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“When I Was Hungry”:  A Reflection on Volunteering At Casa Juan Diego Men’s House

by Angel Valdez

My wife, Blossom, our 2 children (at the time), and I left Houston in 2003.  In 2010, we began returning each year for one week.  These have been rich experiences, both in the privilege to encounter Christ in the poor and in the camaraderie and fellowship we share with Mark, Louise, their family and the volunteers.  I have, however, lamented the paucity of full-time young men volunteers who have come to serve at the men’s house for a year or more.  It is my hope this brief reflection on my time at Casa Juan Diego may inspire such young men to consider giving even one year of their evolving lives to Christ in the poor there.  Please do not misunderstand me, the women’s house needs committed women who are equally mature in faith—young women and men who hunger to encounter Christ (yes, Christ!) in the poor immigrants who arrive broken and hungry and rejected.  I simply want to make a pointed plea to young men, as that is my lived experience.

I was part of a golden age of volunteering at the Casa Juan Diego Men’s House.  For the day-to-day operations I fell under the capable tutelage of Daniel Ortiz.  He was finishing up a year at the Men’s house. Also in his early 20s, he was quick to smile, generous out of habit, a natural teacher, and humble.  He would say he was no different than any young man from small town New Mexico.  Arriving shortly after I did was Justin Vorbach.  In his mid-20s, he was organized where I was haphazardly driven, quiet while I flowed Spanish, thoughtful while I was reactionary, and a problem solver while I puzzled over organizational tasks.  We complimented each other splendidly.  He had a New Englander’s sense of stick-to-it’veness. Fortunately, in the 14 months we spent together some of his traits rubbed off on me.

Dan stayed around just long enough to give Justin and me sense of the rhythm of our physical work: receiving guests, working with the Spanish-speaking team of volunteers–the ayudantes–responsible for the immediate hospitality of the guests, picking up food and clothing, distributing food and clothing, getting the sick to clinics and hospitals, picking up the mostly healed from the hospitals, chasing down a boss to pay his workers, fixing what broke in the house, carting recycling materials, managing human relations in a diverse group of men of all ages.  The work was exhausting and exhilarating. We were frequently physically spent, sometimes mentally spent, and if not for Mark’s careful, patient, constant guidance we might have been spiritually bankrupt.  Instead, we ate and drank from the spiritual fountain that is God’s mercy. Mark and Louise, for one cannot speak of one without the other, showed us Dorothy, and Dorothy showed us Christ.

Mark liked to joke that we were getting graduate degrees in the Works of Mercy. The work at Casa Juan Diego also had a spiritual rhythm: the Wednesday night celebration of Mass, Thursday clarification of thought circles, the thrice weekly morning prayer, weekly lunch meetings, Friday night dinners, twice weekly Men’s house guest orientation meetings, and attending daily Mass as often as possible [the schedule has changed a bit, but not significantly].  If one availed oneself of these fonts of mercy, the purpose of the work became clear even if one did not always perform the work with Christ-like intentions.  On more than one occasion Mark must have sensed I was feeling sorry for myself. He told us the story of when he was a seminarian, serving as a chaplain in a large public hospital in Chicago.  A fellow seminarian who was also serving as a hospital chaplain was leaving more of the work to Mark.  Mark started to complain to his spiritual advisor (his name escapes me) who jumped to his feet shouting, “the washing of the feet, the washing of the feet!”  Mark smiled, teeth showing, with a twinkle in his eyes.  I got the message.

I offer this reflection as an encouragement to young men who may be considering volunteering for a good spell (6 months, a year, longer?) at the Men’s House.  Maybe you are a young man who really wants to make this leap of faith of putting Christ’s Words into action, but are held back by fear of what you may miss out on in the meantime.  If, as Saint Catherine of Siena instructs,  “all the way to Heaven is Heaven, because Jesus said I am the Way”, then what is more important and fulfilling than bringing Heaven (God’s Reign) to Earth by serving the poor?  No, there is not an app for that!


Houston Catholic Worker, April-June 2018.