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“If We Had Any Guts We’d Start a Catholic Worker House”: Reflections at the Vigil Service for Mark Zwick

   We are here to celebrate the life of Mark Zwick and his remarkable example of servant leadership.  Mark laid the foundation for Casa Juan Diego which has fed and sheltered tens of thousands of people over the last 36 years.  He founded a newspaper and with his wife Louise coauthored books illuminating the pilgrimage of faith to which we are all called.  He has been a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather.  His accomplishments are astonishing and he has done it all so modestly, with quiet strength and an ever-present sense of humor.  My son said to me recently (paraphrasing Meister Eckhart): “Emptying yourself to make room for God.  Nobody does that like Mark.”

Mark was born in Ohio in 1927, one of 11 children.  I learned recently that he and one of his brothers were high school football stars, frequently mentioned in the newspaper as “the Zwick boys”.  Mark was even offered a football scholarship to college.  But as we all know, in the end Mark took a different path. I first met Mark in 1980 when he was working in social justice at St Therese’s Church here in Houston.  By that time, he had earned his MSW and had achieved a respected position doing social work in California.  He and Louise, had also spent time working in El Salvador, but when the political situation had become too dangerous for their two young children Jennifer and Joachim, they returned to the US.

I met Mark through my mother, who told me Mark and Louise were starting a House of Hospitality called Casa Juan Diego here in Houston.  “It’s a Catholic Worker House,” she told me excitedly, “maybe they’ll have a newspaper.” And there was indeed a newspaper.  Because Casa Juan Diego practiced both the corporal and the spiritual Works of Mercy.  Mark’s daily work was to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick.  And through his writing, Mark, together with Louise, offered us in-struction, counsel, correction, and consolation.   Those of you who have read the paper or received the annual letter will recognize Mark’s distinctive voice that captured like no other a continuing pilgrimage of faith in action, rooted in prayer.

In these early years, Mark began to develop the routines and standard practices to best serve the guests.  Mark believed in grounding his work in prayer – ora et labora – but in addition he drew from his many years of professional experience in social work, his experience as a priest, and from his good common sense.

When we talk about the work Mark did, it is easy to start reciting statistics:  100,000 nights of shelter for the homeless, for refugees, for those fleeing violence both political and domestic; 10 to 15 tons of food and clothing distributed each week; food for 500 families each week (in addition to those residing at Casa Juan Diego); a hiring hall; medical care and assistance to the long-term disabled.  The scale and scope of the work is hard to imagine.  But today, I want to remember not just the magnitude of the work, but the way Mark did it.

When Mark and Louise came back from Central America, Mark would say, “If we had any guts, we’d start a Catholic Worker House.”  Well, Mark had a lot of guts.  Imagine the courage to give up a salary and become literally poor, to accept the vulnerability of depending on donated food and clothes just like those he served.  Mark had guts and Mark was tough.  It’s a funny thing to say about such a gentle man, but the demands of the work were enormous.  And he had the endurance to do the work day in and day out, cheerfully and with humor.  If you said to Mark, “Don’t you ever feel sad or angry?”, he would say, “We don’t have time.  There is too much work to be done.  Mostly we just feel a little tired.”

I think part of the reason Mark was able to do so much was that he prayed and then he just got on with it, one step at a time, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.  Mark and Louise say they never had a 5-year-plan, they just saw a need and did what they could. Mark also had a great sense of humor.  Who was it that said a Christian has a profound duty of joy?  I’ve always thought that Mark’s sense of humor was rooted in that founda-tional sense of joy.  If you asked him, “How are you doing, Mark?” he would often answer, “Better than I deserve.” And he wasn’t being ironic.  That’s how he felt.

Mark also modeled the Catholic Worker’s commit-ment to pacifism.  Sometimes people came to Casa Juan Diego angry, perhaps intoxicated or maybe demanding to see one of the battered women who found shelter there.  When somebody like that came and started raising a ruckus, rather than calling the police, Mark would talk with the person himself and find a way to defuse the situation.  Mark was a gentle person, but the full force of his moral authority came to the forefront in times like this.  Mark could and did command respect.

Recently, as Mark has begun to slow down, Louise and the Catholic Worker volunteers have continued to do so many things the way Mark did.  “Mark taught us how to do that” is a comment I have heard so often in the last few months.

My son Andrew Durham was a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego toward the end of Mark’s life.  It was a time of spiritual seeking for Andrew.  It was also a time when Parkinson’s disease had already left Mark quite diminished physically.  Andrew described Mark walking with a shuffling gait, no longer steady on his feet, and prone to moments of forgetfulness. “But Mark always was so good-natured about it, accepting it,” Andrew said, “[He was] rooted in prayer — Mark still had his prayer life.  They were pretty quiet about it, but Mark got up and came for prayer every morning.  I tried never to miss that.  They helped me find my way back to Christ, even when I wasn’t sure.  Their faith just carried me along until I got there.”

Of course, Mark never wanted to be in the spotlight and he often used humor to deflect unwanted attention.  Once, after Mark won the prestigious Jefferson Award for community service, a local news station wanted to do a feature on him.  Mark agreed, provided the focus was on the work of the house rather than on Mark himself.  Nevertheless, with the cameras rolling, the reporter extended the microphone and asked, “What makes a person give up everything and dedicate himself to the service of the poor?”  Mark just shrugged and answered, “Beats me.”

I believe Mark saw Casa Juan Diego not as his work alone, but the work of a community.  And if Mark was the cornerstone, then Louise completed the foundation.  Their marriage was a remarkable collaboration—in raising their family, in their daily work of service and in their various writing projects.  In the early days of Casa Juan Diego, Louise supported the family with her work as a librarian (because, of course, as a Catholic Worker Mark received no salary) and then later Louise too became a full-time staff member and co-director of Casa Juan Diego.

During the time I have known Mark, his children Jennifer and Joachim have grown up, and so have his grandchildren Noemí and John.  And it has been my privilege to witness his love for and pride in his family, and even more recently to become aware of his delight in his great grandson, Simon.

Now they will feel his absence.  Indeed, Mark’s absence will be felt by all of us, for Don Marcos was loved and respected widely and deeply.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote,

If I die, …

I don’t want your

laughter or your

steps to waver,

I don’t want my

heritage of joy to


Don’t call up my

person.  I am absent.

Live in my absence as

in a house.

   Vive en mi ausencia como en una casa.

Live in my absence as in a house.

How many thousands literally have lived and will live in the house – the casa—Mark created?  And all of us who knew him will live on in a spiritual space he has left, one which is enlivened by the Holy Spirit and echoing with Mark’s patient faithfulness, prayerful commitment and profound joy.

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