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Mark Zwick’s Acts of Faith: Shelter From the Storm

Reprinted with permission from the Houston Press, January 3, 1991

Photography by Janice Rubin


Thursday morning, Casa Juan Diego looks like a border Welcome Wagon. Nearly 100 Hispanic women crowd inside the front doors, toting young children. Their dress is shabby, but their faces are bright and smiling. The din of staccato, Spanish-speaking voices becomes one unintelligible roar.

The women flock to the refugee shelter and social-services center at the corner of Rose and Durham to receive donated clothing for their children first, then for their husbands and finally for themselves.

Surrounding Casa Juan Diego, many of the women’s husbands mill about one of the two largest undocumented day-labor pools in town, trying desperately to find some sort of work for the day. Visitors to the place are besieged by eager workers.

It is slightly organized chaos. The phone is ringing, a pregnant woman needs to be driven to a health clinic for prenatal care, another person needs to be taken to the Honduran consulate. While one of the staff members is looking for a ride to the southwest side of town for the home’s weekly food distribution, another volunteer is preparing to take a young Salvadoran refugee to the a hardware store to buy Freon to repair a drinking fountain. A car with two and a half flat tires is blocking them in.

But this storm has a calm center. Casa Juan Diego’s founder, Mark Zwick, somehow keeps making sense of the mayhem.

Often harried-looking, the 62-year old Zwick speaks in a quiet voice. But he leaves no doubt about who is in charge. Running the operation as a benevolent autocrat, Zwick wields compassion and rigidity in seemingly equal doses.

He is obviously adept at orchestrating constant motion. It is also obvious why he sometimes looks as befuddled as a chemistry professor searching for a rest room.

In a swirl of organized chaos, Zwick balances compassion and discipline.

Casa Juan Diego has been temporary home to roughly 13,000 Central American refugees in its 10-year existence. The center serves more than 200,000 meals a year, dispenses free medical and dental care, free transportation, psychological counseling, daily English classes and myriad other services.

The operation is Mark Zwick’s life, a 24-hour-a-day passion for which he draws no paycheck from the $300,000 annual budget. His wife, Louise, supports Zwick and their two children on a city librarian’s salary.

An all-volunteer staff keeps food coming in the door.

That they choose to live so sparely and in service to others simply continues the pattern of Mark Zwick’s life.

Raised a Catholic in Ohio, Zwick encountered at college the inspiration that would spur him to Houston and his shelter. It was then, in the early 1950s, that he discovered Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement she founded.

Born in the Depression two decades earlier, the radical religious faction called for voluntary poverty, living with the poor, justice, freedom, peace and absolute pacifism, which got the movement labeled communistic during the 1940s. Eventually, the movement picked up support from the likes of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Thomas Merton and Cesar Chavez.

Zwick’s most intense exposure to the movement came when he attended a Catholic Worker retreat, which he calls “tough as nails, fasting, self-denial, the whole thing.” He also met Dorothy Day. “That did it for me. I was a believer.”

As a young Catholic, Zwick directed his beliefs and his energies along the most traditional paths, though it is not something he likes to talk about now. In earlier interviews, he attempted to obscure that he was once a priest. Later he admitted that he wore the collar from 1953 until 1967. Zwick left the Church soon after he met Louise.

“I left because I was not blessed with the gift of celibacy,” he says. His separation from the church seems almost a point of pride. “If I did what I do as a priest, there would be no question, says Zwick. “People expect commitment to the poor from a priest, but commitment to the poor by a family man may jeopardize his family obligations and responsibilities. In today’s world, a family that makes less money than it can is flying in the face of the world’s values. Louise and I made a decision not to be rich many years ago. We made the decision not because we were really poor nor rich, but because we decided we were rich enough.”

In the mid 1960s, when the focus of activism was shifting from civil rights to peace, the Zwicks met radical Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. Several years later, they renewed their association with Berrigan when they invited him to address a student group in Berkeley, California, where Louise was working on her master’s degree in library science. Mark was working with farm laborers, which piqued an interest in Hispanic culture. Berrigan suggested he should be working in the Hispanic Southwest.

Zwick and his volunteers serve more than 200,000 meals a year.

The Zwicks prayed about their future and decided Berrigan was right. But they didn’t immediately move to the Southwest United Sates. In 1977, they sold all of their possessions and moved to El Salvador.

Working with the church through the late ‘70s, the Zwicks helped fight for the Catholic Worker principles in the war-torn country. The church stood with the poor and protested all murder. That made church association subversive in the eyes of the government. Church meetings became forbidden and soldiers were given orders to shoot to kill all groups of five or more people, says Zwick, no questions asked. So the Zwicks left.

“We left El Salvador a changed people. Our Catholicism and our faith would never be the same. We had gone to experience the culture and let our children experience the culture. We were able to witness the transformation of Archbishop Oscar Romero from pastor to the elite to staunch defender of the poor, which, of course, eventually got him killed in 1980. The Church standing with the poor in the face of death gave us an insight into the Church we did not experience before. The Church of El Salvador, the Church of martyrs – lay, religious and clerical – was the institutional Church, not some marginal, leftist, dissatisfied clique. It’s the kind of Church one can live with – and die for. This obviously was the institutional Church Dorothy Day hoped for.”

After moving to McAllen and working briefly in a large Mexican- American border parish, the Zwicks came to Houston to take over the social services program at St. Theresa’s parish. There, they realized the need for a Central American refugee shelter.

Central American women and children, many battered and abused, receive special attention at Casa Juan Diego

When Louise landed her job with the city, Mark signed a lease on an old Washington Avenue meat market, which he describes as the “ugliest thing in Houston.” He named his shelter Casa Juan Diego after the Mexican Indian whose vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531 inspired millions of Indian conversions to Christianity. (Pope John Paul II recently beatified Juan Diego.) Zwick chose the name as a paradox of the powerless being powerful. “We too, are poor and powerless, as are all of the Juan Diegos who come to us,” says Zwick. “We do not expect the Lord nor his mother to appear to us, but we would like the Lord to appear in our lives and our work.”

In the beginning, the Zwicks had a building but no money to run the operation. A young mechanic who lived nearby offered to help. He went into his house and returned with five $100 bills. In the 10 years since that day, the Zwicks’ faith and finances have been put to the test many times, most notably with two devastating fires (one of which was ruled arson) that finally forced them to move to the house’s current address.

Today the center enjoys a wide base of community support. Though not part of the diocese, most of the Catholic parishes support the Casa, along with a number of Protestant churches. And ties to the Catholic hierarchy remain strong: Bishop Joseph Fiorenza dedicated the new Casa Juan Diego on December 14, 1986.

The two-story, concrete-and-steel building is bordered by a white plank fence of the Durham Street side which bears a painting of Archbishop Oscar Romero, along with his words: “You can kill me but you can’t kill the voice of justice.”

From that center and seven other local sites, Casa Juan Diego operates openly in flagrant defiance of U.S. foreign policy, housing refugees from countries the U.S. supports, refugees from Immigration and Naturalization Service routinely deports.

“We make no distinction between economic and political refugees,” Zwick says. “If they need help, we help them.”

Yet the Casa operates without INS harassment. “What we are doing, we consider to be the Lord’s work, so I guess in that sense, INS may be considering us a church,” Zwick suggests.”The community supports us very well. The taxpayers, the people who pay INS salaries, are the ones who keep us in business.”

In the decade since founding Casa Juan Diego, the Zwick’s have had their faith tested many times.

“Mark is not an activist,” says Brother Bob Hergenroeder, of the Priests of the Sacred Heart Office of Justice and Peace. “He’s not out there shaking things up in public. He very quietly does his own thing, and does it very effectively. That may be his secret to success.”

Most of Casa Juan Diego’s guests now come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “The human rights situation in those three countries is abominable,” Zwick says.

After hearing the often-tragic stories of the refugees who fill their shelter, Mark and Louise Zwick can’t imagine not helping.Nearly nightly, Zwick assembles the new arrivals for an orientation meeting, at which many of the refugees tell their stories of why they fled their homelands to come to the U. S. “The stories are mostly very traumatic,” Zwick says. “When you hear what they have been through, how can you turn your back and refuse to help?”

Nightly orientation meetings often feature horrifying stories from refugees, but Mark Zwick says they keep him going.

The Zwicks certainly cannot.