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Hospitality Empowers Battered Women

Marion Maendel came to the Houston Catholic Worker from the Bruderhof movement. She lives and works in the women’s and children’s house.

There is a sentiment presently circulating among social agencies and
 church organizations that hospitality is out of style. Cleverly
 advertised, innovative new counseling programs for abused and homeless women are in. Shelter is out. Easy-reach crisis hotlines are sprouting everywhere. Simple offers of housing, food and clothing are draining fast. Boards of Directors go along with monies being used for
 counseling instead. Information and referral and networking replace

As a somewhat scorned and marginalized outpost of the disappearing
 hospitality movement, this Catholic Worker needs to explain why its
 members are sticking with such an outdated and primitive social
 charism. Why we do hospitality is a question we face with each new arrival to Casa Juan Diego. The conclusion we continuously come to is reached through out guests as well. The following two stories demonstrate our answer.

“Maria,” an immigrant mother of four children, came to us from
 Guatemala. She had been terrorized for years by an alcoholic husband
 who was fiercely abusive. Unable to work or solicit money from her
 husband, Maria was forced to watch her kids do without, deprived of
 school, food, clothing, love and a father. After agonizing weeks of 
secret planning and preparation, Maria escaped the house alone and began the horrific journey towards el norte in the hopes of somehow finding the means to support her children.

She spent months on the road, always searching for a short-term job
 where she could earn enough to travel another few miles. Finally, Maria
 arrived at the Rio Grande. Searching for a way to cross, she was
 discovered by a group of men, who genially offered their services.
 After “helping” her over the border, they seized her brutally, beat her,
 and then took turns raping her.

Maria survived. She continued the journey, still haunted by the faces
 of her children. More weeks of terror and bitter humiliation followed.
 Although she was now in Texas, racial prejudice, a foreign language and
 the high cost of traveling slowed her.

When she finally arrived in Houston, her bravery and fierce courage were
 nearly gone. She owned nothing except the dress and shoes she wore and she knew no one in Houston. The scribbled address of Casa Juan Diego as jotted down by a friend at the border was a stab in the dark.

Maria came to the door of Casa Juan Diego: “I am Maria of Guatemala.

I have no home and no friends. Can you help me get a job as a live-in
 maid so I can have food for my children and that they may be able to go 
to school?” Than she added with her head held low: “I think I am

What do you say to a woman alone, homeless, starving and pregnant by
 rape? You say, “Welcome, this is your home.”

After eating, bathing, changing to clean clothes and resting, Maria
 asked to talk with us. The first questions was about job
 Second, what about being pregnant? People at the border told her that
 in the United States you don’t mess around with unwanted pregnancies.
 You abort them. Maria was not comfortable with this solution. She was
 not from the United States. Could we help her if she had the baby? We
 accepted her choice and promised to assist her even after the child was
 born, even until the child was 18.

Maria was overwhelmed that she actually had an alternative to the
 unremitting societal voices from the Valley who insisted that she could
 never love a child of rape, and that having an abortion would be the
 most practical, easy and comfortable way to forget about the whole
 incident. Deeply religious and culturally supported in having the
 child, Maria was relieved to find that she could follow her beliefs
 because of the concrete support and practical love offered to her.

We arranged a job for her immediately. When the time came for giving
 birth, there was much excitement–as there usually is. When Maria and
 Tomas returned from the hospital, all received them. Workers who held
 little Tomas in their arms discovered for the first time the meaning of
 pro life. It was so different from what they heard on TV or read in the

Today, Maria works as a full-time maid here in Houston, and is able to
 send money to her family in Guatemala. Her children there are well, and
 attend school with her help. She has a beautiful child here, and
 together they visit us periodically to pick up mail or just say hi.
 Maria loves him dearly.

Other women who come to us are victims of more episodic, domestic abuse. Several weeks ago we received a call from a couple in Houston who were deeply concerned over the treatment their next-door neighbor was giving his wife. The man, an established immigrant from Mexico, had become alcoholic, and recently resorted to verbal and physical spouse abuse, which he rationalized through his extremely possessive and almost neurotic jealousy over his wife. The woman, humiliated, was trying to leave her husband, but had nowhere to go. Would we take her in if the couple managed to bring her to Casa Juan Diego? We assured them that we would.

Once “Sofia” and her children had safely arrived, we discussed with her
 the seeming reasons for her husband’s verbal abuse and jealousy, and
 explored the possibility of counseling. We assured her that there was
 no set limit of stay at Casa Juan Diego, that we would do anything we
 could to support her and the children, and that if she wished, we could 
act as negotiators between her and her husband. Confident with this
 new-found support, Sofia told us that she was devastated by her
 husband’s abuse, but wishes to try and save the marriage, provided he
 was first willing to receive professional therapy and marriage
 counseling from the local parish, where it was provided in Spanish.
 Realizing that contrary to his threats, Sofia did indeed have a secure
 place to stay, and could well survive without him financially, Sofia’s
 husband agreed to her terms.

After intense counseling, he admitted to her, weeping, that his
 abusiveness had been unjustified, that he missed her terribly, and that
 he too was willing to try the marriage again.

The stories of Maria and Sofia caused us to reflect that exploitation
 results from vulnerability, and that we can sometimes put a stop to a
 vicious cycle of societal, institutional or domestic abuse through the
 simple act of hospitality. Often dismissed as band-aid work,
 hospitality actually offers victims of societal and especially domestic
 abuse a strong and open-ended power source from which they can negotiate in self-confidence, not blind despair. As Maria’s story exemplifies, very few of the single, pregnant women who come to Casa Juan Diego from Latin America consider abortion as an option once they have the security of a home here, and practical, material support. While many agencies offer crisis counseling, we and our guests have found that such aid can be of little use if they woman concerned is only supported verbally. Here, we must not only offer words of advice, but an environment where such advice can be followed, securely, and backed by an unlimited term of shelter–an environment of hospitality.

Women like Sofia can be saved from degrading self-defeat through
 hospitality. Often, when a battered woman threatens to leave her
 abusive husband or boyfriend, she is simply laughed at. “There is
 nowhere for you to go,” she is told. You are an ungrateful little
 wetback, and you have no friends or family here. No one wants to help
 you, no one will dare to protect you from me when I come to look for
 you. Anyway, I’m the one who’s legal and has the job. If you ever take
 this case to court, I’m the one who will get custody of the kids.”

Our job in such a situation is to prove the above statement wrong.
 Armed with an unlimited housing offer, food, clothing, medicine,
 counseling, and often legal assistance, a battered women supported by
 unconditional hospitality can turn her life completely around.
 Hospitality has empowered her.
 This is not to build ourselves up, or deny the complexity of habitual
 battery. Battering husbands, for whom abuse has become a deeply 
ingrained mode of expressing jealousy, insecurity, bigotry, and/or
 sexism, may indeed be hopeless. They have become monsters capable of unspeakable cruelty, and to help the woman permanently escape their
 clutches is imperative. (Recently, we heard that one of our battered
 women who moved to another shelter several months ago, returned to her
 husband for the third or fourth time and was brutally killed by him.)
Even when the wife or girlfriend of a habitual battered fantasizes about
 a honeymoonlike reconciliation, and foolishly seeks to return without
 first setting terms or standards, we advise and help them to begin a new
 life separated from the man. What should be realized, however, is that
 not all cases of battery are black and white, unnegotiable situations.
 There are men out there, especially first-time batterers who honestly
 regret their actions and attitude. There are women out there, who, from
 a position of empowered protection and security, recognize that they can
 be the ones establishing the terms of reconciliation.

Tempted by cynicism, often overwhelmed by the seeming futility of our
 efforts and the devastating ratio of “failures” to “successes,” we are
 sometimes persuaded to view the stories of Maria and Sofia as
 exceptions. They are not. They are clear examples of the empowerment,
 confidence, and hope which hospitality can offer abused women, whether exploited by spouses or societal and governmental institutions.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 2, March-April 1997.