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Train, Friend or Enemy for Central American Immigrants?

Jake was a Catholic Worker in Houston until very recently. He will be going to medical school in the fall.

The hiring hall at Casa Juan Diego sits alongside a railroad line. Several times every morning a long freighter rumbles by, blaring its horn as a greeting and a warning, holding up traffic and waking the neighbors. On my first day, I snuck outside in the muggy air to count cars, remembering how my father used to sit by my bed at night and listen with me for the train whistles until I fell asleep.

To my surprise, several guests ambled out too, taking a break from their early morning television. They stared quietly at the rails, their minds elsewhere. I wondered if their fathers had used trains to put them to sleep.

It turned out that many of the immigrants I would meet came to the United States by train. Jose Luis, for example, arrived at Casa Juan Diego not long after I did. On his trip from Honduras, he lost one of his legs. He had slipped trying to jump on a train pulling out of the station. The 23-year-old spent several months in a Mexican hospital while his amputation healed, and went right back to the rails when he was released.

Jose Luis came to us traumatized, keeping to himself in the house and waking up at odd hours of the night. He hadn’t spoken with his family since he lost his leg – he just didn’t know what he would tell them. It was as though he had witnessed the horrors of war. On the day he received his prosthesis, I brought him a phone card to call home. He wept, and the next day he disappeared.

It amazes me what people endure to get to where I was born. Arriving, of course, is only the beginning. The labor in a strange land is hard for a healthy young man, and we see all too clearly the vulnerability that comes with being “illegal” when a worker is injured.

Roney, another guest, lost both of his legs to a train. He had settled in Houston and was sending a hundred dollars a month home to his young wife and five children. One morning, as he was walking along the train tracks to work, not a mile from Casa Juan Diego, a train hit him from behind. His brother brought him to us in a wheelchair a month later, his body and his dreams broken.

Thank God that Casa Juan Diego could buy Roney new legs. Even today, God’s lame walk. Therapy was painful at first – imagine kneeling on stilts – and Roney began to lose hope. Then one day his wife called from Honduras to say that their youngest daughter was sick. There was no money for a doctor. Another guest suggested that Roney go to the flea market and beg. Roney, offended, strapped on his new legs and went out to practice climbing the stairs.

The next time I took him to the therapist, he told me of his newfound motivation. “I’m going back to Honduras in October,” he told me. “I want to work in my coffee field.” Now, after a month of therapy, Roney puts on his legs and jeans and walks around like a whole man. To his great joy, he will be able to work soon.

Roney’s situation doesn’t just happen. The waves of immi-grants seeking refuge in the United States are escaping a structural sin, a system of global economic imperialism whose wealth doesn’t trickle down fast enough. Roney didn’t come to Texas seeking adventure or the good life. He came because his coffee farm couldn’t produce enough income to feed his children and send them to school.

Followers of the gospel of Christ have a responsibility to serve these servants. The hungry must be fed, the thirsty given drink and the strangers wel-comed because Jesus called them blessed. The naked must be clothed, the ill cared for and the “illegal” accompanied be-cause one day the kingdom shall be theirs. This is the work I have found at Casa Juan Diego.

Jose Luis and I spent many quiet hours together. When we made our trips to the prosthesis clinic, I worked hard to make him feel comfortable. He always seemed to be on edge, suspicious and impatient. All he wanted to do was work as he did before he left home, before he lost his leg. My questions and stories were met with no more than a nod or a mumble, and I grew frustrated that I could not reach him. The day he got his leg was the only day I’d ever seen him happy.

The morning he left, I caught him limping down the street, struggling to walk on his new leg with his few belongings in a sack over his shoulder. “Where are you going?” I asked. “To find work,” he said, looking at his feet. I explained once again how important it was to wait, at least one more week, until he learned to walk properly. He got into the car and I drove him home, but when I came back at noon to check on him he had already left. I returned home, disappointed at my inability to give hope to one who had lost it.

I have constantly felt at Casa Juan Diego that I do not do enough. The work is plentiful, but seeing the results often takes more faith than I can muster. I go to bed tired and frustrated. I pray that I may find the same energy for this labor that our guests pour into theirs.

As Ash Wednesday comes and goes, though, I am consoled as I am reminded that dust I am and to dust I shall return. The same is true of Roney and of Jose Luis, all of us walking piles of dust infused with Holy Spirit. It is enough that we might lay a bit of track for the Kingdom that is to come. God will spin the planet long after we have finished breathing its air, and the work will continue.

“We are prophets of a future that is not our own,” promised Monseñor Romero of El Salvador. The train will come, even if we may not be awake to hear it. At the end of the day, then, the best I can do is crawl into bed, turn down the lights and lie still, listening hopefully for its long, low whistle.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 3, May-June 2005.