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On Helping People at Casa Juan Diego: Unsuccessful Love

Jonathan is a Catholic Worker who will be studying journalism at Columbia University in the fall. Jonathan came to us through his uncle, Ken Cooper, who shares the Houston Catholic Worker with the students in his classes in a Catholic high school in Washington, D.C.

In my first month as a volunteer at Casa Juan Diego I set out to collect the “stories” of the immigrants who came through our doors. I quickly learned, however, that immi-gration, like life, is not a story. The poverty which I en-countered was part of a work in progress, a continuing journey through life’s hardships that started long before an immigrant left his homeland, and in most cases would continue long after he was situated in the United States. The guests I met slipped away, and endings, let alone happy ones, were rarely encountered at Casa Juan Diego.

The first person who truly slipped away from me was the guest I became the closest to, Abel Lemus. He was a twenty-six year old Honduran immigrant who had lived in the house for almost a month before I arrived. He stood out because his two broken arms and broken leg confined him to a wheelchair that he restlessly steered around our house with kicks from his good leg. He was a jovial presence.

When I first spoke with him he explained the cause of his injury. He had spent one night on the street, and, not wanting to expose himself to crime, slept in a dumpster. That morning it was emptied into a garbage truck that began to compact. The driver stopped when he heard screaming, moments before he would have killed Abel. As he finished his story, a listener posed the question of why Abel never sued the garbage company, and Abel answered quite simply, “it was my fault.” This injury happened three months before I met Abel, most of which he spent in Memorial Hermann Hospital.

A week later, Abel’s hand began to hurt and he requested we take him back to Memorial Hermann. In emergency care, I stayed with him to translate for his doctors, and in our long periods of waiting I asked him to tell me about his childhood. At this point, I thought that his life’s “story,” one of poverty in his home country, the struggle of immigration, his unfortunate accident, and his ultimate recovery after months of our care, would be the perfect testament to the work of Casa Juan Diego.

As his injured forearm lay limp and unbandaged on a hospital bed, displaying a significant gap held together by thick, black stitches, Abel told me of life in Honduras. The first story was one he heard from his family members, which he had but vague memories of himself. Abel’s father was so friendly he would talk with strangers in bars as though they were family. One night, when Abel was six years old, his father received an unfriendly response from one such stranger. Abel’s uncle, also at the bar that night, saw the insult and responded by pulling out a gun and firing at the ceiling. A group of men left the bar with the threatened man saying they would return for a fight.

Abel’s father returned to his house. Within minutes a large man who had not been at the bar forced his way into the house, shot Abel’s uncle, and killed his father in front of six-year-old Abel and his mother. Abel finished the story somber, but without tears.

Soon after his father’s death his mother left the house to work and support her children. One year later she caught an illness and died. Abel told me, “then, I was too young to realize what I had lost, but now I am old enough to realize what I never had.”

We were discharged from the hospital with troubling news: Abel had recovered for the most part from his injury, but he still had surgically implanted nails in his wrist and knee which the hospital could not remove because he had left on two separate occasions against medical advice. We were sent away with nothing but a manila envelope of papers explaining Abel’s medical history.

I confronted Abel to ask why he would do something so self-destructive. I was concerned, and quite serious, but Abel could not stop himself from giggling. He first claimed that the hospital had kicked him out and after much interrogation gave the cryptic response that he was in pain and the doctors would do nothing to help him. He was still inexplicably amused. After this episode, a certain despair accompanied any attempt to find medical care for Abel, but we were still close friends.

Soon after, I tried to finish compiling his life story. After his mother died, Abel, at age 7, moved in with an uncle on a farm in Honduras. At eleven he began school, but soon dropped out, preferring to work. He worked ten hours a day for six years until at age seventeen he decided he was tired and would move to the United States for an easier life. “Without imagining that the trip was difficult” he said.

His first words about immigrating were, “I suffered much on the way.” It took him twenty-five days to arrive at the border between Mexico and the United States from his uncle’s farm in Honduras. Most of that time he traveled by jumping trains, which although dangerous is the safest route to avoid Mexican immigration police. If a non-Mexican is found in Mexico illegally the police take his money; if he has none, they detain him for days then send him back to his country. Abel passed his nights on a train or on the ground, without shelter. He stopped his story when he reached the border, saying he would continue another time.

Soon after, a surgeon looked at Abel’s injuries at the Houston Catholic Worker’s clinic. I handed the doctor Abel’s medical papers and stayed with him and Abel to translate. The surgeon flipped through the papers briefly and said, “So, you were using cocaine in a dumpster?” It was the first I had heard of Abel’s addiction.

The surgeon could not do operations at our clinic but rather referred patients so he left off telling us that he would call Abel’s doctors at Memorial Hermann and try to “guilt trip” them into performing the needed operations. I asked Abel if he still used drugs, once at the doctor’s request and again when we were alone. Abel assured me he had quit permanently saying that God had given him this accident as an opportunity to reclaim his life. His faith was strong; I saw him in church on Sundays. I told him that his decision was admirable, and he replied in typical form, “well, I had plenty of time to sit and think about it.” I asked him about his future, and he said that once he recovered he wanted to travel looking for people in need, as he had been, and help them. I truly believed he had recovered from his addiction.

For a period of two weeks after this encounter, Abel and I waited for news from the doctor. I began to help him bathe himself, giving him the first real showers he had taken in a month. Again, we shared experiences which strengthened our friendship. Unfortunately, before we could find Abel medical attention his recovery “story” completely derailed.

Late one night I arrived at the house to find another volunteer interrogating Abel. Abel had stayed awake past lights out singing along to his headphones and got in a verbal fight with the person who asked him to stop. The fight culminated when Abel knocked over our television and destroyed it. The next day we found empty beer cans among his possessions. We felt the best solution was to ask him to leave our men’s house, typically only a place for newly arrived immigrants, and ask him to move into the quieter setting of our sick men’s house.

He stayed there only until three o’clock the next day when I found him outside our house complaining that the sick men’s house was a prison. Much like my experience in finding out why he left the hospital, it took long questioning until he would admit why he wanted to leave. This time, he would stand up from his wheelchair, supported awkwardly on his one good leg, and shout that he wanted to burn down our house and kill the people in it, then fall back down and begin giggling again. After a half an hour he made a very sideways admission that he would not stay in the sick men’s house because he would not be allowed to drink while he was staying there. He admitted this in such a way that it seemed he himself would not accept it as the reason he was leaving. He was in denial about the power his addiction held over him.

For the next week, I would see him outside Casa Juan Diego almost every day. He would say he had slept at a friend’s house, or on the street, the night before. He was often intoxicated. Every time one of the volunteers from the house saw him we would ask him to go to a rehabilitation center. He would refuse, usually saying, “Only God can help me.”

One day about a week after he left Casa Juan Diego, he showed up outside our house, wheeling himself around in a frenzy and shouting threats and gibberish. The police arrived soon after saying they had received numerous complaints, that he had been belligerent towards people and that he had wheeled into the middle of the street to stop traffic. Abel began to shout that he had smoked crack that day. The officer, a very kind man, told us Abel would be placed in prison for the night and released as soon as he was sober. As the officer approached, Abel swung his bandaged arms in a feeble attack. In response, the officer had to pull Abel’s arms behind his back. Abel yelled out in pain and began to cry. We watched as the police car took him and his wheelchair away.

I saw him in the neighborhood only one more time, drinking beer at seven in the morning. Since then, weeks have passed without a single volunteer seeing him. I cannot know if I will ever see him again, and so his story continues without me. I carry an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness which accom-panies his being out on the streets, away from the shelter of our house and uninhibited from destroying his mind and body with drugs. I prayed for him at times when he was still near the house, but now I have embraced prayer as the only way I have to reach out to him. I pray that I may share the suffering that God shares with Abel.

A frequent request from American visitors to Casa Juan Diego is a “success story.” The idea of an immigrant who conquered all odds to find financial security in America is a very appealing one, but it is not the type of success that we deal in frequently. My success story from the time I spent at Casa Juan Diego is the story of Abel. He came to us with needs and every day we met them with love. The friendship we shared was a joy and its love pursues him now in the darkness of our separation.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, July-August 2004.