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Compelling Story of Casa Juan Diego

Book Review

Mercy Without Borders: The Catholic Worker and Immigration. Paulist Press, 2010.

Few former Ohioans, if any, have done more for the poor and the immigrant than Mark and Louise Zwick, who created Casa Juan Diego in Houston to help the thousands upon thousands of immigrants and refugees who have come from Latin America in search of jobs and hope.

The Zwicks relate their remarkable story of 30 years of work in that ministry in this new book, which is must reading for anyone who seeks to understand the complex realities of the immigration issue.

The Zwicks raised their two children partly in El Salvador, for one thing, getting out just in time to avoid the civil war massacres there that killed Archbishop Oscar Romero, among thousands of others.

Woven throughout the narrative is the couple’s insights into the late Dorothy Day, her Catholic Worker movement, and the way in which the principles of that group form the basis of life at Casa Juan Diego. The latter, which began in one battered building and survived several major fires to become a large-scale operation, is now housed in 10 buildings, serving thousands of immigrants in numerous ways every year.

The ministry is named after the poor Mexican saint Juan Diego, whom the Zwicks call “a saint for nobodies,” the peasant who found the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe preserved on his tilma. “Those who came and continue to come are wanted here only for their cheap labor, but are not considered human beings by many, as was true of Juan Diego,” the Zwicks write. “Like him, they do not speak the language and have no rights.”

Although many books have been written by those working with the poor, few are as compelling or articulate, explaining both the nature of the often-dangerous work and the breadth of scenarios encountered by those who serve. The Zwicks make an articulate, passionate and prayerful case for immigration reform and the need for far more humane policies regarding those who come to this country to escape brutal repression and all-but-hopeless living conditions.

Among the most powerful passages in the book are those detailing the journeys of the immigrants, who brave robbery, rapes, loss of limbs (from jumping onto moving trains) and starvation in the desert to get to a country which, they believe, holds out the possibility of a better life than they have any chance of finding back home. The Zwicks make a strong case as well for the manner in which the policies of the U. S. government in general and American corporations in particular have sown the seeds of the poverty and despair that fuel the need for so many to leave their own countries in the first place.

Lest anyone confuse the efforts of the Zwicks and other Catholic Worker volunteers at Casa Juan Diego with mere social work, they set the record straight forcefully: “We don’t abandon prayer and reading for foot washing. The Scriptures are the basis of our work; we are foot washers and problem solvers rather than hand holders.”

This book, written as it is by those who serve on the front lines of the almost-overwhelming struggle with the problems of immigrants every day, ought to be required reading in every Catholic high school and college classroom and in every parish social justice discussion/Bible study group in the country. Persons in favor of immigrant rights will learn more than they could have known; those opposed to welcoming immigrants will have their views challenged to the core by the deeply moving human interest stories and incontrovertible facts presented here.

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Exponent, official newspaper of the Diocese of Youngstown.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, January-February, 2011.