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Vintage Mark Zwick and the Catholic Worker

During the first 20+ years of the Houston Catholic Workernewspaper, we regularly ran a column entitled “The Pilgrimage Continues in Houston.”  Written by Mark Zwick or by Mark and Louise Zwick together, it was inspired by Dorothy Day’s famous column “On Pilgrimage” and it offered a glimpse of life at Casa Juan Diego.  In it, we hoped to share with our readers the challenges and consolations of the daily work of hospitality and also to introduce them to some of our guests, our supporters and even our detractors.

Mark Zwick
by Enrique Lugo

Since Mark’s death in 2016, we have continued the work full throttle, and we still rely on the systems he set up and the approaches he adopted.  We quote to each other things he used to say to help keep the right focus. “We are foot-washers, not hand-holders” for when we have to make sometimes hard decisions with our guests.  Or, when we are feeling frazzled and frustrated, “Push the Jesus button” to find the way to continue to work graciously and peacefully.  We feel Mark’s presence, but nevertheless we miss him. 

Recently we have been rereading some of the old columns and we recognize Mark’s characteristic humor and humility.  We enjoy his (deceptively) simple way of explaining things. We miss his voice.

The following is a reprint of “The Pilgrimage Continues in Houston” column from the February 1987 issue of the Houston Catholic Worker.


Aren’t You a Little Crazy After 6 Years? Yes, Basically

With all the work to do and all the problems we face at Casa Juan Diego, we are a little crazy after six years. We survive by praying a lot. If we didn’t meditate and think about what we are doing in the light of the Gospels, we would be more crazy than the little we are. If we don’t pray we waste a lot of energy on anger, frustration and unnecessary tension (See “Wasted Passion,” Dec. 1986).

Amazing Grace

For whatever reason, we seem to be surviving all the work and experiences of Casa Juan Diego. We are not only surviving, but are grateful for being so blessed. All that has happened has made believers out of us. Besides being people of work, we have become more and more, people of faith.

The Glue Or Goo

For us Casa Juan Diego is a faith operation. Faith is the glue that holds things together. Faith is the Lord and faith is people and faith is our readers. Without this faith, things deteriorate in all ways and we succumb to the stress and strain of daily burdens. We burn out. Without struggling with the profound values of the Catholic Worker movement and the Gospels, the faith glue easily becomes liberal or conservative goo and moves from the hard rock of the New Testament to a house of shifting sands.

Closet Catholic Workers

Though the strain and stress of the work is evident, inevitably people come up to us after presentations on the work of Casa Juan Diego and ask why they as a couple can’t do this kind of work. They can, of course. The place to start is with prayer and “Little by Little.” (Robert Ellsberg). It is most important that a couple doesn’t confuse love in action with love in dreams. Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing at times, but it is the only path, as all Catholic Workers know. (See Dorothy Day and Dostoevsky). Every couple is called in some way to give witness—not in the same way as we are. Some need to do something, not just stand there, while others should not just do something, but stand there.

Sheltered Life

Because people respect our work and say nice things about us, we forget about those who are upset with all that we do and believe as followers of the Nazarene. We lead a very sheltered life. We forget that a few people are suspicious of our motives, or that they say we are law-breakers, or that we are commies because we work without pay and are pacifists, or that we neglect our children by doing this work, or that Casa Juan Diego is the Garbage pit of the West End and send letters saying the same.

Why Masochists?

Motivations are hard to figure. We hope we are doing the right work for the right reasons—in fact, we would be satisfied with only having one thing right—either the right reason or the right work. But work we do!

Workaholics (Or Prayeraholics)

We may be addicted to work, but nothing works and succeeds as well as work. We don’t know of many saints worth their salt who were not workaholics. Of course, they were addicted to prayer, too—might we say prayer alcoholics. This combination seems to contain the right ingredients for St. Ignatius’ statement, “Work as if all depended on you, and pray as if all depended on God.”

Like Celibates

Basically, Catholic Workers must be like celibates, totally committed to the Lord, totally committed to serve, totally committed to the poor. This seems harsh, but maybe the Lord expects us to give, to sweat, to suffer fatigue and headaches, as well as sacrifice and fast. This may even be better than fasting and sacrifice. The early Catholic Workers talked constantly about the Saints and about being saints.

The Real Reason

Our motivation for starting Casa Juan Diego was rather simple. It was started to serve a population that was neglected: refugees, Spanish-speaking families, those who could not get help from agencies, and those who fall between the cracks. Still fresh in our memories is the experience of applying to a foundation for help some years ago and the response of its director. Had he spit on us, it would have been easier. Instead he attacked us for duplicating services and developing programs that others can organize. The restraints of our pacifism were a bit stretched! If there is any agency or group that can do anything we can do, we much prefer and even insist that they do it. We need all the help we can get.

Law Breakers

At Casa Juan Diego we don’t worry about breaking the law, in fact, we are totally distracted by trying to keep the law, the Law of the Gospels that says that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. Rejecting homeless people, refugees, mothers and children because they don’t have I.D. is like rejecting Jesus. True, we may be too fundamentalist or literal in our interpretation of Matthew 25, but then we are stuck with being Catholic Workers. Anyway, we haven’t met an illegal alien in our six years as Casa Juan Diego. We have met a lot of people, though.

Bad Samaritan

If you help the poor, the world calls you a Good Samaritan. If you help the poor without pay and promote pacifism, your motives are suddenly suspect. If you ask the world why the poor are poor, you are a bad Samaritan- a communist. Many of the bullets we send to Latin American countries to fend off the falling dominoes and to fight communists have ended up in the bodies of good people, labor leaders members of the base communities who have asked the question and who were never communists.

Commies, No

We are not communists, nor are we capitalists, as Pope John Paul II keeps saying, we are Personalists. Personalism is the philosophy of the Catholic Worker movement, persons taking responsibility for persons. We are not an agency, an institution, a church. We are people. We trying to be persons, helping other people and helping in such a way that preserves the dignity of the individual. We don’t always succeed, but we try.

Revolutionaries, Si

The only revolution we are interested in is the one that will change our hearts and change our society so that we all have enough dignity. We believe that both revolutions are needed- you choose the system- but please let us not choose old worn out ones that have failed and are only defended by those who have benefitted and who have their foot on the neck of the poor. We believe that the only good revolution is a non-violent one.

Pie in the Sky

Marxists say that Christians don’t believe in changing society, that they don’t believe in justice for the poor, that Christians believe we should suffer here, carry our cross here and we will receive our reward in heaven: “Pie in the sky when you die,” is their taunt. The Marxists are correct, but only half correct. Christianity also demands a piece of the justice pie right now for the oppressed and starving. We are not saying that the poor should take your piece of pie, nor ours. But do we really need two pieces of pie or three, etc. All in the name of Jesus, or in the name of “By God, I earned it.” Those who die with many pieces of pie may have already received their reward and will have none left at the final reckoning as the rich man discovered as he crossed over. A full barn looks good to the world, but not to the Lord. “What you do for the least of the brethren you do for me” Matthew 25.

Garbage, Garbage Everywhere

Casa Juan Diego distributes tons of used clothing, used food and used furniture. Some of our donations have been used a long, long time before they come to us and the possibility of being used again is very, very marginal. We don’t mind taking the risk on receiving used things, but it does mean that 365 days a year there will be some unusable stuff (aka garbage) around. We tolerate this is in the name of Jesus. We know that cleanliness is next to godliness, but our value system says that having a disordered place because you want to clothe the naked is also godliness. We pray that the God of cleanliness and the God of the Poor can be reconciled for the benefit of all of us.

Bottom Line

Despite all these words of defense, we are really guilty of sin. lt is this: Many times we have forgotten that man and woman do not live by stress alone. Pray for us.

Houston Catholic Worker, July-September, 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3.