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God will say, “Where are the Others?”: Stories of Finding Relatives and Friends at Casa Juan Diego

Dorothy Day wrote in the “Aims and Purposes of the Catholic Worker Movement,” (published in 1940 in The Catholic Worker) : “We cannot live alone. We cannot go to Heaven alone. Otherwise, as Péguy said, God will say to us, ‘Where are the others?'”

This can be understood on several levels. For Péguy and Dorothy and Peter it meant to share the life of faith with others. It meant living in such a way that one could help others get to heaven. It meant helping to create a new heaven and a new earth, “wherein justice dwelleth,” “giving reason for the faith that is in us.” For Dorothy and Peter it also meant performing the fourteen corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, receiving those who sought refuge in houses of hospitality, visiting the prisoner, burying the dead…. instead of the works of war.

“Where are the others” also has a very literal meaning. “Where are they?” is the question that has so often been asked at Casa Juan Diego where the Works of Mercy have been at the heart of the work since 1980. “Where are the others? Where is my wife? Where is my sister? Where is my brother? Where is my father? Where is my cousin? Where is my friend?” Unfortunately, we frequently have not had the answer, because immigrants disappear when they die in the desert or one of the rivers separating countries, or are killed by a train; some are killed by coyotes because their families did not come up with extra exorbitant fees charged after their arrival in the United States. Casa Juan Diego receives letters, phone calls and emails from families trying to find their loved ones, for example, “Do you know Jorge Mejia who was murdered on the streets of Washington, D.C.?” (not his real name).

People wonder about us working with people who may not have papers. But God seems to have placed us here in the midst of immigrants and refugees on pilgrimage. We, too, fled the war in El Salvador in 1977 with our children, with the same concern that so many migrants have about their children.

Our work with immigrants and refugees is our response to the question, “Where are the others?”

From the beginning of the journey, the immigrant or refugee almost immediately begins to lose his identity. He has no family to turn to; she doesn’t speak the language of the dominant culture; he frequently does not have an ID and may not have legal papers. Migrants are also almost impossible to find in the prison bureaucracy if they have been detained by the Immigration Enforcement and Customs Agency, now a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Families are left to wonder forever what happened to their loved ones, sometimes fearing that they just went off in search of the American dream and abandoned their families. If immigrants and refugees knew the hazards of the journey, we doubt that many would come to try to find a better life.

On the other hand, there are beautiful stories of actually finding people that are a part of Casa Juan Diego from its earliest history. It has always been a joy to be able to help to answer the question, Where are the others?

When the refugees and immigrants arrive at Casa Juan Diego, the fortunate ones come with an address or telephone number of a relative or friend. The first attempt to reach the person by phone is very tense. Is it the correct number and the correct relative? It may be a call to New York or Washington or Los Angeles or even to Cleveland, Ohio. When we see the immigrant’s face light and hear the person say, This is Maria in Houston. I’m at Casa Juan Diego,” we know we are on the right track.

When Luisa, a pregnant refugee from El Salvador arrived in the early 80s, she said she had an uncle in Houston. That’s all; no address or phone. Nothing. But there was a relative of her uncle in the state of Vera Cruz, Mexico, who could be reached if we would call a teacher she knew who knew someone who worked at a store who knew a neighbor of the relative who could visit her and try to find one of the old letters the uncle had written to a certain person and whose return address might be on one of the old envelopes. The process that evening was unbelievable. We were like Rocket fans cheering like mad every step of the way at each minor success in making contact. Although we spoke to various people in Mexico for Luisa, the address wasn’t discovered.

The following morning we took Luisa to a clinic because, she said, she had been beaten up in Kingsville, Texas, by some law enforcement agency and was worried about losing her baby. We drove by to pick her up at the clinic after she called to say that she was finished, but when we arrived—we were late in arriving—she was not there. The person who went with her to also be treated at the clinic said that she had left with some strange man in a car.

We were upset for obvious reasons. She wasn’t there as she had said she would be, and secondly, we know what happens to young women who are forced or enticed into cars of strange men in a city like Houston. We returned both saddened and angry—knowing that we would be getting a desperate call sometime during the day and praying that nothing would happen.

Something did happen! At about 5:00 p.m. a small pickup drove up and in it was Luisa smiling away, waving her arms, and bouncing up and down. The person driving the pickup was not a man, but a woman. It was her aunt. How in God’s name did she find her aunt among 2,000,000 people? Miracles happen to those who believe in them, as Casa Juan Diego does.

A young boy arrived from El Salvador in search of his mother. He insisted that his she was in Houston somewhere. At first we did not know what to do because he was only thirteen. Casa Juan Diego had many guests. This would not be the best place for him to stay indefinitely. Then we thought of the Spanish television stations and asked their help. Within minutes after they showed Carlos’ story, his sister called from San Marcos, Texas, and arranged to come to get him at Casa Juan Diego.

We have gone to the bus station many times trying to find people. One of the earliest bus station stories during the civil war in El Salvador was about a teenager who fled the war in El Salvador. A priest called to say we would find Juan at the bus station around the bewitching hour. Juan was there, hiding behind the lockers. It was after midnight. Juan was desperate. He had left El Salvador at that time because of the violence. Like everyone else he had lost family and friends in the war. This lad wouldn’t talk much about the right and the left wing forces in Central America at that time. He would talk about death. The guns came from Eastern and Western powers. The bodies came from El Salvador.

Juan was displaying the signs of clinical depression. He was very lethargic; he hardly responded and was not eating. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. Juan came to Houston, or rather was sent here in hopes that someone would find his relatives to alleviate his despair.

Juan pulled from his pocket with great respect a piece of paper with the words “Casa Juan Diego” written on it. It seems that many people have pieces of paper in their pockets with Casa Juan Diego written on them. Fortunately, Juan had another slip of paper. Such a paper is called the “good news” at Casa Juan Diego. It had the name and address of a brother who lives in Houston. The “good news” was confirmed. Juan’s brother’s street did exist on the map. It was located off Cavalcade Street on the north side of Houston. The “bad news” has come at the times when we were not able to find the street, or worse yet we found it but the relative no longer lived there.

The next morning we got into the station wagon to go searching for Juan’s brother. We had the address memorized since we didn’t want to take any chances on losing it. Juan was still depressed, although he said he had slept well. As we drove from the house we told Juan that we had to pick up our son who had a violin audition at Rice University and that he would accompany us to find his brother. We began to speak about our son and told Juan that our son was about the same age as he was. Juan was listening intently. When Mark mentioned our son’s age, his expression changed and for the first time there was a large broad smile that appeared, that totally wiped the depression from his face. We headed up Route 45 to Cavalcade Street to find Juan’s brother. We found the address immediately but as frequently occurs, there were apartments in front and back, above and below, all squeezed together to house a few more people to make a few more dollars from the new immigrants.

We entered the complex. A woman hanging sheetrock asked angrily in English and Spanish who we were and what did we want. We told her in English and Spanish who we were. She sent out one of the workers to check on us and this teenager. The worker looked us over, especially Juan. He hesitated momentarily and then embraced Juan. It was his brother, the lost brother who had been missing but now had been found. It was one of the “I am your brother, Joseph” scenes. The depression left Juan’s face once again, a beautiful sight! Juan’s new face made up for all the long hours of work. It was payment in full.

Some the stories we remember best centered around the Mass, so much a part of the faith and culture of many of our guests. 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, USA. 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 the Spanish Mass at St. Anne’s Church along with other guests of the house. Amazingly enough, during the kiss of peace he recognized his sister. He had found her! Whenever we think of this story or tell others about it, we always include the reflection that it pays to go to Mass!

Melvin and Miguel came to us from the hospital with shaved heads and tons of Dilantin to take to avoid seizures after their brain surgery. They had stitches and deep furrows in their heads. Both had had serious head injuries and didn’t know who they were or from where they came. We were greatly concerned about the possibility of their wandering into the traffic on the busy streets that surround us. After a few weeks Melvin began to come around, remembering his name and from where he came. We were able to connect him with family.

Miguel was more difficult. He still didn’t know his name or from where he had come. One evening at Mass, though, we noticed Miguel listening very intently and becoming very quiet during the singing of the liturgical songs we had learned while in Central America 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 Guatemala!” 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. It was a joyful reunion.

Sometimes it has seemed the Lord has sent someone to help us find people. Three times, for example, during the early years of the Houston Catholic Worker, Mark was wandering, lost, through the Ben Taub Hospital Emergency recovery area. He was looking each time for one of our guests who was seriously injured or ill, trying to discover if they were among the living or the dead. Each time, out of the blue, an unknown person stepped forward and asked, “Who are you looking for, Mark?” The angel would find the person, give the pertinent information, the prognosis, and then disappear into the milieu of people dressed in blue and green.

We used to make fun of the old Trappist monk who promoted “Smile, God loves YOU” buttons, but there is one smile we will never forget. It was the smile of Silveriano, one of those smiles that go right through you. Silveriano came to us from a Houston hospital, like many immigrants do. They have been seriously injured, and cared for by the hospital for a few days, but upon discharge they are homeless because they can’t produce legal papers. No agency will assist them.

Silveriano really worried us. He suffered serious head injuries and remained like a zombie for several weeks, not talking, only sleeping day and night. We pushed him to make sure he kept his follow-up appointments—we take guests by the hand if we are worried they won’t arrive. Most hospitals give no follow-up care to the poor who have no insurance; fortunately, the county hospital sometimes does. The details of medical care busy us and worry us more than anything and there are 100 details every day. If we miss one, it is very hard for the people outside to understand. Worrying over Silveriano must have worked, because one day he came out of his room all cleaned up and with a smile as broad as his face. He announced that he was going to his sister in Comanche, Texas. We had not known about the sister. He had just remembered her.

It is difficult for all when the person the immigrant came to seek has already died. Carmen had received word in El Salvador from her brother in the United States that her mother was very ill and dying. She desperately wanted to come to the United States to see her one last time. Carmen’s brother sent money for her to make the journey and she began the long and difficult trip. Things didn’t go too badly until south Texas, where she had a serious fall and hurt her knee badly. The group she was with abandoned her because she couldn’t walk, and they couldn’t carry her. She was left to the loneliness of south Texas brush and wild animals, including coyotes. Slowly and painfully she struggled and crawled for hours, dragging her useless leg to get back to the highway, which was some distance from the fall. After some hours, compassionate Texans picked her up and brought her to Houston where they immediately called Casa Juan Diego to come and get her.

Pain was written all over the face of Carmen. She looked all of her 70+ years. We wept with her as we slowly, very slowly, helped her into the van. Immediately we arranged medical care for her and called her relatives. Within a day or two she was on crutches and ready to travel to see her dying mother. Carmen’s appear-ance, minus the pain, changed markedly. It turned out she wasn’t 70+ but 40. We put her on a plane the same day we went to bury our own mother. Carmen called later to give us the disappointing news. When she arrived at her brother’s, she discovered that her journey was for nought—her mother had actually died before she left El Salvador. The family had been afraid to tell her because Carmen had a bad heart. It would appear that journeys may be harder on one’s heart than the news. She called to thank us. It wasn’t necessary, since we had already been compensated by seeing her on her feet and 30 years younger.

We were stymied with Isobel (not her real name) who was five to eight months pregnant and had a one year old with her when she came to the door of Casa Juan Diego. It appeared that she also had mental problems. We could get very little information from Isobel, even after several weeks. We began to think that she wasn’t mentally ill at all, just a lot smarter than we were. She handled us and our questions perfectly. This meant, of course, that she was a survivor and might do very well without us. However, she led us to believe that she was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for some time after each pregnancy—this was her fourth.

Gradually, little by little, we were able to piece enough information together to locate the address of Isobel’s brother on the North side of Houston. It was the first we knew anything about her family. We felt this trip to find the address was a leap in the dark; we knew we were going to be disappointed. It was early Saturday morning when we drove to the North side. Isobel’s brother was there, hung over, but there, and after washing the sleep from his eyes, he was most friendly and cooperative. In fact, it became apparent that the family had been searching for her for two months, and had gone to the police and hospitals looking for her.

Margarita, a Salvadoran, arrived just in time for the Way of the Cross one Good Friday evening. She joined us as we visited, singing in procession, the simple altars set up at our various houses throughout the neighborhood. Immigrants carried the large, heavy cross we use each year from station to station as they took turns reading their meditations on Christ suffering in history and the Christ who suffers so much today in his refugee and immigrant people. How they do suffer, as they come from their homelands seeking a way of life not filled with persecution, malnutrition, unemployment ,and death!

Margarita told the story of the journey she and her husband had just made later that evening at the women’s meeting. Her story reminded us so much of the first Good Friday. She told the story of their journey from the border, lost for five days in the brush. She and her husband had paid the coyote in full, and he abandoned them, not needing to help them arrive in Houston in order to get his money. She and her husband were so exhausted after days of not eating and drinking—suffering thirst and swollen feet and nights of worrying about the snakes and coyotes (the animal type this time) who were very near. They had been lucky to find one family that gave them a meal.

Margarita and her husband were so grateful to have found Houston and Casa Juan Diego. Their gratitude made us feel guilty about complaining, as we sometimes have done, about the endless line of refugees and immigrants coming—80 in that last week. It reminded us that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” not “Always try to get out of work and suffering when it hurts.”

We really didn’t know what to do to help a young man from Guatemala who arrived at our house. He could not hear or speak, or at least very, very little. He could write a little and we were able to find out what village he came from in Guatemala. The other Catholic Workers all tried to help him, but we had no long term solution. Fortunately, that summer a seminarian from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was helping out at Casa Juan Diego. Miguel Alvizures, the seminarian, was from Guatemala. When we discovered that he was going home for a visit, we talked with him about Epimelio and he agreed to try to find his family, although he knew it would be very difficult because there were so many little villages in the mountainous area in which they lived.

Miguel later wrote,

“We have no idea how he managed to get to Houston from Guatemala, but one day Epimelio was at Casa Juan Diego’s door and the doorkeeper took him in. All he had with him was a birth certificate from which we knew the name of his parents and that he was from a rural place in San Marcos, Guatemala, and that he was eighteen years of age. He also had a letter in English which said that he was looking for his parents.

“I went to San Marcos to that end on a trip I thought was going to take two days, but it actually took a whole week. I found myself going up and down the mountains of San Marcos following people’s directions to find Epimelio’s family. They told me to follow a road close to the top of the volcano, and when I got to the place, found out that nobody knew about Epimelio or his family. Some people then advised me to look in another place, but I had to walk many miles because of the lack of roads only to hear the people of the village say that they didn’t know anybody with such names or descriptions.

“Finally, I found a little village where people knew about Epimelio. They were amazed to know that he was in Houston. They knew his family and told me that I was about two hours from the place.

“Epimelio’s father was at his own father’s funeral, and when he knew about me bringing news of his son, he came quickly to his home. He told me that he had another son who was living in Delaware, and thought that he might take Epimelio with him.

“Back in Houston I told everything to Mark and the people of Casa Juan Diego. I also brought a picture to Epimelio from his parents. His face turned serious to the point of crying when he saw the picture. Then he smiled and asked by signs how they were doing I tried to tell him that they were doing fine and happy to know of him.

“Mark asked me if I wanted to go with Epimelio by Greyhound to meet his brother in Delaware, which I was glad to do.

“Epimelio’s brother told me he didn’t know how to pay us for what we did for him. I told him that he was already paying us because I remembered the words Mark usually tells the people he helps that any time they help anybody else, they are repaying us.”

There is great joy at Casa Juan Diego when the lost are found. It is hard, though, to think about all those who have not been found. It is hard to continue to get all the calls and emails about people who cannot find their relatives who started on the journey to the United States, sometimes from those who have not found them in ten years or more and still wonder every day. They wonder and wonder, hoping that their loved ones are not dead, hoping also that they did not come to the land of plenty and forget about those they left behind.

So often the poor, and especially migrants, are invisible. In this prosperous country they are hard to find, even though they exist in large numbers. Groups from the suburbs sometimes help Casa Juan Diego because they want to help but do not see the poor where they live. More than a hundred families in a parish in the Archdiocese have participated for a number of years in making lunches (each containing two sandwiches and a piece of fruit) which are brought to Casa Juan Diego three times a week. They are given to workers who live in our houses and to day laborers waiting for work on nearby streets so they will have a lunch for the day (perhaps their only meal) or given to those who have to go to the hospital where they may have to wait long hours with nothing to eat. The parishioners have found a way to help the poor even though they do not see them every day near their homes.

The invisibility of the poor is not a new phenomenon. Dorothy Day reflected on the question, “Where Are the Poor?” in an article in The Catholic Worke r in 1955:

“Where are the poor? This is one of the startling questions that I find being asked on my trips across this so prosperous country.

“Take the whole problem of the migrant, for example. When I am travelling, I come up against it only if I go out looking for it, if I encounter priests who are dealing with it who can take me to those districts where the poor and the destitute live. Or those of our readers who are up against it themselves.

“It suddenly occurred to me when I was at home visiting Maryfarm—where are the people who harvest these crops, this tremendous amount of fruit which has to be picked and packed by hand to a great extent, and by skilled and careful workers?

“Where is this great population? Who has seen them? Where do they live, under what conditions, and where do their children go to school, and how do they take their recreation, where do they go to Church? We come across the waifs and strays, the lame and the halt who end up on the wayside and come in to us for a few days or weeks until they recover and go on with their wandering existence. The farm laborers, working in those factories in the fields, chicken farms, dairy farms, also come to us.”

“As they have spread across the United States in the past decades, the immigrant population has almost been invisible for many—except for their employers on farms, in construction, in plumbing businesses where they are assistants to do the dirty digging when needed, and the in companies who cut down huge trees. And yet, somehow those who need yard workers or maids and nannies are able to find them. Even so, as Dorothy said, it has often seemed that nobody knows where they are, unless they go looking for them.

It is not only immigrants who are hard to find or who are out of the public view. The poor, the unemployed, the sick with no one to care for them who are citizens are brushed aside and often feel alone as if no one cared for them. Dorothy tried to find an answer for those who care about the poor and about social justice.

“What can we do, what is to be done? First of all, we can admit that our so-called American way of life has meant great inequalities, and that there does indeed exist a great mass of poor and unemployed people who are in need of help in this country as well as abroad. We need to study ways to change the social order, or at least admit to others whose work it is, and who have the time and vocation to do it, that we need a balanced social order, where man will be closer to the land, where there is a possibility of ownership and responsibility, and work for young and old, and that security which ownership in industry would bring. We need to study the idea of credit unions and cooperatives, and small groups to work out the idea of family communities, and village communities, and decentralized living. We need to study as far as we are able, the entire distributist program. But together with this intellectual approach, we need to approach the problem directly, and as Christians.

“If we were convinced of the need, if our consciences were aroused, how much could we not do, even those of most modest income, in the way of helping the poor.”

In her reflections, Dorothy quoted the 1952 Christmas encyclical of Pope Pius XII. The Holy Father asked for a personal response to the poor who might otherwise say, “I have no one.” We were surprised to find that Pius XII framed his teaching as a communitarian persona-list, the philosophy so much at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement:

“While our thoughts dwell on these scenes of poverty and utter destitution,” he writes, “Our heart fills with anxiety and is overwhelmed, we can say, by a sadness unto death. We are thinking of the consequences of poverty, still more of the consequences of utter destitution. For some families there is a dying daily, a dying hourly: a dying multiplied, especially for parents, by the number of dear ones they behold suffering and wasting away.

“The very best charitable organization would not suffice of itself alone to assist those in need. Personal action must intervene, full of solicitude, anxious to overcome the distance between helper and helped, drawing near to the poor because he is Christ’s brother and our own.

“The great temptation in an age which calls itself social–when besides the Church, the state, the municipality and other public bodies devote themselves so much to social problems–is that when the poor man knocks on the door, people, even believers will just send him away to an agency or social center, to an organization, thinking that their personal obligation has been sufficiently fulfilled by their contributions in taxes or voluntary gifts to those institutions.

“Undoubtedly the poor man will receive your help that way but often he counts also on yourselves, at least on your words of kindness and comfort. Your charity ought to resemble God’s, who came in person to bring his help…

“These considerations encourage us to call on your personal collaboration. The poor, those whom life has rudely reduced to straightened circumstances, the unfortunate of every kind, await it. In so far as it depends on you, strive that none shall say any more, as once did the man in the Gospel who had been infirm for 38 years: ‘Lord, I have no one.’”

At Casa Juan Diego we hardly have time to go seeking the lost, since overwhelming numbers of the poor, the sick, and the injured come to our doors. Our challenge is to help in a small way.

We pray that when we meet the Lord he will not have to ask us, Where are the others?
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 6, November-December 2007.