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Are the Immigrants Terrorists? What I Learned at Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker

“No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself.” – John Steinbeck

Ricardo is a seminarian with the Scalabrini Fathers and Brothers, studying at the Catholic Theological Union. He spent several months at Casa Juan Diego this summer. Ricardo is studying to be a Brother rather than a priest, a vocation he understands to be even more radical. During his time here, Ricardo successfully encouraged many of the men guests to accompany him to Mass on Sundays and later played soccer with them each week. Ricardo’s humility and sense of humor are reflected in this article he wrote about his experience at Casa Juan Diego.

I was born and raised in Brazil on a farm where my parents and three siblings still dwell. My life was pretty normal, and the word “immigrant” was not in my vocabulary until a few years ago. Even though my grandparents were from Italy, migration never interested me until I entered the seminary with the Scalabrinian Missionaries in 1999. At that time, I didn’t even know that the congregation I was in worked with immigrants in a radical way. I still don’t know what migration and being an immigrant is really all about. But one thing is true: I know more now than when I started.

The Scalabrinian Mission-aries’ main task is to help immigrants, especially the poorer ones. As a seminarian of this congregation I have been trying to learn to help the people for whom our congregation stands. Following God’s calling and considering the con-gregations’s needs, I ended up in Chicago to study English and then theology, as is required to be a brother or a priest. After I “finished” my English course I decided to have a closer experience with immigrants. Among the many possibilities of serving and working with immigrants was this house, Casa Juan Diego, which I ultimately chose.

Before I took this decision I talked with my superior and asked him about this place called Casa Juan Diego. I explained my situation: I had been studying English for more than fourteen months and I wanted to have real contact with the people we are preparing ourselves to work with. He told me that Casa Juan Diego would be a very good place to achieve my goals. So he said he would call the house and see how that would work out. I said that I was really committed to undertaking this experience, and that if he arranged an opportunity, I was ready to go. After one week he came to me and told me that Casa Juan Diego would accept me for a volunteer for two months. Then everything started.

I checked on the Internet looking for this house and easily found its web site. For the first time, I saw those strange names Mark and Louise Zwick. I had reasons to be frightened. One of them was that I didn’t even know how to pronounce their names. However, after I read some articles about the house and its activities and mission, I came to Houston, Texas, to acquaint myself with Casa Juan Diego and the people that are welcomed by it.

I arrived at the house on June 17th at around 10:00 p..m. A Scalabrinian priest who celebrates Mass at CJD once a month gave me a ride. We parked the car in front of the house where some letters on a fence spelled out “Casa Juan Diego.” The place was surrounded by men. Some of them were drinking, and at my first glance, I gathered that some of them were already drunk. They started to greet the priest and asked him for money. I was quite scared. I think I was more scared than when I first saw Mark and Louise’s names on Internet. Father Louis led me to the entrance of the house and asked for Mark. It turned out that he was not there, and we were sent to another house. There we met the mysterious Mark and his wife Louise. They welcomed me and introduced me to some other Catholic Workers, Jimmy, Jonathan, and Sean (the latter’s name, by the way, being difficult for me to pronounce.) After a few words, Mark took me inside to show me the place where I was going to live for the following two months. There was my first concern.

I had a computer that I was carrying in order to improve my English and practice typing. After looking at the room Mark offered me, I thought it would not be possible to keep my computer there because it would surely be stolen. So I sent the computer back to a “safe” place. It is interesting how our prejudices change when we face reality. All I can say that a few weeks later, I went back to St. Leo’s parish, where Father Louis lives with two other Scalabrinian priests, and brought back my computer, on which I am writing these words.

At the beginning, everything seemed to be potentially contagious. I think that is the way many people look at the poor: as illness so dangerous that if you merely walk by them, they will fatally infect you. In my opinion, that is why the Pharisees considered poverty a curse. (The poor really have to be kept away from your sight. Watch out: do you see any?) That was my feeling when I first got here. I thought they would kill me in a few days and that they would steal all I had, and, and … Maybe it is because we live in a world where the other is always seen as an enemy, especially if this “other” is a member of a different class or nationality. The “other” is a terrorist. And at best, if he is not one yet, he is on his way to becoming one. That is the way I saw them when I arrived at the house: a potential threat to my “security.” And that was the vision of a seminarian who is supposed to love and welcome the “other” as Jesus!

The first three weeks in the house I was really lost. I could not understand what was going on. People would come and leave the house at any time. At night we would have a meeting with all the guests and Mark would say to everybody phrases like “we are happy for having you here,” “you are our opportunity to live the Gospel,” and “Casa Juan Diego only welcomes ‘illegal’ immi-grants-it is your requirement for getting into this house.” I declare that I was about to tell this crazy Mark to face the truth. He had to consider the danger posed by those people. He didn’t know anything about them. They could be terrorists. I was sure they were planning something against the house and against all of us volunteers. And Mark was there with those phrases that I could understand very well but that were crazy and didn’t make any sense. I was about to tell him that those people could kill him right there. After all, we never know what the other is capable of. In my opinion, some people didn’t deserve to live in the house, and we had to make sure they were willing to live there. We should not have welcomed all of them. But who would deserve to receive our food, shelter, and attention?

When I could walk out of the door alone and greet the drunken guys who were at the corner of the house (who, I had found out, were not guests of the house), I started to realize what those people were. I was shocked. You would not believe it, but they were human. Yes, the people that come in the house are human. They have dreams. They want to feed their babies back in their native countries. Like Manuel Pena De Lao from Veracruz, Mexico, many of the immigrants that are welcomed at Casa Juan Diego work to send money to their families. They want to give a better future to their children. Many of them, including some young people from Brazil who came when I was here, want a better life. Their countries usually don’t offer these opportunities. So I said to myself, “MY GOD, where are the terrorists, the people I was afraid of? The people I was about to tell Mark to watch out for?” I have not seen many of them here in the house these couple of months. However, be careful: next month, they will come.

Looking deeper into the immigrants’ situation here in the house and trying to help them out, I learned that the people that they work for often are the people they are afraid of. Many times, immigrants go to work twelve hours a day under the sweltering sun and don’t get paid. I went with a guest to a construction site to help him claim wages for his unpaid 24 hours of labor, and all we got was a phone number to call back. Later, when I tried several times to reach the man who would supposedly pay the gust, nobody answered the phone. It seemed that there was nothing we could do about it. The immigrant, the supposed danger, sometimes doesn’t speak any English and doesn’t have any papers. So, to avoid being deported and getting tangled and more troubles, he just gives up on his lost money and tries his luck with another employer the next day.

That is a little of what I have learned at Casa Juan Diego. Immigrants that live on the streets begging from you and making you dodge around the corners are human. They have a life and all they want is to live it. These two months have taught me to trust people more, and to give them a chance. They have taught me to listen to the poor more closely and to consider the troubles they face. The house that I have lived in for two months is surely a house that recognizes the “other” as something more than an enemy. I am glad for having been part of this house and grateful to Mark and Louise for the opportunity to learn through its example to better love the poor and the immigrant. Certainly it will be of great importance to my coming years as a missionary to immigrants.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, November-December 2004.