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The Love of Christ Towards Migrants through the Stories of Immigrants at Casa Juan Diego: How Did It Occur To You To Do Such a Thing?

The following is a talk given by Mark and Louise Zwick at the University of St. Thomas Summer Institute in Houston on Immigration. The talk was entitled “The Love of Christ Towards Migrants,” the same as the title of a document recently published by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples. We found that the stories of Casa Juan Diego illustrated well many of the themes and doctrines of that Vatican document, and wove the two together in the following presentation. Stories from Casa Juan Diego are in italics.

Life at Casa Juan Diego is filled with stories. They are true, though they appear unbelievable: the stories of why people come, the incredible, often terrible things that happen to them on their journey, and the stories of those who struggle to make a living after they arrive in the United States-like the woman who paid her new maid with old clothes, or the man who insisted that the live-in maid sleep with him because he had only one bed, or the immigrant worker who was told to sleep on the floor since the family didn’t have an extra bed (they said there was a carpet).

While our work at Casa Juan Diego is filled with joy and hope, the tragedies migrants face are sometimes over-whelming. One family started out on the treacherous trip because their son had been killed by a gang in El Salvador. They decided to come by boat on the Pacific side when they left with their remaining son. The mother recounted that when the Mexican police boarded their son’s boat, it sank, taking their second son to his death. Having mortgaged their house to make the journey, the couple con-tinued on to the United States to earn money to send back to their daughter-in-law and two small grandchildren. Once in Brownsville, the coyote demanded more money; when the money was handed over, the coyote killed the husband. The coyote escaped. The remaining family member, Sara, stayed with us for a few days. We offered her time to rest and have therapy, but she insisted on leaving for Florida to work in the oranges so her daughter-in-law would not lose the house.

The document of the Pontifical Council begins by describing the worldwide situation: “Today’s migration makes up the vastest movement of people of all times. In these last decades, the phenomenon, now involving about two hundred million individuals, has turned into a structural reality of con-temporary society.

“The love of Christ towards migrants urges us to look afresh at their problems, which are to be met with today all over the world. In fact nearly all coun-tries are now faced with the eruption of the migration phenomenon in one aspect or another; it affects their social, economic, political and religious life and is becoming more and more a permanent structural phenome-non.”

For twenty-five years we have been receiving immigrants and refugees from many countries. Each day they continue to come, recounting stories of walking for days and nights, encountering snakes, fire ants, and wild beasts, suffering hunger and thirst, and so often suffering beatings, robberies or rapes during their journey. Each one also tells us of good people they meet as they travel who have given them food or water or a place to stay.

“Migration is often determined by a free decision of the migrants themselves, taken fairly frequently not only for economic reasons but also for cultural, technical or scientific motives.

At Casa Juan Diego, immigrants with scientific and technical skills help others. For example, the majority of the volunteer doctors in our medical clinics that serve the undocumented are immigrants themselves.

“The roots of the phenomenon can also be traced back to exaggerated nationalism and, in many countries, even to hatred and systematic or violent exclusion of ethnic or religious minorities from society. This can be seen in civil, political, ethnic and even religious conflicts raging in all continents. Such tensions swell the growing flood of refugees, who often mingle with other migrants.”

We started Casa Juan Diego 25 years ago to respond to the many refugees from Central American wars who were arriving in Houston and had no place to stay. We began taking in guests in one old, rented building, the ugliest building in Houston. People came to help and more guests arrived. Many were escaping wars, others had been attacked on the Houston streets and were referred by hospitals. With time, migrants from many nations joined the refugees. Some battered immigrant women came to ask for refuge. Pregnant women needed help.

We began to give food to families who took immigrants and refugees into their own homes, and soon began a regular food distribution for the poor in the community.

A simple medical clinic was started. It was so simple that nurses refused to work with the volunteer doctor. We began our newspaper, which told and still tells the stories of the immigrants and refugees who come to us.

We burned down twice in the early years. People came to help rebuild and the one Casa Juan Diego grew into a number of buildings. We helped to start houses for desperate immigrants in Mexico and Guatemala and began a satellite in Southwest Houston, Casa Maria.

As people helped and more people came to stay for a while until they were recovered to continue their journey, the Houston community soon be-came aware of our services and hospitals, schools, police and countless community agencies call to ask our help for individuals or families who have few other resources. More recently, we receive calls each day from hospitals asking us to care for sick and injured immigrants who have nowhere to go and no one to care for them after release from the hospital.

Someone asked us recently, “How did it ever occur to you to begin such a thing?”

We had lived in El Salvador when the civil war was beginning. We were inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement and by one of the passages of the Scripture central to their work and our work, Matthew 25:31 ff. We were also immediately confronted in our work at the time by those asking us to help new refugees and immigrants arriving in our neighborhood.

“Migration, however, also helps people get to know one another and provides opportun-ity for dialogue and communion or indeed integration at various levels. Pope John Paul II drew attention to this in his Message for the World Day for Peace 2001: “In the case of many civilisations, immigration has brought new growth and enrichment. In other cases, the local people and immigrants have remained culturally separate but have shown that they are able to live together, respecting each other and accepting or tolerating the diversity of customs.”

In the Catholic Worker movement we have the example of Peter Maurin, co-founder of the movement, an undocu-mented immigrant from France, who brought so much with him in ideas, culture, faith, philosophy.

“The ever-increasing migration phenomenon today is an important component of that growing interdependence among nation states that goes to make up globalisation, which has flung markets wide open but not frontiers, has demolished boundaries for the free circulation of information and capital, but not to the same extent those for the free circulation of people. No state is any longer exempt from the consequences of some form of migration, which is often strongly linked to negative factors. These include the demographic changes that are taking place in countries that were industrialised first, the increase in inequality between north and south, the existence of protectionist barriers in inter-national trade, which do not allow emerging countries to sell their products on competitive terms in the markets of western countries and, finally, the proliferation of civil wars and conflicts.”

At Casa Juan Diego we have seen the results of financial policies and trade agreements such as NAFTA that were ostensibly designed to help developing countries, but created unemployment in countries like Mexico.

The inequality between north and south was dramatically illustrated for us when we took a Guatemalan mother who had just arrived to register at school with her two little girls. The birth certificates had been lost on the journey and the school asked the mother the children’s ages so that they could make a placement pending receiving new birth certificates. The mother said the girls were in first and second grade. The school secretary stared in disbelief and laughed at the mother. “There is no way these tiny girls can be in first and second grade!” she said. The mother turned to Louise, weeping and speaking softly in Spanish: “Here you have a lot to eat; we have so little, it is not surprising my girls are so small!”

“It is not surprising, therefore, that migration meant and still means enormous hardships and suffering for the migrants. Yet, especially in more recent times and in certain circumstances, it has often been encouraged and promoted to foster the economic development of both the migrants’ host country and their country of origin (especially through their financial remittances). Many nations, in fact, would not be what they are today without the contribution made by millions of immigrants.”

Immigration called from Laredo. They had a young man whose leg had been cut off by a train. Would we accept him? We said yes, and immediately sent bus fare so Immigration could put him on a Greyhound bus to Houston. As soon as Oscar’s leg was trimmed and sewn up, he was put on the bus. Oscar was really ill and long in recovering, but once he received a new leg he was a different person. The man we had seen hobbling along the street was walking straight and comfortably. He began to work to send money back to his family.

“The emigration of family nuclei and women is particularly marked by suffering. Women migrants are becoming more and more numerous. They are often contracted as unskilled labourers (or domestics) and employed illegally. Often migrants are deprived of their most elementary human rights, including that of forming labour unions, when they do not become outright victims of the sad phenomenon of human trafficking, which no longer spares even children. This is a new chapter in the history of slavery. ”

Maria had sold everything she had to gather a few dollars to go the United States to be a live-in maid. Her husband was a hopeless alcoholic and she was having difficulty feeding her children and paying for them to go to school.

She left her children with their grandmother who could keep them for a while, and got as far as the Rio Grande where she could not cross without help. She had no money to pay anyone. Two men offered to help her cross without charging-which they did. But after they crossed her, they took out their payment in the flesh. Maria was devastated and wandered around the Valley for a long time until she could get organized enough to come to Houston. Here she knocked on the door of Casa Juan Diego. Louise answered. Maria stuttered slowly, “I am Maria from Guatemala, and I want to be a live-in maid-but I think I am pregnant.” What do you say to such a desperate woman? Louise said, “Bienvenida!” She arranged a job for Maria so she could help her children to have the required clothes and school supplies within one week, as well as food.

Maria gave birth to her son at Casa Juan Diego. Holding this child in our arms gave such a sense of personhood.

“However, even without such extremes, it is necessary to reiterate that foreign workers are not to be considered merchandise or merely manpower. Therefore they should not be treated just like any other factor of production. Every migrant enjoys inalienable fundamental rights which must be respected in all cases. Furthermore the migrants’ contribution to the economy of the host country comes together with the possibility for them to use their intelligence and abilities in their work.”

Being cheated by employers is a common event for undocumented workers. Millions of dollars are saved by contractors each year by wages never paid. A real contribution to the economy!

Abel was refused payment by a citizen he had helped in his carpet-laying business. Abel finally went to the patron and said that if he didn’t pay him, he was going to take his pay in equipment from his truck. The patron was angered at this threat and beat Abel to a bloody pulp. As he dragged himself away, he shouted at the cheating carpet layer, “God is going to get you for this!” We nursed Abel with his cuts and bruises and retired for the night.

Just as we were going to sleep the phone rang. It was the wife of the cheating carpet layer-calling from the hospital and demanding to speak to the people in charge so that she could give them the money owed to Abel. Her husband had just had a serious automobile accident.

“Migrants are often victims of illegal recruitment and of short-term contracts providing poor working and living conditions. This is because they often have to suffer physical, verbal and even sexual abuse, work long hours, often without the benefits of medical care and the usual forms of social security.”

Workers who have given many years of their lives to be part of the workforce of Houston are abandoned after they are no longer productive.

This total denial of responsibility leaves sick and injured people all over the place who have been very productive workers, who worked at minimal wages and long hours, without care or support.

Family and friends are faced with the option of giving up their jobs to care for their sick relatives, thus having no means of support for themselves or the sick.

At Casa Juan Diego we receive calls every day from hospitals asking us to care for injured undocumented immigrants who are leaving the hospital or to help their families. Recently we were asked to help four different quadriplegics, all of whom at different times had fallen from scaffolds while building buildings in Houston. We are caring for more than 45 sick and injured people in personal care homes. We just received a call to help a woman who is caring for her husband in a vegetative state and their three children, all under five years of age. Undocumented, there is no one to help.

“The precarious situation of so many foreigners, which should arouse everyone’s solidarity, instead brings about fear in many, who feel that immigrants are a burden, regard them with suspicion and even consider them a danger and a threat. This often provokes manifestations of intolerance, xenophobia and racism.”

At one point in our early years, neighbors picketed Casa Juan Diego for serving new immigrants. One sign said that we were just trying to get in good with the Pope!

“At the same time, however, migration raises a truly ethical question: the search for a new international economic order for a more equitable distribution of the goods of the earth. This would make a real contribution to reducing and checking the flow of a large number of migrants from populations in difficulty. From this there follows the need for a more effective commitment to educational and pastoral systems that form people in a “global dimension”, that is, a new vision of the world community, considered as a family of peoples, for whom the goods of the earth are ultimately destined when things are seen from the perspective of the universal common good.”

We need a new economic system, less based on powerful, huge corporations, one that will allow small business and little people to own things as well.

In the meantime, so many people share in helping Casa Juan Diego to continue to exist and to help migrants, sharing their funds and the goods of the earth. And sometimes we give the shirt off our very backs as well. When someone brings a check it is often placed in our best filing system, Mark’s shirt pocket.

Once a man came to Mark on the street to ask for a shirt, since he had none-he was bare. Since Mark had a T-shirt on also, he didn’t mind giving up his shirt. Besides, he might be able to get another readily from the clothing room-one of the perks of voluntary poverty.

As Mark walked back from Washington Avenue after giving away his shirt, he realized that a graduate student from the University of Houston had given him a check for $500 earlier. That check was in the pocket of the shirt he had just given away.

What to do? He raced back to Casa Juan Diego to get another shirt-a nice one-and then ran down Washington Avenue waving the shirt, yelling at the recent recipient and trying to catch up to him. By now the man was frightened and not sure what this crazy Gringo was doing. Mark finally caught up with the $500 shirt and was able to negotiate the return of the shirt with the check as he gave the man the nice, alternative shirt.

“In migrants the Church has always contemplated the image of Christ who said, ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ (Mt 25:35). Their condition is, therefore, a challenge to the faith and love of believers, who are called on to heal the evils caused by migration and discover the plan God pursues through it even when caused by obvious injustices.”

Matthew 25 is the mission statement of Casa Juan Diego. We know from this Bible passage that it is the Lord himself whom we serve in the poor immigrant and refugee.

Immigrants are persons. As Elie Wiesel said, a person can be tall or short, beautiful or ugly, fat or skinny, but a person cannot be illegal!

“In the foreigner a Christian sees not simply a neighbour, but the face of Christ Himself, who was born in a manger and fled into Egypt, where he was a foreigner, summing up and repeating in His own life the basic experience of His people (cf. Mt 2:13ff). Born away from home and coming from another land (cf. Lk 2:4-7), ‘he came to dwell among us’ (cf. Jn 1:11,14) and spent His public life on the move, going through towns and villages (cf. Lk 13:22; Mt 9:35). After His resurrection, still a foreigner and unknown, He appeared on the way to Emmaus to two of His disciples, who only recognised Him at the breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:35). So Christians are followers of a man on the move ‘who has nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58).'”

Spanish-speaking priests from the Galveston-Houston take turns in celebrating the breaking of the bread on Wednesday evenings for the immigrant guests of Casa Juan Diego. It is a celebration of the safe arrival of those gathered and includes prayers for those who did not make it or who are facing great difficulties on their way. Each Wednesday before the Mass an immigrants recounts the story of their journey.

“In the same way Mary, the Mother of Jesus, can be equally well contemplated as a living symbol of the woman emigrant. She gave birth to her Son away from home (cf. Lk 2:1-7) and was compelled to flee to Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-14). Popular devotion is right to consider Mary as the Madonna of the Way.”

The Holy Family was an immigrant family, forced to leave their home and flee as refugees. Jesus was a migrant. When immigrants come to the door of Casa Juan Diego and ask for a place to stay, they remind us that the Lord told us that when we help those who have nowhere to stay, we are helping him.

“To follow Christ means to walk behind Him and be in transit in the world because “there is no eternal city for us in this life” (Heb 13:14). The believer is always a pároikos, a temporary resident, a guest wherever he may be (cf. 1Pt 1:1; 2:11; Jn 17:14-16). This means that for Christians it is not all that important where they live geographically, while a sense for hospitality is natural to them. The apostles insist on this point (cf. Rm 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1Pt 4:9; 3 Jn 5), and the Pastoral Letters enjoin this particularly on the episkopos (cf. 1Tim 3:2; Tt 1:8). In the early Church, hospitality was the Christians’ response to the needs of itinerant missionaries, of religious leaders in exile or on a journey, and of poor members of various communities.”

Working with immigrants is a reminder that as Christians we do not have a permanent home here on this earth.

A young man who had just arrived in Houston was received in hospitality and insisted that we find his sister. He had her address: Main Street, Houston. No number. We failed, of course, as Main is a very long street. We suggested that while waiting to find her he accompany us to Mass at St. Anne’s Church along with other guests of the house. During the kiss of peace he recognized his sister. It pays to go to Mass!

“Foreigners are also a visible sign and an effective reminder of that universality which is a constituent element of the Catholic Church. A vision of Isaiah announced this: ‘In the days to come the mountain of the temple of Yahweh shall tower above the mountains… All the nations will stream to it’ (Is 2:2). In the Gospel our Lord Himself prophesied that ‘people from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God’ (Lk 13:29), and the Apocalypse sees ‘a huge number… from every nation, race, tribe and language’ (Ap 7:9). The Church is now toiling on its way to this final goal; today’s migrations can remind us of this ‘huge number’ and be seen as a call and prefiguration of the final meeting of all humanity with God and in God.”

Isaiah tells us about people from many nations coming from all over the world who will make up the Kingdom, where they will enrich one another and live in peace instead of war. Receiving refugees from wars in Central America and even Africa has reinforced our commitment to peace as Christians. Casa Juan Diego gives a glimpse of this aspect of the Kingdom. Usually our guests live in peace.

People come from various countries. Even Spanish-speaking countries are different from one another in language and culture. A priest from one country kept using a word most offensive to Hispanics from another country (a perfectly innocent, common word in his own language). The people listening turned white and could not wait for the sermon to end.

“Migrants’ journeying can thus become a living sign of an eternal vocation, a constant stimulus to that hope which points to a future beyond this present world, inspiring the transfor-mation of the world in love and eschatological victory. The peculiarities of migrants is an appeal for us to live again the fraternity of Pentecost, when differences are harmonised by the Spirit and charity becomes authentic in accepting one another. So the experience of migration can be the announcement of the paschal mystery, in which death and resurrection make for the creation of a new humanity in which there is no longer slave or foreigner (cf. Gal 3:28).”

Melvin and Miguel came to us from Ben Taub Hospital with shaved heads and tons of Dilantin. Both had had serious head injuries and didn’t know who they were or where they were from.

We were greatly concerned about them wandering into the traffic in the streets that surround us. After a few weeks Melvin began to come around, remembering his name and where he was from. We were able to connect him with family.

Miguel was more difficult. We were concerned about him, as he still didn’t know his name or where he was from.

One evening at Mass we noticed Miguel listening very intently and becoming very quiet during the singing of the liturgical songs we had learned while in El Salvador and Mexico. All of a sudden he jumped up and said, “I know who I am! I know who I am! I sang those songs while a seminarian in El Salvador!” We were so pleased, and asked if he could remember where he had lived. He said he did and could take us there. We accompanied him to the small apartment where his friends lived. Fortunately, they were at home-but stood in disbelief because the friend they thought was dead had risen.

“The Second Vatican Council stated that the People of God must assure its generous contribution to the reality of emigration. It called upon the laity in particular to extend their collaboration to all sectors of society (cf. AA 10) and thus be a “neighbour” for the migrant (cf. GS 27).”

Of course, being a neighbor includes many practical tasks. At Casa Juan Diego we have so many babies, and a number one concern is getting the mother to the hospital on time. The hospital doesn’t want them to arrive too early, and in fact suggests when the contractions are three minutes apart. It is tricky to judge the best time to set off for the hospital. Two babies were born in our women’s House of Hospitality when it was too late to leave for the hospital and a third was born in one of our Catholic Worker cars on the way.

Life is difficult for immigrant families trying to survive without documents in a strange country and city. Problems like alcoholism are exacerbated by the isolation from family and community. We started an AA program. We give food and clothing to immigrants and refugees who live in the community as well as those in our houses. When we received an immigrant woman with five children whose husband had been beating her, we discovered that the husband bought only milk and beer. We discovered that the only food the family had had in the weeks before they came to stay with us was from our food distribution at our satellite, Casa Maria in Southwest Houston.

“The Second Vatican Council therefore marked a decisive moment for the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant persons, attributing particular importance to the meaning of mobility and catholicity and that of particular Churches, to the sense of parish, and to the vision of the Church as mystery of communion. Thus the Church stands out as “a people that derives its union from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (LG 4) and presents itself as such.”

We were surprised when we discovered that the text of the document “Gaudium et Spes” of the Second Vatican Council (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World No. 27) labeled deportation as a serious sin, along with murder, abortion, slavery, and the selling of women and children. We know from our experiences with so many families the damage that deportation can do to the family.

“Welcoming the stranger, a characteristic of the early Church, thus remains a permanent feature of the Church of God. It is practically marked by the vocation to be in exile, in diaspora, dispersed among cultures and ethnic groups without ever identifying itself completely with any of these. Otherwise it would cease to be the first-fruit and sign, the leaven and prophecy of the universal Kingdom and community that welcomes every human being without preference for persons or peoples. Welcoming the stranger is thus intrinsic to the nature of the Church itself and bears witness to its fidelity to the Gospel.”

Those who work with immigrants and refugees are often criticized. However, we have always felt the support and encouragement of the Church in statements such as this Pontifical Council document.. What a ringing endorsement of our work!

In the eighties the Chancellor of the Diocese, Msgr. Dan Scheel, came twice a week to celebrate Mass at Casa Juan Diego. Thursday was the “Misa de la Ropa.” We asked Fr. Mario Arroyo, who celebrated Mass on Wednesday evenings, why the Chancellor was coming to humble Casa Juan Diego to celebrate Mass. He replied, “I guess he also wants to go to heaven.”

“Since the pontificate of Pope Paul VI and later in that of Pope John Paul II, especially in the Messages for the World Days of Migrants and Refugees, repeated affirmation is made of the fundamental rights of the person, in particular the right to emigrate so that the individual can turn his abilities, aspirations and projects to better account. (This is stated, however, in the same context with the right of every country to pursue an immigration policy that promotes the common good.) Also the right of the individual not to emigrate is affirmed, that is, the right to be able to achieve his rights and satisfy his legitimate demands in his own country.”

The current global economic system does not reflect this concept of the right not to emigrate. The maquiladora system which has provided corporations with slave labor pays them minimally and forces migration.

“The Magisterium has likewise always denounced social and economic imbalances that are, for the most part, the cause of migration, the dangers of an uncontrolled globalisation in which migrants are more the victims than the protagonists of their migration, and the serious problem of irregular immigration, especially when the migrant is an object of trafficking and exploitation by criminal organisations.”

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and corporations have promoted immigration against the will of people by promoting and demanding economic policies that undermine local economies.

“The Magisterium has also insisted on the need of policies that effectively guarantee the rights of all migrants, ‘carefully avoiding every possible discrimination.’ It emphasizes a vast range of values and behaviour (hospitality, soli-darity, sharing) and the need to reject all sentiments and manifestations of xenophobia and racism on the part of host communities. In the context of both the legislation and admini-strative practices of various countries, it dedicates much attention to the unity of the family and the protection of minors, which is often put in danger by migration, as well as to the formation of multicultural societies through migration.”

We were quite surprised when we were recently given an award for “Outstanding Achievement in Civil Rights,” our work against xenophobia and for immigrants, by the U. S. Government agency, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC).

“Migration therefore touches the religious dimension of man too and offers Catholic migrants a privileged though often painful opportunity to reach a sense of belonging to the universal Church which goes beyond any local particularity. To this end it is important that communities do not think that they have completed their duty to migrants simply by performing acts of fraternal assistance or even by supporting legislation aimed at giving them their due place in society while respecting their identity as foreigners. Christians must in fact promote an authentic culture of welcome capable of accepting the truly human values of the immigrants over and above any difficulties caused by living together with persons who are different.”

“Christians will accomplish all this by means of a truly fraternal welcome in the sense of St Paul’s admonition, ‘Welcome one another then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (Rm 15:7).”

The Gospel tells that the Lord welcomed us while we were still sinners, and that our Church is not only for perfect people. That is also true for Casa Juan Diego.

“Certainly the appeal alone, however nobly inspired and heartfelt, does not provide an automatic and practical reply to the pressing issues of every day. It does not, for example, eliminate a widespread fear or feeling of insecurity in people, neither does it guarantee due respect for legality nor safeguard the integrity of the host community. But a genuinely Christian spirit will give the right approach and courage to face these problems and suggest the practical means by which we are called to resolve them in the day-to-day life of our Christian communities.”

We have had a few bloody fights over the years. Mark came upon one and immediately separated the fighters and called for help, which arrived immediately. His hands were bloody, and as the police came in and saw them they shouted, “AIDS, AIDS, you have to be careful with blood!” Mark went to the kitchen to wash his hands, but one of the young Catholic Workers commented ironically, “It’s too late, Mark.”

On another occasion, FOX 26 News came to do a story on Casa Juan Diego and the immigrants. As the filming was finishing outside the building, there was a knife fight down the street. Mark went to intervene-again, blood all over the place. The TV reporter called the police and they arrived with guns drawn, which seemed to calm the place.

“For this reason the entire Church in the host country must feel concerned and engaged regarding immigrants. This means that local Churches must rethink pastoral care, programming it to help the faithful live their faith authentically in today’s new multicultural and pluri-religious context. With the help of social and pastoral workers, the local population should be made aware of the complex problems of migration and the need to oppose baseless suspicions and offensive prejudices against foreigners.

Dorothy Day sometimes said that when there was a lot of work to do (such as washing windows in a House of Hospitality), she would just start, others would observe and join in the work. When one starts doing this work, others join in the work in unexpected ways and miracles happen. One night Mark was searching in the Emergency Room of Ben Taub Hospital, looking for one of our men who had been shot. We had not a clue to his name and where he was located. The Ben Taub staff did not know who Mark was. Out of the darkened corridors a person emerged and spoke up and said, “Mark, he is over here.”

The same thing happened several weeks later. Who is the Guardian Angel?

“In religious instruction and catechesis suitable means must be found to create in the Christian conscience a sense of welcome, especially for the poorest and outcasts as migrants often are. This welcome is fully based on love for Christ, in the certainty that good done out of love of God to one’s neighbour, especially the most needy, is done to Him. This catechesis cannot avoid referring to the serious problems that precede and accompany migration, such as the demographic question, work and working conditions (illegal work), the care of the numerous elderly persons, criminality, the exploitation of migrants and trafficking and smuggling of human beings.”

We try, through our paper, the Houston Catholic Worker, and through the experiences of so many young people who come for workdays at Casa Juan Diego, to assist in catechesis and awareness of migrant issues for readers and visitors. It is the stories of the migrants themselves which often touch people deeply.

It is often challenging to keep the place maintained in good order. A group that came in from St. Maximilian a number of years ago to serve Christmas dinner at our old men’s center was impressed that the immigrants kept mopping and mopping-real clean freaks! As a matter of fact, the problem was more profound. There was a plumbing disaster. Suddenly no drains were functioning anywhere in the center. So we had to stay ahead or be inundated with water and sewage.

The plumbing company we called in to repair said, “Don’t worry about sewage, yellow is mellow and brown goes down.” But we had to worry and close down. Ironically, TV in Honduras announced that Casa Juan Diego was closed.

“Assistance or ‘first welcome’ are of the greatest importance (let us think, for example, of migrants’ hospitality centres, especially in transit countries) in response to the emergencies that come with migrations: canteens, dormitories, clinics, economic aid, reception centres. But also important are acts of welcome in its full sense, which aim at the progressive integration and self-sufficiency of the immigrant.”

Casa Juan Diego fits this description of a center of “first welcome” for migrants, a place for them to rest and begin again their journey. Tens of thousands of people have come through Casa Juan Diego.

We were surprised some years ago in being given the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award by Pope John Paul II for doing this work-for simply trying to live out the Gospel and Church teaching regarding immigrants.

“In the Church itself, one could examine the possibility of instituting a suitable form of non-ordained ministry of welcome with the task of approaching migrants and refugees and introducing them gradually into the civil and the ecclesial community or helping them in view of a possible return to their home country. In this context particular attention would need to be paid to foreign students.”

There are so many who have participated in what might be called a non-ordained ministry to immigrants and refugees at Casa Juan Diego. We are not alone in this work. People are always coming and going, literally dozens of them, to assist in various way-not to mention the many who have contributed financially to keep the work going. Over the years there have been many full-time Catholic Workers who are an inspiration.

Casa Juan Diego has also developed a group of men among the immigrants who have become “ayudantes” and Catholic Workers who take responsibility for maintaining and managing the men’s center. Practicing voluntary poverty, personalism, pacifism, and hospitality are challenges they have embraced.

“In this connection the lay faithful, too, need systematic formation, meant not just as transmitting of ideas and concepts but, above all, as a help – surely in an intellectual sense too – for them to bear the witness of an authentic Christian life. Ethnic and linguistic communities too are called to be places of education even before being centres of organisation, and in this widening view of things space will be given for ongoing and systematic formation.”

“The Christian witness of the laity in building the Kingdom of God certainly heads the list of a host of important questions, including the relation of the Church and the world, faith and life, and charity and justice.”

We share with our immigrant guests the vision that motivates us and is the call of the Gospel for all Christians, rich and poor alike, Matthew 25: “What you do to the least ones, you do to me.” We never accept a penny from an immigrant, but we demand that they pay-in the future. Some day a person in need will cross their path. Then they will know like a lightning flash-this is the time to repay Casa Juan Diego by helping that person.

However, one young man insisted on showing some gratitude. He came to the door, insisting on speaking with Mark or Louise. He was becoming impatient and the Workers were losing patience with him. Finally they asked what he wanted. He responded, “They bought me this new, artificial arm, and I want to give them the first embrace.

“Faced with the vast movement of people, with the phenomenon of human mobility, considered by some as the new “credo” of contemporary man, faith reminds us how we are all pilgrims on our way towards our true homeland. “Christian life is essentially a living through the Passover with Christ, or a journey, a sublime migration towards total Communion of the Kingdom of God” (CMU 10). All the history of the Church illustrates its passion and its holy zeal for this humanity on the move.”

The journey, the pilgrimage of the migrant is often one of great suffering, a way of the Cross. Marta came to us with a serious problem. She had lost her best friend, Rosa, by drowning as they crossed the Rio Grande. How could she ever tell the parents of Rosa what had happened?

“The ‘foreigner is God’s messenger who surprises us and interrupts the regularity and logic of daily life, bringing near those who are far away. In ‘foreigners’ the Church sees Christ who ‘pitches His tent among us’ (cf. Jn 1:14) and who ‘knocks at our door’ (cf. Ap 3:20). This meeting – characterised by attention, welcome, sharing and solidarity, by the protection of the rights of migrants and of commitment to evangelise – reveals the constant solicitude of the Church, which discovers authentic values in migrants and considers them a great human resource.”

We identify very much with this idea of the messenger “who surprises us and interrupts the regularity of daily life.” That is the story of our daily lives at Casa Juan Diego. One never knows who will be at the door or when the knock will come. Sometimes the “interruptions” come frequently when we are working on this newspaper. As Dorothy Day said as she humorously described trying to get out a newspaper in the midst of a busy House of Hospitality: “Here we are trying to put out a paper, and poor people keep asking us questions or seeking help!”

“God thus entrusts the Church, itself a pilgrim on earth, with the task of forging a new creation in Christ Jesus, recapitulating in Him (cf. Eph 1:9-10) all the rich treasures of human diversity that sin has transformed into division and conflict. To the extent that the mysterious presence of this new creation is genuinely witnessed to in its life, the Church is a sign of hope for a world that ardently desires justice, freedom, truth and solidarity, that is peace and harmony. And notwithstanding the repeated failures of human projects, noble as they may have been, Christians, roused by the phenomenon of mobility, become aware of their call to be always and repeatedly a sign of fraternity and communion in the world, by respecting differences and practising solidarity, in their ethics of meeting others.”

In the midst of a daily response to the Lord in the immigrant, in our attempt to witness to the new creation, the civilization of love, human failings and conflicts sometimes become very apparent. However, hope and faith and prayer help us to go on.

Once a call came to one of our houses requesting that Mark come immediately to the men’s house. A visitor was threatening anyone who even came close to him with a large golf club, given to Casa Juan Diego for the poor, that he kept swinging if anyone ventured near.

Mark prayed all the way over to the men’s house for guidance and promised more prayers in the future that all would work out. He opened the door and, unthinking, went straight for the man with the golf club and gave him and the club he was swinging a big hug. The golf swinger reacted and cried, “These guys aren’t treating me right.” Mark delivered him to his home.

Mark kept his commitment to prayers of thanksgiving. It pays off.

“Migrants, too, can be the hidden providential builders of such a universal fraternity together with many other brothers and sisters. They offer the Church the opportunity to realize more concretely its identity as communion and its missionary vocation, as asserted by the Vicar of Christ: “Migrations offer individual local Churches the opportunity to verify their catholicity, which consists not only in welcoming different ethnic groups, but above all in creating communion with them and among them. Ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Church is not just something to be tolerated because it is transitory, it is a structural dimension. The unity of the Church is not given by a common origin and language but by the Spirit of Pentecost which, bringing together men and women of different languages and nations in one people, confers on them all faith in the same Lord and the calling to the same hope”.

The Church has always been a Church of many languages and cultures since Pentecost, when Christians understood each other, even though speaking in a different language. We obviously need a new Pentecost to allow us to understand one another even though we speak different languages. At Casa Juan Diego we sometimes do not understand each other, especial-ly when refugees arrive from China or other countries whose languages we do not speak. However, parishes and individual persons have always emerged to help us to communicate.

Juridical Pastoral Regulations

Ҥ1.In fulfilling their specific tasks, the lay faithful should be engaged in concretely carrying out what truth, justice and love require. They should thus welcome migrants as brothers and sisters and do all they can to ensure that their rights, especially those concerning the family and its unity, are recognised and protected by the civil authorities.

New to lay people is this concept of juridical responsibility. All members of the Church must accept a role not only in serving one another, but in serving anyone in need. This legal injunction mandates that each member share the respons-ibility for caring for another. The Church asks all to help migrants. There is no option except the preferential one.

§2. The lay faithful are also called to promote the evangeli-sation of the migrants through the witness of their own lives as Christians, living in faith, hope and love, and by the proclamation of the Word of God in ways that are possible and suitable for them.”

The most common question regarding the work of Casa Juan Diego is this: “How can you break the law by helping undocumented aliens?”

We have never once thought of breaking the law. Our problem, our challenge is keeping the law, the law of charity and justice, the law that demands that one does not repeat the behavior of those who passed by the injured man in the Good Samaritan story.

Juridically, we must accept our role as followers of Jesus and our responsibility as good citizens.

The irony is that after so many years of receiving people migrants off the streets of Houston, the Immigration Service itself asked for Casa Juan Diego’s help. After Hurricane Mitch, which destroyed Honduras and damaged other Central American countries, the INS called to say that the Clinton White House had announced that they could no longer deport Central Americans. Would Casa Juan Diego receive those who were already in detention here? We said, of course, but we do not have locked doors, nor do we keep records. They said that is fine-we start on Monday. On Monday, they sent 100 men, the same on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday was men and women. We all were quite busy assisting the 500.


When St. Juan Diego was canonized, Channel 2 in Houston broadcast a half-hour special featuring Pope John Paul II and the canonization in Mexico, interspersed with film from Casa Juan Diego in Houston. Reminding their view-ers that miracles are necessary for declaring a Catholic a saint, the commentators declared Casa Juan Diego itself one of Juan Diego’s miracles.

It is our hope that Casa Juan Diego may also be considered a miracle for Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 5, July-August 2005.