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Raising a Prophetic Voice: Civil Disobedience,Divine Obedience and the Catholic Worker

by L. V. Diaz

Casa Juan Diego is a busy place, powered by an amazingly hard-working core of full-time, live-in Catholic Workers and aided by a vast and varied troop of part-time volunteers.  Multi-tasking is a must, since the phone and the doorbell never stop ringing.  Meals and meetings take place against the background hum of the immigrant mothers and children we are currently housing, and are interrupted repeatedly as workers excuse themselves to go to the door or answer a question or receive a donation.

Step into the modest entrada (entrance) of our main building, and you begin to get a feel for our work.  On the right is a bookcase filled with issues of our newspaper and books about the Catholic Worker movement in English and Spanish.  Over it is a portrait of Don Marcos, Mark Zwick, who founded Casa Juan Diego, together with Louise Zwick.  The picture was painted as a gift after Mark passed away by a local artist who, despite being confined to a wheelchair, continues to produce artwork for our newspaper. On the left of the entrada is a payphone and on the opposite wall is an old sofa beneath a large copy of Fritz Eichenburg’s Flight into Egypt, in which the Holy Family is depicted as migrant parents and their child.

When I (a part-time volunteer) arrive on Mondays, the entrada is usually filled with food, just delivered by Houston Food Bank in preparation for the weekly food distribution.  Some weeks I smell onions before I walk through the door, and find onions on palates, chest high.  Some weeks potatoes or carrots are available.  Last week we had a treat:  oranges and tangerines!  Hundreds of pounds of them had been distributed by midmorning Tuesday.  Rice and beans, we order by the ton, literally.

In addition to providing food for some 500 families each week, Casa Juan Diego provides hospitality to immigrant women and children, especially those who are pregnant or who have survived physical violence; operates Don Bosco House for sick and injured men; assists paralyzed and seriously ill immigrants in the community; runs a labor cooperative and a medical clinic, and offers Mass in Spanish each Wednesday evening.

In this way, we try to practice “love in action”, in the Catholic Worker tradition.  In addition to these corporal works of mercy, we also feel called to share the work of Casa Juan Diego with the wider community through this newspaper.  In it, we discuss not just what we do, but why we do it.  We hope to clarify the spiritual underpinnings of the work and to engage our readers in thinking about how to make a more just society, one in which it is “easier for people to be good,” to quote Peter Maurin.

We know that Christians are called to raise a prophetic voice when they encounter injustice, especially serious, sustained actions which threaten the safety and dignity of the powerless.  Peaceful public protest, direct action, and civil disobedience are also means to speak truth to power. As the United States Catholic Bishops have said, “… [Non-violence] consists of a commitment to resist manifest injustice and public evil with means other than [violent] force.  These include dialogue, negotiations, protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and civilian resistance.” (Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, 1993, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/war-and-peace/excerpts-from-the-harvest-of-justice-is-sown-in-peace-centrality-of-conscience-1993-11.cfm)

For the past two years, some volunteers here at Casa Juan Diego have joined with others in peaceful protest of current immigration policies, such as the use of over-crowded, inhumane detention centers, the erosion of procedures for claiming asylum, and especially the separation of families and the ever more prolonged detention of children under appalling conditions.

On July 12, 2019, several full-time Catholic Workers joined me in attending a vigil to protest the current system of immigrant detention camps, especially detention of children separated from their parents.   We had our signs ready:  They read, “Dignity for immigrants” and “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Matthew 25.35” and “No Family Separation” and “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”

When we arrived at the vigil, in front of one of the detention centers for minors run by Southwest Key, I was pleased to see many people I knew.  My former boss from an adult literacy program was there with members of her Mennonite Church.  Friends from Trinity Episcopal Church Midtown were present, including several clergymen and clergywomen in their collars.  Representatives of the Dominican Sisters of Houston were there, carrying signs with the black and white shield that is their logo.   People of every age and race were assembled.  The person standing next to me as we all squeezed onto the side of the pavement turned out to be the librarian from my (now adult) children’s elementary school.  I saw representatives of Black Lives Matter, several Native American organizations, the Brown Berets and members of numerous Lantinx social justice groups.  Someone came through the crowd distributing candles.  We lit them, lifted them up, and everyone chanted, “No hate! No  fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”  We hoped that the children inside the detention center could hear us and know there were people who cared about them.

On the way home after the vigil, one of the young people who was just about to return to college said she had never attended a demonstration before and was so glad to have done so during her time at Casa Juan Diego.  Given that Dorothy Day had participated in numerous peaceful protests, it seemed a fitting conclusion to her time as a Catholic Worker, she said.

Not only did Day believe in the value of public protest, she also at times felt called to go further and engage in civil disobedience.  According to her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, Day was arrested eight times in connection with civil disobedience, between 1917, when she was arrested with a group of women suffragists, and 1973 when she picketed with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers (Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day and a: The Miracle of Our Continuance 107-8).

by L. V. Diaz

Between 1955 and 1961, Dorothy Day and other Catholic Workers engaged in a series of direct actions in New York City to protest air raid drills that civil defense authorities said would protect the populace in the event of nuclear war.  At an appointed time, a siren would sound and citizens were to proceed into the subway or basements of buildings to take shelter.  (I myself remember drills such as these when I was a school girl in Brooklyn, New York, and we students were told to crouch under our desks.)

Instead of taking shelter, the Catholic Workers sat on benches in City Hall Park until they were arrested and jailed.  In the July-August 1955 issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, several articles explained the reasons for this civil disobedience.  First, as pacifists, the Catholic Workers thought that war was immoral.  Furthermore, sheltering in basements or subways would be utterly ineffective in protecting citizens from harm in case of a nuclear strike, and therefore, The Catholic Worker argued, the air raid drills were dishonest and were more useful in creating panic and justifying war-spending than actually keeping people safe.

In that issue, Dorothy Day wrote that she saw her act of civil disobedience as “an act of public penance” for the fact that the United States had been the first to use nuclear weapons (Dorothy Day, “Where Are the Poor? They Are in Prisons, Too,” The Catholic Worker, July-August 1955, 1,8).  She framed her civil disobedience as a form of penance a year later, when she again refused to comply with the air-raid drills.  After she was arrested, she told the judge she wanted to “offer her freedom” in support of her pacifist position (Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker,151).

As I drove home from the vigil in Houston in July 2019, I thought about the protests in New York City and the articles from July 1955.  I thought about them again a week later on July 18, 2019 when I heard about the civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., in which 70 Catholic leaders were arrested as part of a “Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children.”  Numerous press reports describe a coalition of more than 200 Catholic lay people, religious women and men, and clergy, who entered the rotunda of the Capitol.  Each of them held a large picture of a child who had died in immigrant detention.  Five demonstrators lay on the floor forming the shape of a cross as the group prayed and sang.  Various speakers renounced the detention of children, and, calling attention to the pictures of the children who died in detention, said that these little ones  were not rapists or murders, but were children of God.

As I read and watched and listened to accounts of this Catholic “Day of Action” in Washington , I was struck by similarities to the Catholic Worker’s action in 1955 and 1956.  In the Washington protest, the leaders utterly rejected the policy of separating families and detaining children, just as Dorothy Day and her fellows rejected war.  Just as the Catholic Workers of the 1950’s rejected the false claims that were the basis of air raid drills, the Washington protesters also rejected the lies that lay at the basis of the immigrant detention policy.  Look at these innocent children who died while in the custody of our government, the protestors said, these are the ones who come to us claiming asylum.  They are not “invading” the United States.  They are innocents, not  “criminals.”  The false claims that immigrants are dangerous criminals invading our country are being used to justify changes to the immigration system of unprecedented and unwarranted cruelty.

As I read more deeply about the Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children, I came across the words of Tinamarie Stolz, one of the participants, explaining her decision to engage in peaceful civil disobedience.  She wrote, “…[Why] I feel called to participate in non-violent civil disobedience again is simple  — sometimes I just have to put my body in the way. …there are times I believe the Holy Spirit invites me to hear and feel a microscopic reflection of God’s pain in the world” (https://ignatiansolidarity.net/blog/2019/07/17/non-violent-civil-disobedience/)

Her motivation seemed to me to be similar to Dorothy Day’s description of her civil disobedience as a “penance.” Stolz concluded, “God does not call everyone to non-violent civil disobedience.  But God calls everyone to faith in action”(ibid).

Sixteen days after the day of action at the Capitol, on August 3, 2019, we learned of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, which left over 20 people dead and others wounded.  It has been widely reported the shooter complained of a “Hispanic invasion” and that he intended to kill Hispanic people.  We were all profoundly shocked, bent over with grief.  Here at Casa Juan Diego, we have particularly close ties to many who live and work in the El Paso area.  Some of us have lived or worked there ourselves.  It felt very close to home, very personal.

Grief, sorrow, fear were not my only emotions, however.  I also felt rage.  At the one who did it.  At the ones I thought encouraged and facilitated prejudice and hate and violence.  At the ones (including myself) who did not do enough to make things right.  I am not proud of my anger, but I surely felt it.  Nurtured it, maybe, as an alternative to despair.

The next day was Sunday, and at Mass the priest spoke of the Book of the Prophet Hosea, about God’s anger at God’s sinful people.  God is presented saying,

“My people perish for want of knowledge!

Since you have rejected my knowledge,

I will reject you from my priesthood;

Since you have ignored your God,

I will also ignore your sons.

One and all they sin against me,

Exchanging their glory for shame.

They feed on the sin of my people,

And are greedy for their guilt.” (Hosea 4.6-8)

Here is a depiction of an angry God, like a brokenhearted and angry parent.  But that is not the end of the story.  Because, of course, God continues by speaking of tender and merciful love: “I drew them … with bands of love, I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks” (Hosea 11.4).  God calls the people to return: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord, your God…Say to him, ‘Forgive all iniquity’… I will heal their defection, I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them” (Hosea 14.2a, 3a, 5).


Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4.

Suddenly I could imagine that someone inclined to violence was like the recalcitrant and idolatrous people described in Hosea.  Suddenly it seemed very urgent to repent of my rage, and to  pray daily for any persons who might be tempted toward violence and hate, and ask that by the grace of God we might be comforted and healed and diverted from that dark path.

There is a prayer I have always loved, called the Lorica or St. Patrick’s Breastplate.  In it, Patrick calls upon God’s protection as he walks through hostile territory:

Christ with me

Christ before me

Christ behind me

Christ within me

Christ beneath me

Christ above me

Christ on my right

Christ on my left

Christ when I lie down

Christ when I sit down

Christ when I arise

Christ in the heart of everyone who speaks of me

Christ in every eye that sees me

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I love how Patrick’s protection against his enemies comes through his blessing them, rather than cursing them – through wishing them grace and not affliction.  It is a response I hope to emulate.

Now the months are passing.  We are about to enter Advent and a new liturgical year.  Our work of hospitality continues, work that makes demands on body, mind, and spirit.  I am trying to remember the importance of loving all my neighbors and even my enemies, even though I am no good at it. We are all trying to remain ever hopeful.  Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, we await you.  Be born in all of us, saints and sinners alike.  Be incarnate in our broken and wounded world.