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“The Mystery of the Poor is This: They are Christ.” (Dorothy Day)

by Angel Valdez

Alfredo, who spent the summer at Casa Juan Diego’s men’s house, is a seminarian from Colombia with the Scalabrini Fathers, studying theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

It was six years ago when I first read a copy of the Houston Catholic Worker. I was in my first year of studies with the Scalabrini missionaries in Colombia. Ever since then I have felt a great longing to learn more about the work of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

With each consecutive issue of the Houston Catholic Worker, my affinity for the mission of Casa Juan Diego grew tremendously. The paper invited me to share the drama of the poorest of the poor: undocumented immigrants.

In my vocation to the missionary life I have personally opted to serve migrants and refugees in the congregation of the missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo (founded by the Blessed Juan Bautista Scalabrini). For this reason, when I discovered the work of Casa Juan Diego, I felt a profound identification with their mission.

If I were asked to describe Casa Juan Diego in a few words, I would be compelled to say that Casa Juan Diego is an oasis in the middle of the desert.

Casa Juan Diego is aptly named. Like Juan Diego, the simple man to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Tepeyac, Casa Juan Diego is a simple place, though its walls enclose the warmth of Christian hospitality. It is a faithful testimony of the voluntary poverty of the volunteers of the Catholic Worker movement.

Casa Juan Diego: an Oasis in the Middle of the Desert

Casa Juan Diego truly lives out the preferential option for the poorest of the poor: undocumented immigrants, the rejected, the marginalized, and others who are exploited in a multitude of ways. Unfortunately, many people who espouse egocentric and/or ethnocentric visions of the world instantly classify poor immigrants as “illegals,” as if the right to live solely depends on a document or a flag. Sadly, many of those who discriminate against undocumented immigrants appear to suffer from social amnesia in that they have forgotten that the United States is a nation constructed by the work of immigrants from all over the globe.

Casa Juan Diego is the oasis in the middle of the hot Texas desert, which in this scorching summer has claimed the lives of more than fifty immigrants. It is truly disconcerting to know how many immigrants have died and that many of them did not even have the opportunity to receive a Christian burial; it is as if the poor don’t even have the right to die with dignity and rest in peace.

Casa Juan Diego is, in short, the hospitable roof under which all Latin Americans who experience the anguish of living in an unknown territory can find rest. In Casa Juan Diego immigrants find a home where they can smile again and look optimistically toward the future.

I have to confess that living in Casa Juan Diego has been one of my most powerful experiences as a missionary. Day after day for two months I encountered the face of Christ in the undocumented.
Christ undocumented, Christ seeking hospitality, food, clothing, medicine, work or simply someone who would listen to his story filled with anguish and sadness. Day after day I was a witness to the drama of Latin American men and women who, risking their lives for days or weeks, had managed to cross the border and arrive in Houston.

I will never forget the faces of the immigrants, burned by the intense summer sun, nor their feet, destroyed from walking for so long, nor their bones, fractured in their intent to hide from the “migra.” Men of all ages, from cities and rural areas of Mexico, but also from Peru, Colombia and Cuba. All the poorest of the poor. The immigrants, the majority of them silent in their continuous exodus, people of God in search of the promised land. Their stories tell of how violence and poverty forced them to abandon their homes and their loved ones. Indeed, the stories of the immigrants at Casa Juan Diego are a faithful testimony of how the poverty, social injustice and violence in Latin America are converting immigration from a right into an absolute necessity.

Upon migrating, the guests of Casa Juan Diego have experienced poverty in its crudest reality. Like Jesus, many have been without a place to recline their heads. They have experienced complete isolation and abandonment, hunger and thirst. In other words, they have experienced first-hand all of the possible violations of their dignity as human beings and children of God. They have suffered the humiliation of deportations, the anguish of fatigue, the anxiety of nights spent outdoors, exposed to vipers and other dangers.

Encountering the undocumented Christ

At Casa Juan Diego I have seen the face of Christ in the undocumented.

All are so different, all so similar, with diverse stories, but a common drama. I met Martin, the “veteran” immigrant who began to cross the border in the 1940’s as a “bracero” and who continues to do so now in order to find work, though he is in his ’70’s and has a heart condition. I also met Christ in the face of Gonzalo, a boy of 18 who has already “passed the test” of crossing for the first time and is eagerly looking for day labor. He told me on one occasion that he sends money to his family so that they can continue to harvest their chile pepper crops.
Casa Juan Diego is like a storybook. We open a page and we find the story of Jacinto, the Peruvian who, frustrated by poverty, set out on his pilgrimage from Lima, then crossed through Colombia and all of Central America to get to Houston. We turn the page and find the story of Francisco, a Honduran who left his farm because a drought destroyed his crops. Yet again we flip to another chapter of the book and find the account of Jose, a Colombian who abandoned his home and hid for eleven days as a stowaway in a steamship until it docked in the United States.

Casa Juan Diego is also a place where immigrants encounter one another. The Cuban meets the Peruvian and the Mexican meets the Colombian. They share their stories and then realize that above geo-political boundaries they are all brothers and live a common struggle; all have been obligated to leave their own land because of poverty and violence. All have walked the same path and the journey has made them family. Further, they discover they all have a common God, a God that has not created borders. They discover that they have a faith in common, that their lives are in the hands of God, the God who accompanied Abraham on his journey and in his painful experience of leaving his loved ones and his land for an uncertain future.

I remember with special fondness the following testimonies from a young immigrant: “It is God who opened the borders for us, without Him we couldn’t have done it.” The immigrants are a testament of profound faith. “God tells us what we should do,” is a phrase they repeat again and again. The immigrants have taught me that immigration isn’t just a social problem, but rather one of the ways God continues to manifest and reveal himself in the simplest and the poorest. God speaks to us today through the mouths of the immigrants. The immigrants have taught me also that Christ continues to challenge and question our comfortable way of life, justified by the myths of comfort, pleasure and consumerism. Today, Christ continues to knock at our doors, looking for a place to sleep, food, water and clothing.
In Casa Juan Diego, immigrants discover the universality of the Church, its Catholicism. The solidarity of Christians knows no borders. Everyone is united.

Christ continues to tell us, as it appears in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Because I was hungry and you gave me to eat, was thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me, without a place to stay and you showed me hospitality” (Mt 25).

At Casa Juan Diego, as I suggested earlier, the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is continuously answered. He is my brother in need, the undocumented immigrant, he who has nearly lost his life crossing the border, he who is hurt or beaten or dehydrated from not having eaten or drunk a drop of water for three days. I especially remember the suffering of a Houston immigrant who arrived with his veins completely dry from the thirst he had endured for several days. The doctor said that in another day he would have died. Do these immigrants not represent the same injured man to whom the Samaritan offered hospitality? (Mt 10) Are we not called today to show hospitality to our immigrant brethren?

Celebrating Life

At Casa Juan Diego the exodus of immigrants gives way to Easter! We shared difficulties and sadness, but we also shared smiles and hope. We shared life as a gift from God. Every Wednesday we would unite in the Eucharist to give thanks for life, work and the merciful hands of the Catholic Workers and the benefactors of Casa Juan Diego. In the Eucharist we are united as a community of faith, as a universal Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ.

In the moments of prayer I shared with the other volunteers at Casa Juan Diego, I could make mine the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “How easy it is to recognize Jesus in the Sacrament when we have encountered Him in the face of the poor whom we have served.”
Casa Juan Diego gave me the opportunity to know the lay people of the Catholic Worker movement, who shared with me the values which inspired Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin: voluntary poverty, hospitality and pacifism

The uniting of reflection and action at Casa Juan Diego took place frequently when in the middle of work we would take time to discuss readings about the spirituality and the roots of the Catholic Worker movement. As a Latin American, I was enriched by the thought of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Their lives were always a testimony of Christian life and solidarity with the poorest. They are prophets who practiced charity and social justice and believed in a transformation of society that begins with the revolution of the heart-just as Dorothy Day affirmed-and with the radical practice of the shock maxims of the Sermon on the Mount.

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