten down and flat broke. Many have problems eating, because they haven’t eaten for days, and their digestive systems are out of whack. Others come with scratches and cuts from the cactus that they accidently dove into when they heard the
immigration helicopters. Still others are covered from head to toe with bug bites from sleeping so many nights unprotected. I met one young man who lost his foot because of a slip-up trying to hop a train. He was lucky; many more lose their entire leg or even their lives. Why?

Ask a man, “Why did you risk your life to come here?” he doesn’t say, “Well I’d like to buy that new car.” He needs to feed his family. He doesn’t say, “The kids need school clothes.” The kids probably don’t have shoes.

Most of the men I know send back every spare cent to their families. One man told me, “How can I go out and spend money on luxuries (clothes, etc.) for myself when my family in El Salvador is hungry? I’m not here to enjoy myself. I’m here to work. Besides, if I get picked up by immigration I can’t ask them to stop by Casa Juan Diego to please pick up my things.” These men will give up all, including their lives, for their families back home.

Recently, I talked to a man from the U.S. and he told me, “I don’t understand why these people would come all the way to the United States without any relatives or any real plans.” The fact that so many come here like that indicates the grave situation that makes these men leave for another country despite the dangers. Under what circumstances would I make a similar journey? I pray I never have to find out.

If all this isn’t enough of a reason to be at Casa Juan Diego, if the call to be my brothers’ keeper isn’t enough, there are also the benefits of having such an experience. I’ve been asked, “You don’t get anything for being there?” Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, I am learning about this religion that I was born into. I am finally beginning to feel that I am a Catholic because I choose to be, rather than simply accepting it because that was what I was fed as a child. Lately I have tried to ask myself on a regular basis why I’m Catholic. I must confess, I haven’t always had the best answers.
I seem to have gone through most of my life without putting much thought into why I go to Mass every Sunday.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, one of the high level devils, advises Wormwood, a novice tempter, that if he can just keep his man from asking the most basic questions about his faith, religion stays on the surface and never penetrates the heart, thus securing him for their father below. Old Wormwood had me in the palm of his hand for some time. I spent all this time considering myself a “good” Catholic without ever letting Catholicism penetrate my heart.

Second, I am learning about myself. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to see Jesus in everyone. When I lose patience, or I’m tired I defend myself by saying, “Well Jesus wouldn’t expect me to do that” or “Jesus wouldn’t have asked me in that tone of voice.” Other times I say,”If only Jesus would brush his teeth first” or “But Jesus has tuberculosis.” In reality, it is Jesus each and every time, and I am called to respond to him as he responds to me.

Someone who has inspired me when I think to myself, “Why should I go out of my way for this guy?” is Kahlil Gibran. The Prophet speaks to me about giving, as he says, “And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.” Who am I to judge who deserves help and who doesn’t? The fact that God gave that person life is enough reason for me to help out in some small way. Third, with a slightly twisted view of time, I sometimes feel that I am helping my own ancestors as they made their journeys many years back.

There are a million reasons for giving a small portion of this borrowed time, called life, to help out a brother in need. There are millions more benefits that one receives for doing it. These are only some of the reasons that stand out in my mind when someone asks me, “Why Volunteer?”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 2, March 1995.