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Experiences of a New Doctor, Catholic Worker, at Casa Juan Diego

Clint, a volunteer at Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker, especially at the hiring hall, just finished his medical training at Baylor University.

Thankfully, a weekly discussion interrupts the often long days at Casa Juan Diego. During one of these moments of physical rest, I was struck by a commentary by Jean Vanier. InCommunity and Growth, we read, “People who are poor seem to break down the barriers of powerfulness, of wealth, of ability and of pride; they pierce the armour the human heart builds to protect itself; they reveal Jesus Christ (p. 96). It sounds great to encounter Christ, but what does it really mean in practice? What had I learned from Jesus who is present in the poor?

Obviously they don’t give lectures and there are no multiple-choice exams, but the study material at Casa Juan Diego is the stuff of life. Work, food, clothing, beds, and health care are the necessities of this community. Meeting these needs are Works of Mercy, as we are reminded in Matthew 25, the Gospel passage continually reviewed with all volunteers and guests who pass through here. The needs are simple, the work is hard, and the situations are often complex. The lessons came from suffering and the revelation of my own weaknesses.

The Centro San José Obrero or hiring hall provides a way for the men at Casa Juan Diego to work as day laborers. They may dig holes, move furniture, paint, or pick up and haul trash. Fifty or 60 men would show up at 6:00 a.m. to get their place on the list, and many others shuffled in as the morning went on. As the volunteer in the hiring hall, I talked with the patrones or contractors to find out how many workers they needed, what kind of work they had, and how much they would pay per hour. We tried to send those workers most in need first: those immigrants who had recently arrived at Casa Juan Diego and then, those who had been waiting the longest on that particular day. Their motivations to work varied: to pay the weekly rent for a room shared with three or four others, to send money home for a relative who is sick, or to earn enough money to take them to their next destination.

The moments of joy were brief. Returning from work, a man with soiled clothing and muddy shoes sought me out to indicate his gratitude for the good job he had that day. The frustrations were more plentiful. I would just as likely hear from a man that his patron had not paid him at all for three days’ work. Many of the workers wait patiently for their turn to be hired, but on slow, rainy days when there is little work, things become desperate. After getting up at 5:30 to help them get a job, I was cursed for trying to maintain some sort of order so that the patrones or contractors who were looking for someone to hire wouldn’t get mobbed by a crowd jostling for position. On another day, it was a humbling surprise to find out several of the men had been lying to get ahead in the list in order to secure a job that day. I don’t expect to face unemployment any time soon, but I could certainly encounter the struggle of these men to find work.

At the men’s House of Hospitality, I enjoyed working to help maintain the hospitality offered even as I faced my own shortcomings. A group of fourteen ayudantes composed of cocineros, the cooks, and llaveros, the doormen, share a great burden to provide a welcome to the many guests that stay for just a few days. Immigrants themselves, they accept additional responsibility and stay for an indefinite time. They helped to build community by offering insights in weekly meetings, telling their personal stories, laughing at the absurdities of everyday life, and trusting me as a companion in their work.

During the day, my tasks were varied and memorable: picking up supplies for a building project, grinding 300 pounds of donated whole bean coffee in the middle of a grocery store, or giving a ride to the hospital. At night, the men returned from work and often requested clothes and shoes for work or medicine for a sprained ankle. The interruptions multiplied and I often found it easier to say no, whether to maintain a sense of control or from a desire for efficiency. It was much harder to be generous.

“Sir, I was wondering if I could use the washing machine for my clothes?” one of the men asked. “I’m leaving in the morning.”

“No, I replied. The only open washing machine was in the kitchen and was for the ayudantes to wash their things and the sheets from the beds in their rooms. Minutes later, the contradiction in my attitude became apparent as I took my own load of clothes to be washed.

So, how does one respond in the face of need? I watched in amazement as the more experienced Catholic Workers said yes even after being unfairly taken advantage of on repeated occasions. They continued to give.

Working in a community that provides so many basic needs did allow me to serve Christ. I clearly heard a personal, continuous call to be merciful, but it also meant facing disappointment and my own imperfection, which put holes in my shield of self-satisfaction. I saw my own need for the Father’s mercy.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 21, No. 4, July-August 2001.