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Easter at Casa Juan Diego Center for Immigrants and Refugees; Catholic Worker Hospitality, Easter 2000

It is Easter evening at Casa Juan Diego. The lights are out in most of the house since the men will be up at 4 a.m. and on their way to the Padre Jack Davis Hiring Hall where hopefully all will pick up a days’ work. Our men are mostly from Mexico and the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In eight weeks as a volunteer I have seen many faces, heard many stories and shared many concerns. The notion of HOSPITALITY, one of the pillars of the Catholic Worker movement, has not always been easy to put into practice. The seemingly constant demands for attention, be it a pair of pants or a shirt to replace the clothes a guest has been wearing for fifteen days, an unexpected trip at night to our local hospital’s emergency room to seek help for a head wound received on a man’s “pilgrimage” to these United States or for a diabetic who has been days without his medicine. Due to Houston’s highly contaminated air, I was often asked for the needed sinus or cold medicine, along with something with which to bathe blistered feet or to explain how to use a phone card or to use the bus. Added to that having to answer the door at 3:30 a.m. for a newly arriving guest who didn’t consider that it was the day for me to work the Hiring Hall and I, too, would be up at 4:00 a.m. All of this and much more has frequently marred my commitment to HOSPITALITY.

Yet Jesus was so often “interrupted” as He went off to pray or to be alone with his disciples. We are told that He even once boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Gallilee, hoping for some time with his disciples, only to have the multitude anticipate his move (Mk 6:32-34). The people, especially the needy, sought Him out and according to the Scriptures He was hospitable, welcoming and responsive.

In part, it was my concern to be more like Jesus that brought me to the Houston Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were convinced that HOSPITALITY was an essential element to the living of the Gospel. As a religious and priest (Missionary of Our Lady of La Salette) I am called clearly to be like Jesus. Nevertheless, twenty years of trying to live the option for the poor in Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia left me doubting the presence of this quality in my day to day Gospel living. It is stressful for me and often aggravating to wake up early with the intention to go apart in prayer with the Lord, only to have to face people who continually knock on the door looking for help: the need for money to buy a coffin for a baby “Angelito” who had died in the night (we have our own coffins for babies), a roof for an unfinished house or maybe a bathroom, replacement for clothes or furnishings lost in a fire or a flash flood, intervention on behalf of someone who had been arrested, etc. etc.

I did not always respond with Hospitality and often felt overwhelmed and more than limited in what I could do. Was it my structured personality, undisposed to deal with the unexpected? Was it the fruit of years gone by where to “take care of yourself” and “don’t burn out” became catch phrases in the formation of priests and religious? It certainly didn’t come from my Irish Catholic upbringing where we were not allowed to indulge in feeling sorry for self. There were always others who had it more difficult and we had much to be thankful for. And so where did that divided heart, part open and reaching out, part closed and intimidated, come from? Maybe it was the intellectual perspective that handing out has no end, while what is really needed are structural changes to guarantee the dignity of all.

Dorothy Day Spoke to Me

As I began to think about the opportunity to make a sabbatical year during the Jubilee Year 2000 I felt called to deepen my roots as a believer and follower of Jesus. It was my motivation for volunteering some twenty years ago for the La Salette’s missions in South America. Dorothy Day spoke to me from the pages of the Houston Catholic Worker as I made plans. She spoke to me about a love for the poor, about voluntary poverty and community life with round table discussions and above all, HOSPITALITY. She spoke of seeing Jesus in the poor even as they may be rude, unappreciative and demanding. “It is because we love Christ in His humanity that we can love our brothers and sisters” are words not only written, but lived by Dorothy Day (“The Humanity of Christ,” The Catholic Worker, June 1935:4).

As you can see, I decided to set aside time in my sabbatical year to live hands on the intuition of this woman, mother and grandmother, that challenges my living out of my Catholic Christian vocation as religious and priest.

As this remarkable woman wrote in an Eastertime reflection in 1964, so I write this Easter night: “The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.” In the same reflection she asked, “How do we know we believe? How do we know we have faith? Because we have seen His hands and His feet in the poor around us. He has shown himself to us in them. We start by loving them for Him, and we soon love them for themselves, each one a unique person, most special!” (Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, Orbis Books, p. 330).

All I can say is “Lord, increase my faith,” as I look at the blistered feet of our guests. As I hand out antibiotic ointment for bruised and bloodied hands, fruit of a poorly paid but much needed day’s work, I pray: Lord, increase my faith.” “Oh ye of little faith” has been meant for me as it has been meant for so many in these 2000 years of pilgrimage. Even now I groan as the pay phone in the hall rings untiringly at an “inappropriate” hour and needs to be answered by me.

I wonder, was Dorothy at times rude like me? Was she ever overbearing as I sometimes perceive myself? Did impatience overcome her love for the poor as it does me? Hospitality in the sense of the Gospel as lived by the founders of the Catholic Worker does not come easily to me. But does that mean I should give up seeking to live it in my day to day contact with the poor and others? In a society where many do not know their neighbors and some even do not want to know them; where telephone calls are answered by electronic voices with an endless selection of numbers to be pressed; where public functionaries seem more concerned with answers to an endless number of questions on the forms they are reading than receiving well the person before them; where even the checkout person in the supermarket talks to a fellow worker while computers register the prices and the buyer is all but ignored; where gasoline is paid for at a self-service pump by inserting your credit card (no human contact needed!), I seek to be Hospitable.

Peter Maurin, famous for his Easy Essays, left us these words:
To give and not to take,
that is what makes a person human.
To serve and not to rule,
that is what makes a person human.
To help and not to crush,
that is what makes a person human.
And if need be, to die and not to live,
that is what makes a person human.

On this Easter night in this Jubilee Year, I find these words profound and yet simple. After all, Hospitality is relationship-my relationship with those who enter into “my space” and expect me as a Christian Catholic “to give,” “to serve,” “to hope,” and if need be, “to die.” As we heard during Lent, “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it does not bear fruit.” To have lived that spirit in these weeks at the Catholic Worker Hospitality here in Houston, “Casa Juan Diego,” has led me deeper into myself, but more importantly into Jesus.

How often our guests speak of God and give thanks for the hand of God that has brought them here. The loneliness of leaving behind loved ones, the fear of death crossing a river or jumping a train, confrontation with bandits, thirst and hunger, when for five days there has been nothing to eat and very little to drink, the blistered feet and bruised hands , seem to be all but forgotten when our guests share the HOSPITALITY of Casa Juan Diego. The strength that flows from being welcomed is healing and life giving. The spirit of Hospitality penetrates the limitations of so many of us, because it is the Lord who welcomes through us. I give Easter thanks for being welcomed by those of the Catholic Worker who, inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, live out their gift daily of Hospitality. Most of all I give thanks to our immigrant guests who have allowed me into their pilgrimage in search of dignity in this Jubilee Year 2000.

John Higgins, M.S. Missionary of La Salette

Houston Catholic Worker, vol. XX, No. 4, July-August 2000.