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Catholic Worker Personalism And the Sick and Injured

by Angel Valdez

One of the ideas at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement is communitarian personalism. Combined with the traditional living out of the Works of Mercy, Catholic Worker personalism provides a unique opportunity for serving some of the most desperate in our society – those on the peripheries, those who have no one else to help them.

We begin to understand personalism when we encounter Jesus in the poor.

At the Houston Catholic Worker this encounter has led to the development of Works of Mercy for immigrants who are very ill or paralyzed.

We had been providing hospitality/shelter to immigrants and refugees for fifteen yeas, as well as food and clothing for the poor who do not live in our houses, and a free medical clinic, thanks to volunteer doctors. Countless volunteers had helped in many ways. We had received a few patients from hospitals who were alone, homeless, and recovering after being injured, but who could care for themselves. In the mid 1990’s the hospitals started calling with more serious requests. Little by little a whole new vista opened up which required a personalist response. We could not stop what we were already doing, because the new immigrants and refugees still fill our houses, pregnant women or battered women with their children continue to need our help, but perhaps we could start in a small way to also help those who were not only invisible to most people, but seriously injured or ill.

What began with our response to one or two desperate calls from hospitals in Houston when people were ready for discharge after a tragic accident has evolved (or perhaps a better word to describe what has happened might be blossomed) into services for well over a hundred sick or injured immigrants who cannot receive any assistance from the government.

Because of the philosophy of personalism, we can respond when agencies may not be able to do so because of funding restrictions. (For example, Adult Protective Services cannot help with funding.) We can also personalize our services. We are not able to help everyone, we cannot help the whole city of Houston, not even the many sick and injured undocumented, but we are helping many. In fact, we are stretched to the limit with so many.

When we receive a call from a woman whose husband recently had a stroke, we feel a responsibility to respond. The other day a woman in that situation called for the first time to ask for help. We thought of asking her to come in to see us so we could better evaluate the situation and see what the needs were. When she spoke of the difficulty of coming here, finding someone to care for her husband while she left the house, we asked one of our Catholic Workers to visit the home. Betsy discovered that there were no beds in the house (the stroke victim was sleeping on a couch and his wife slept next to him on the floor), the couple needed food and adult diapers, and the electricity had been cut off. They needed help with rent.

This is the third time this month that we have had the opportunity to provide beds for paralyzed people or people with Parkinson’s Disease who were sleeping on the floor or on horribly inadequate mattresses. Dawn has emerged as the person who often acquires the beds. All of our Catholic Workers participate in personalized services to the sick and injured.

Helping Families of the Sick and Injured

When the hospitals of Houston call, or when the hospitals give out our number to the families of the injured, we try to help the families. We have discovered that the best care is often given by the families who are caring for their loved ones, better than many personal care homes or nursing homes. However, the families often cannot survive by themselves when tragedy strikes. The person who is paralyzed or in a coma cannot work and the person who cares for them cannot work. Who will pay the rent or provide food? Where will they get a wheel chair? Who can provide the expensive adult diapers that are needed, or the catheters or the colostomy bags? Who will help them through the complicated eligibility process for the Gold Card for medical services with the county hospital district? Who will pay the co-pays required for their medicines if they are lucky enough to get the card? Who will buy the MetroLift tickets if they are fortunate enough to access MetroLift services? Who will help with a prosthesis if a limb is lost?

There may also be children in the home. When a new person is referred to us, we know there may be no one else in the community who will help, at least not on a long-term basis. And so we begin. Casa Juan Diego cannot do everything, but  we can help. We can put in some loaves and fishes.

When there is no family, Casa Juan Diego pays a small business called a personal care home to care for the injured or ill. Volunteers visit these homes from time to time to see how the patients are doing.

Fredy fell off the roof in a work accident, and has many injuries. A jack slipped when Samuel was working on a car. The car fell on him and he did not receive enough oxygen. Samuel’s father cares for him in a semi-conscious state. Eduardo was in a car accident and has been paralyzed ever since. Vicente and Juan and Jose had strokes.  Tomas’ wife is an amputee and is blind because of diabetes. Manuel was shot in the head. Julio’s wife has had several strokes and they have three children, some of whom are teenagers.  He works in sheet rock and tries to pay a woman to care for his wife and kids during the day, but he cannot make ends meet without our help. Carmen and Carlos are seriously mentally ill and have no one else to help them. Miguel is blind from multiple sclerosis. It goes on and on.

Some people are able to come in to Casa Juan Diego each month to receive assistance using MetroLift or having a family member drive them.

If one person were to try to respond to those in wheel chairs or the caregivers who fill our entrance toward the end of each month and the beginning of the next month, it would be an impossible task. Each morning for at least two weeks out of the month, all of our Catholic Workers and some daily volunteers are engaged in working to provide the basic needs of those whom we have adopted. They need help with rent, they need food, often adult diapers and bed pads. They may need a wheel chair to replace their dilapidated one, they may need a shower chair, those fortunate to be able to walk a little may need a walker. They may need gloves for diaper changing. We need more people to help us, especially live-in Catholic Workers.

We can personalize these services thanks to so many who help and support Casa Juan Diego. We have a large room full of donated adult diapers in various sizes. Some are pull-ups, others are flats for those who are bedridden. We are glad when we also have bed pads to give. Some people ask us why we are always putting adult diapers on our list of needs. They are expensive and many must be used for each person who needs them.

We have another room for wheel chairs and shower chairs and bedside commodes. When the last wheel chair is gone, through the generosity of many and, it seems, through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, more arrive for those who need them.

As each person comes in, or as we visit the home for those who cannot easily come, we try to respond with the flexibility of personalism. One man, a quadriplegic, has little use of his hands. He lives alone. When we prepare food for him to take home, we try to give him things he can easily prepare. For example, apples or potatoes. This particular man has asked if we have any pull-top cans of tuna or beans because he cannot use a can opener. We search for those in our food storage area. A number of others are diabetic, and we try to find foods that are appropriate for them. We sometimes help with soap, dishwashing liquid and toilet tissue.

A few other services are available for these patients in the community and we help people connect with those whenever we can. The city of Houston has MetroLift, vans which disabled people can ride to their appointments. The Harris County Hospital District has the eligibility card to use their services –but only if you have a Texas or consular ID. The city has a Multi-service Center where disabled people can use the pool or the exercise machines if they have someone to accompany them. Some wheel-chair bound immi-grants have organized themselves into a support group called Living Hope.

Many services that are available to citizens are denied to immigrants. Even if someone were to donate an especially equipped van for an injured immigrant to drive, for example, they would not be able to use it because the state denies them a driver’s license. However, the American Disabilities Act has helped disabled immi-grants in small ways. The requirement that public buildings be accessible to wheel chairs helps everyone.

Families Do Whatever They Can To Help

One wife whose husband is in a wheel chair got a job cleaning the apartments where the family lives in exchange for rent. He is well enough that she can leave him alone some. She is nearby to check on him. Now she just asks for assistance with the utilities and food.

Another wife sells clothing her friends or neighbors give to help with things the couple needs beyond the rent and the food we are able to give.

Another wife babysits in her home while she accompanies her paralyzed husband.

The husbands whose wives are ill work some days whenever they have someone to help care for the injured person in the home.

Most of all the families encourage their loved ones and care for them. We admire the families very much.

Pope Francis: A Great Lie Lurks

We cannot give up on people who are injured or very ill. Much can be done to make their lives more comfortable and meaningful. Even their doctors sometimes seem to almost give up on these patients – but not the volunteer doctors in our clinics. One of our doctors goes so far as to buy special wheel chairs and hospital beds off Craig’s list.

In his Message for the World Day of the Sick for 2015 Pope Francis wrote to encourage not only the sick, but those who care for them: “With lively faith let us ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the grace to appreciate the value of our often unspoken willingness to spend time with these sisters and brothers who, thanks to our closeness and affection, feel more loved and comforted.”

The Pope directly challenges ideas floating around that undermine the dignity of the sick and injured.

Some consider people throwaways or losers when they cannot go jogging or work to have the latest phone or gadget. Why, they ask, should people go on living when they cannot have the “quality of life” that I have?

In his Message for the Sick, Pope Francis answers that this is the big lie:

“How great a lie lurks behind certain phrases which so insist on the importance of ‘quality of life’ that they make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!” (Message for the World Day of the Sick 2015)

The Holy Father pointed out in his Angelus message on February 8 that the principal activity of Jesus in his public life was to preach and to heal the sick and that this is the mandate he gives to his disciples – to proclaim the Gospel and heal the sick. The Church, he said, must constantly search for the sick and wounded, “considering the sick a privileged way to welcome and serve.” Serving the sick, Pope Francis said, “is serving Christ. They are the flesh of Christ, the sick.”

Actually at Casa Juan Diego at this point in history we do not have to search for the sick and wounded. The agencies and hospitals of Houston, in addition to people on the streets and in the community, think of sending the undocumented sick and injured to us. We cannot keep up with it all.

Love and Justice

One could easily be overcome by anger at the injustice of the situation of so many who have worked and contributed to our economy and have few to help them. However, we try to see the encounters with the poor, sick and injured immigrants as opportunities that the Lord gives us to respond with his love – as we continue to work for justice for immigrants. We know that our faith must be lived and that God himself is Love and Justice. As Henri de Lubac said,

“O God, you are Love indeed – but Love which is different from my love! You are Justice which is different from my justice! If I am lacking in love and wanting in justice I shall inevitably stray from you, and the worship I offer you will be neither more nor less than idolatry. To believe in you I must believe in Love and Justice, and it is a thousand times better to believe in them than simply to call upon your name. Apart from them, I can never hope to find you, and those who take them as their guides are on the road that leads to you. But to adore you in spirit and in truth, and to avoid the risk of adoring myself, I must, furthermore, believe that my justice  – even that justice that I conceive of without being able to realize it – is not yet your Justice, and that my love is not yet your Love.  My ideal is not your reality. When I apply the words Justice and Love to you, I still do not understand you. For ‘we know imperfectly and prophesy imperfectly.’ and everything remains an enigma to us – we can make an idol of Justice itself, and perhaps even of Love itself.” (Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, Eerdmans, p. 104).

We pray that our love and our justice may flow from the Spirit of Jesus through who our hearts are filled with charity.

Hope Through Personalism

Catholic Worker personalism give us hope in the face of injustice and suffering.

Peter Maurin’s background in French personalism, which emphasized so much the dignity and destiny, the special vocation of each person, gave him a philosophical base for engagement in the world, and informed his own personal attitude and style. His thought applies very well to the sick and injured and especially to their caregivers.

Dorothy wrote in The Long Loneliness (p. 171) about the vision that Peter brought to the movement:  “Peter made you feel a sense of his mission as soon as you met him.  He did not begin by tearing down, or by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world.  Instead, he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment.  He made you feel that you and all men had great and generous hearts with which to love God.  If you once recognized this fact in yourself you would expect and find it in others.”

For those who consider the sick and injured a burden and are tempted to give up on them, the thought of French personalist Emmanuel Mounier gives encouragement and inspiration. For Mounier, the person is never an object, but a subject with presence, to be loved, inspired, encouraged, even provoked into responding to destiny and vocation:

“Whenever I treat  another person as though he were not present, or as a repository of information for my use (G. Marcel), an instrument at my disposal; or when I set him down in a list without right of appeal—in such a case I am behaving towards him as though he were an object, which means in effect, despairing of him.  But if I treat him as a subject, as a presence—which is to recognize that I am unable to define or classify him, that he is inexhaustible, filled with hopes upon which alone he can act—this is to give him credit.  To despair of anyone is to make him desperate: whereas the credit that generosity extends regen-erates his own confidence.” (Emmanuel Mounier, Per-sonalism (Univ. ND, p. 22-23).

Like the Mustard Seed

Angel Valdez, whose art appears in our pages and who is now a seminarian for the Diocese of El Paso, wrote about Casa Juan Diego when he was a Catholic Worker here. His words apply also to God’s hand in the world of the sick and injured who turn to us for help:

“Casa Juan Diego is similar to the parable of the mustard seed (Mt.  13:24-30), this tiny grain that a man took in his hand and sowed and the shrub became a tree where birds of many colors, shapes and places come seeking refuge and rest on its branches. Birds with different intentions, and different stories. Some make their nest here. Others only rest and gather strength to continue on their way. It is a tree that does not have the strength of the oak, the beauty of the cedar, or the majesty of the palm tree. It is more of a shrub where God puts his hand and his gaze to show us his greatness. “


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, March-May, 2015.