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Cultivating Hope in Troubled Times at Casa Juan Diego: Samaritans and Solidarity


The Good Samaritan
by Angel Valdez

My job during the Tuesday food distributions at Casa Juan Diego is basically to organize the hundreds of people who come to the door. Most come just for food and they organize themselves, really. Before the sun comes up, they have formed a line out the door and into our parking lot and sometimes further and further, all the way to the street. Others, however, have specific requests that they want to bring to Louise Zwick after the food distribution is over. We put them into a different line, first come, first served. The very sick or injured are not required to stand in line – we try to find a place for them to sit and we give them priority.

Just this week, as we were wrapping up what I think was our busiest ever food distribution, I had a very strange experience. A thin, middle-aged man that I did not know asked me to see Señora Luisa. He seemed fine to me, so I explained that he would have to wait his turn and pointed out the proper line.

As it turns out, he was not fine. About three weeks before, he had been viciously attacked and robbed at a bus stop. The undocumented get paid under the table, usually in cash. Although it is possible to open a bank account with IDs from their home country, very few have done so – who knows when ICE will get the names and addresses of people who have used foreign IDs to open their bank accounts, a dead give-away? So, they carry their cash around with them, and those who specialize in robbing the undocumented can tell them a mile away. Additionally, people that are not authorized are unlikely to go to the police after falling victim to crime for fear of being turned over to immigration authorities, so preying on them is practically risk-free.

While he was waiting for our staff to pack up some supplies, the man told me what had happened. With little memory of the event, after the assault, he was taken to the emergency room, where they stabilized him and admitted him for a head injury. He was hospitalized for a few days, then released, but he was only recently able to work again, and could not catch up in time to pay his rent.

For the first time, I really looked at him. Almost like pictures on a computer screen morphing from one photo to another, I saw the damage to his face. I did a double take, hardly believing my eyes. The right side of his face was still swollen and covered in scabs. In my rush to get him categorized and in one line or the other, I had not really seen him.

I thought about the man all day. My mind kept shifting between images of the man’s ruined face and a painting I saw as a child of the Good Samaritan attending to a man ambushed on the road to Jericho. As told by Jesus (Luke 10:25-37), the parable is often seen as a lesson in how we should respond to the suffering of a stranger. The traveler along the road had been beaten, almost to death. The officials, in their importance and place of distance from the poor, passed by but did not stop to help. However, a Samaritan, a person of a different and despised race, a man who was seen as the enemy, not only stopped to help but even paid an innkeeper from his own pocket for the care that the wounded man needed. A Good Samaritan, indeed!

This was probably the first parable that I can remember. In my family, failure to help another person in trouble was not an option, so even as a child I thought that I would have stopped and given aid, no question! And, today as a Catholic Worker, sometimes I am guilty of thinking that, just maybe a little, we are modern day Good Samaritans ourselves. But that is not the case, really. The role of the good Samaritan is played by our many funders. In the parable, the Samaritan gives the innkeeper money for the man’s care, and more importantly, promises to pay whatever extra he might need in the coming days. If we try to apply the parable to Casa Juan Diego, the closest analogy to the Good Samaritan must be our generous supporters. All those that give small amounts of money and large, and all those that give up entire days during their week and very early mornings to help us with the many times difficult work of feeding and clothing and caring for a growing number of people, they, not us, merit being called Good Samaritans. Catholic Workers fit a humbler role in the parable: that of the innkeeper who takes care of the injured man after the Good Samaritan rescues him, and gives the caretaker the resources needed to care for the stranger and provide hospitality. Our job at Casa Juan Diego, then, is to make sure we are good stewards of the many Good Samaritans who make our work possible.

But, taken in context, the parable goes much deeper than just a call to help strangers. Jesus and a lawyer were actually discussing how to attain eternal life! Jesus agreed with the lawyer that the path to salvation is the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But then, to “justify himself,” the text says, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

This seems odd. Your neighbor is the person who lives close to you, right? I consulted some commentaries, but there is not a lot of agreement on what all this means. So, let me offer my decidedly non-scholarly thoughts.

Houston is one of the most culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse cities anywhere, certainly more diverse than 1st century Palestine. But even in Houston, a lawyer’s neighbors, anybody’s neighbors, really, are a pretty good bet to be from the same ethnic group and roughly the same socio-economic class as the lawyer. The one in the story, quite naturally, would assume that his neighbors are people that looked like him, because they were. So, he must have been thinking, he would be justified in loving people who looked like him, and ignoring, or even mistreating, those who did not, would he not? After all, the Great Commandment says to love your neighbor as yourself, not to love strangers and foreigners. Take care of your own people first, right?

Jesus saw the issue very differently. Rather than arguing with the lawyer, however, he tells a story about an injured Jewish man helped by a Samaritan. Now to the lawyer, to just about any Jewish person of that time, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. A Samaritan was not only culturally and religiously different, he was, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out in a famous sermon, a man of another race. But Jesus makes a despised Samaritan the hero of the story! Then he puts the lawyer on the spot. Remember, the discussion here is not about being nice and being helpful, it is about who is this “neighbor” we are commanded by God to love; it is about our eternal destiny. And Jesus asks him who he thought acted as a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The lawyer had to answer that it was the Samaritan who showed mercy on him, not the “good” people who passed him by. The Samaritan, who could not even have approached the lawyer’s house without being run off, let alone allowed to live next to him, was the one God commanded us to love, he was the “neighbor.” The person that is most different from us, the despised, the feared, the least among us– this is our neighbor.

At Casa Juan Diego, the work of taking care of our “neighbor” looks a little commonplace. We cook, clean, fill out forms, drive our guests to mandated visits with immigration officials, to court, to medical appointments, transport our children to and from summer school because the bus does not run in the summer, make daily trips to the pharmacy to buy medication for the sick, answer the steady ringing of the doorbell of a person in need – these are just a few of the daily activities. There is no end to all these seemingly ordinary actions that make up the collective work of welcoming, nurturing, forgiving, and sustaining our wounded traveler.

by Angel Valdez

But, all these acts in reality are collective Works of Mercy, sometimes hidden in plain sight, that also create the foundation for what I have found to be the most important thing we provide at Casa Juan Diego: solidarity with our guests. By voluntarily joining migrant persons in their struggle, taking on as much of it as we can, sharing their lives, their living conditions, and their vulnerability, whether to ICE or to angry anti-migrant folks who show up to yell at them and us. It may seem counter-intuitive to draw closer to the fire, but it is where we find salvation, according to the parable. Solidarity does not require a particular political affiliation or viewpoint on migration; in fact, such things are irrelevant and get in the way.  It is the acknowledgement that a person who does not resemble you at all, a person from another society is your neighbor in Jesus’s sense, the neighbor that you are commanded to love. It sends the message to a person in trouble that they are not alone, and that they matter. It demonstrates in action a clear and direct message that they are valued; a magic word for those on the margins. For many just knowing that they are not alone, that someone is on their side and has their back, is what allows people to keep going under unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Solidarity is also the antidote to the despair I feel when I hear firsthand reports of terrible abuse by our own government at our southern border, or read the paper or see the latest rule that is designed to harm and terrorize people that I love, people that literally have nothing but the children they have carried across a continent. In solidarity with our guests at Casa Juan Diego, I am also not alone in these frightening times. And while love is not required as the initial motivation for solidarity, I can testify that it is always the outcome. So, take heart my sisters and brothers, we are not powerless even when the scales of justice seem heavily weighted down on the side of fear and hatred. Cultivate solidarity in whatever way you can. Being in solidarity is an intentional joining of hands and boldly stating to the world that if they come for you, they also come for me. There is nothing more powerful and transformative in our human community.

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