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Some Sins Cry Out to Heaven

Daniel Ortiz, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, has spent a year at Casa Juan Diego living and working with the poor. He will soon be replaced at our men’s house by another Notre Dame graduate.

I had just finished arranging the food that we picked up at the Food Bank when Balmori and Gregorio walked up. Their clothes were dirty. Their hair was full of dust and their faces were tired. We greeted each other in the traditional ¡Que onda! and then Gregorio’s face transformed from its usual cheerful glow to serious. He said, “I need to ask you a big favor. We just worked for five hours and we didn’t get paid.” The men at Casa Juan Diego get cheated out of anything from five hours to five days worth of pay by various labor contractors on a fairly regular basis. Unfortunately, this story is only unique in the way I was treated.

I grabbed a pen and pad to take down information and the three of us left for the work site. On the way they explained that they had spent the morning breaking up a concrete driveway with a jackhammer. Around noon they asked if they would get a lunch break. The contractor grunted, “There is your lunch!” and pointed at the crushed concrete. “If you don’t get back to work you’ll get three dollars an hour instead of five.” Imagine the man who I’d soon confront.

Amazingly enough, Balmori and Gregorio were not quite through with their story. They confessed to having received some pay after all. This man, who I struggle not to judge, forced sealed envelopes into each of their hands as he pushed them out the door of his truck. Thinking they were being paid, they accepted the envelopes and left the truck. Inside the envelope was another sealed envelope and inside that envelope was one dollar bill. That’s twenty cents an hour!

When we arrived at the house our man wasn’t around, but four other workers were and they told us that the owner of the house was home. We went to the door and explained the situation to the owner. The little old man explained to me that he worked for seventy-five cents an hour when he first got married and he couldn’t help us despite the fact that his beautiful new driveway was being put in with slave labor. Luckily, he didn’t kick us off the property.

Our man arrived a few minutes later. I introduced myself to him and asked him if he intended to pay the men. He shocked me with a disgustingly honest answer. I was expecting the usual bologna about a mistake or an unfortunate misunderstanding, but he blurted out, “NO!” I was amazed. I explained to him that slave labor is against the law in the state of Texas and he must pay the workers. He only shouted to get off his work site.

I thought I’d try the owner again so I started towards the front door and our man followed, much too closely. As I rang the doorbell he had a change of heart and decided to pay, but not the full amount. I stayed at the door and he became furious. He spit words at me inappropriate for Catholic newspaper. Then his muscles tensed, he put up his hands, bar fight style, and came within a foot of me. All the while telling me what he was going to do to my little body.

I had a million thoughts racing through my mind, but the strangest one was, “What exactly does a pacifist do now?” The answer that came back was to ring the doorbell again and remind our man that the owner would open soon and it would not be to his advantage to beat me to a pulp in front of the man who was paying him. At the same time two of my closest friends at Casa Juan Diego, Balmori and Gregorio, stepped up with clenched fists and eyes that I’d never seen before. Our man seemingly changed his mind. Whether it was due to my diplomacy or my friends’ eyes, I can only guess.

His voice changed, some of the tension left his body and he said, “Alright, I’ll pay them, but I don’t have the money. Come with me in the truck and we’ll go get the money. I don’t want any trouble.” I suddenly remembered something he had growled earlier about a machete and, of course, the new gun law. I politely declined. I told him that he could go pick up the money and the three of us would wait at the work site.

After an eternity the little old man opened the doors and dashed away our last hopes. “This is between you and the gentleman. I don’t have anything to do with it,” he said. We went back toward our van. As we passed the other workers I wished them luck in receiving their pay, since we hadn’t been successful. They became worried and asked me what I thought they should do.

I must admit I wanted with all my heart for them to come with me and leave our man with a good deal of cleanup work. I said, “You saw the work your friends did and they got nothing. If you think he’ll pay you, stay, if not I’ll give you a ride back now. Do what you like.” All but one of them came with me.

Later in the week we spoke to a lawyer. He promised to help, but it’s apparently very difficult to get the money out of these people and nothing ever came of it. Thom Marshall wrote an article for the Houston Chronicle about the dilemma and many people generously sent money for the unpaid workers.

Is there a solution to this disgusting problem? Without a doubt, there are enough generous people around to cover the stolen wages, and when people responded to Mr. Marshall’s article we were all very appreciative. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem, nor does it do anything for the people who daily send Christ home after a hard day’s work with nothing but hunger and a sore back. I suggest something active like praying.

Some sins cry out to Heaven for vengeance.