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Reflections after One Year at Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker

Randy, a Catholic Worker in Houston, is a graduate of Texas A&M.

It’s getting cold again, and I can’t help but be reminded of my first few weeks here at Casa Juan Diego. I arrived in late fall; and shortly after, the temperature dropped. I was relieved, though, because I was just plain sick of the Houston heat. Besides, the men’s house seemed to produce some pretty funky odors when the weather was warm.

This year, though, as the temperature drops, I am not so much relieved as I am thankful. Over the past year, the good Lord has taught a beginner-level do-gooder some pretty important lessons on what it means to follow Jesus.

I originally came to Casa Juan Diego because I wanted to help people. I had experienced a renewed interest in my Catholic faith, and I figured that working for a charitable organization named after a saint would be a safe bet. Upon arrival, I received all of the pertinent literature on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement from Mark Zwick and his wife, Louise.

“Hello, Randy, nice to meet you. Are you familiar with Dorothy Day?” As Mark gave me the grand tour, I explained to him that I wasn’t familiar with Dorothy Day. We walked in and out of what seemed to be a maze of buildings and doorways.

Mark continued, “Well, Randy, we follow Dorothy’s tradition of living the Gospel in a radical way. Lots of prayer, voluntary poverty, hospitality, pacifism.” I smiled and replied, “Hmm, that sounds really neat.” For some reason, though, the word “radical” just didn’t sit right with me.

I thought to myself, “Okay, lots of prayer, I can understand that. But voluntary poverty? Pacifism? Really, Randy, you just want to help people. You don’t have to become some kind of religious wacko to help people though, do you?

Despite my initial fears, I decided to give Casa Juan Diego a shot. In late October, I moved into the men’s house, and just as planned I started helping people. Normally I’d start helping them at about seven or eight in the morning and stop at about six in the evening, taking breaks in between. This seemed fair enough. But then, people started wanting me to help them all of the time, sometimes in the middle of the night, it seemed. So I did. Unfortunately, I got really tired. Even worse, I got grumpy!

I could not believe it! I was supposed to come to Casa Juan Diego, help people during the day, and then sit back, relax and feel good about myself in my spare time. But here I was after a couple of months, tired and grumpy. “God, how could You have let this happen to me,” I groaned. “I thought I was doing you a favor by coming here and helping all these people! What gives?”

God seemed to respond: “You say you’re here because you want to help people. I say you’re here because I want to help you!”

“Help ME?” I asked. “I thought that my being here was a visible sign of my sainthood! You’re telling me that there’s more?”

Over the next few months, it became quite obvious that I had LOTS to learn. Also, it became hard for me to stay motivated. I was upset by the fact that I had come here to help people, but it just wasn’t the spiritual bliss I had expected.

As I pondered over my dilemma, I began to see that the life of a follower of Jesus was so much more than I had originally thought. It wasn’t just a matter of putting my hand up to the television screen, accepting Jesus as my personal Savior, helping “poor” people every now and then, and telling them how much God loves them. It was more a matter of realizing my own “brokenness,” turning to God for His mercy, and continually learning how to act as a follower of Jesus through prayer and reflection.

Upon making this realization, my experiences at Casa Juan Diego have become more meaningful. Just as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin had envisioned, I can see the Casa as a place where people from all walks of life meet, help each other, and, more importantly, learn from each other.

I now also see that my struggle to maintain a regular prayer life has a great effect on my daily outlook. Without prayer, the work loses its meaning; and, in turn, I get tired and grumpy. With prayer, I still struggle; but I am more aware of God’s hand at work in my life.

Now that winter has arrived, I feel like God has sent me a lesson along with the arrival of the cold weather. Just like last year, the guys coming up from the border in the winter months are worn down by the distance of the journey and are completely unequipped to battle the elements as they walk their way north to the U.S. Perhaps they have been beaten and robbed of what little they have. Perhaps their only change of clothes got soaked as they crossed the Rio Grande. One thing is for certain. When they get to Casa Juan Diego, they are going to be tired and hungry. They will need lots of jackets, blankets, and warm food. Some of them will need medical attention. All of this will translate into long hours for the staff of “ayudantes” at both the men and women’s houses. There will be many opportunities to get tired and grumpy.

This time around, I’ve got my motivation. The rickety old heater in the men’s house doesn’t blow much warm air into my room, and the cold air from outside has no trouble finding its way up through the raised wooden floors. Without lots of blankets, it gets really cold at night. As I go to sleep each night, I can’t help but think of the guys on the journey, sleeping under the stars on a gravelly desert floor or under a bridge somewhere on the outskirts of some small Texas town. I know that they are colder than I could ever be, and my heart goes out to them. In my own poverty, however mild, I connect with the people I want to help.

I begin to think of those crazy saints, Francis, Ignatius, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, etc., who in spite of everything the world had to offer, took up lives marked by prayer, voluntary poverty, nonviolence, and service to others. I envy the intimacy with God they shared during their lives as they heroically attempted to follow Jesus.

I am so excited for the future. Here at Casa Juan Diego I feel like I am beginning to learn what it means to follow Jesus. The teachings of Jesus that just didn’t sit right with me before don’t seem to scare me as much. Also, the original, rather vague desire that brought me to Casa Juan Diego has become clearer. I still want to help people. More importantly, I want to love the people I help; and in embracing the lifestyle of a Catholic Worker, I am learning to do this.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January-February 2004.