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The Crowd Parted When Mark Zwick Arrived in His Wheel Chair

Mark Zwick

As his health declined, Mark Zwick was no longer able to walk the short distance to visit all the Catholic Worker houses that he and his wife, Louise founded. It was important to him that he still be connected to the work, however, so for a time he was driven by car and later pushed in a special wheel chair across the busy street he had walked across so often during the past 30 years. He could no longer do the work, but he could still be a part of what goes on in his beloved Houses of Hospitality. In his final days, of course, his visits became less and less frequent.

During my time as a worker at the women’s house, Mark always brought with him a calm and a peace to each visit, and this day, the last time I would see him, was no different. The house was full of people, and people were lined up at the door, needing our help. I was at the front door trying, at the same time, to help a man who had lost his leg in an accident to navigate the process of getting a prosthesis and taking the name of a former guest at the house so she could get her mail that had arrived since she left. (We dutifully save the mail for our former guests, for years sometimes).

I had the woman’s name written down on a slip of paper in one hand and the recently disabled man’s paperwork in the other when Mark in his wheelchair rounded the corner, escorted by caregivers from our men’s house. Time seemed to move slowly and deliberately, like when you know that something important is happening, but aren’t sure what. There was a reverence as he approached, and all those waiting parted without a sound as he passed through the entrance, past the office, and into the chapel where the Host is kept. The people who were lined up for help, who normally are quite vocal, paused in silence as the staff all followed him into the Chapel. We sat together, praying in unison, Louise at Mark’s side, Catholic Workers Holly, Julia, Celia and I trying not to cry. In the background, Lenore was chopping vegetables for lunch, children were playing, and I was overcome with the unexpected gift of Mark’s presence.

Suddenly, a parable from Mathew popped into my head, the one about building your house upon the right kind of foundation if you wanted it to last, building it upon stone, not sand. The Houses of Hospitality that make up Casa Juan Diego, Mark’s creation and legacy, have been built, day-by-day, year-by-year, on the solid foundation of uncounted thousands of works of mercy. The physical houses themselves have come and gone, others have taken their place, but they all have been built on the rock of the love and generosity that have been poured into them by so many people, Catholic Workers and those who support us, alike.

Mark was taken back home across the busy street almost as quickly as he arrived. We knew, however, what to do. Mark would expect the work to continue, so we all stood up and silently went back to work. The woman’s mail still had to be found, and the man still needed help getting his new leg.

Almost ten year ago, in my very first meeting with Mark and Louise, our lively discussion about the theological foundations of the Catholic Worker movement was interrupted by someone needing Mark’s help about a problem with the pinto beans order. With his usual wit and humor, Mark remarked that this was the life at the Houston Catholic Worker, the sacred and the mundane, in constant succession. We laughed, me at the silliness of it, and Mark and Louise at the truth of it. I would soon learn that this is the humble miracle of Casa Juan Diego; people are served and cared for and loved by hands and hearts that are at work cooking, cleaning, giving, comforting, writing, organizing, treating, counseling, praying, crying and celebrating. The sacred and the mundane, intertwined.

It is our human nature to try to understand the world around us. I am by training a social worker, and we are taught to understand the world through the worldview of science. I find myself automatically trying to quantify, to organize and categorize behavior, information, and data; always collecting, evaluating and reporting to some unknown entity in my head. Every day I spend at Casa Juan Diego, I start this process of trying to put “a number” on, or to capture in some valid scientific way, the acts and ramifications of all the comings and goings of this place.

This is a fool’s errand, of course, yet I do it anyway. My most recent attempt to gather data has involved trying to count the acts of kindness, forgiveness, or mercy in just one single day at the woman’s house. For example, “Sarah”, a disabled mother will come in to receive rent assistance from Casa Juan Diego that allows her to keep her children together in a safe place. Safety is a primal need for most of the people we serve – they have ex-perienced precious little of it.  A chronically homeless and difficult man rolls his wheelchair up to the front door, from God knows where or how, and will be warmly greeted and nurtured just a bit with food that he can eat without cooking. “Oscar”, a middle-aged man with Parkinson’s Disease will be comforted while he cries about his recent fall and growing inability to care for himself. The grief-stricken parents of a son, recently home from the military, who in his despair killed himself arrive to donate his belongings to those in need. Their attempt to find even a small measure of comfort in their tragedy needed our attention and love.

How does all of this add up? A dumb question, really.  I always fail at my pointless “scientific” inquiry, because what happens at Casa Juan Diego is impossible to measure, is far beyond my meager ability to understand. It is a thing of the Holy Spirit, of saints and sainthood. Mark Zwick, a trained social worker himself, understood this better than anybody. So Mark, please pray for us as we continue the work that you started. Pray for us as we care for each other, and for all those that your love has touched through all these years.

Pray for us.

Houston Catholic Worker, January-March 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1.