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Solidarity and the Unity of Suffering

by Angel Valdez

Evan is a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego. He came to us from a Trappist monastery.

Growing up, it was a tradition for my family to travel into downtown Chicago to see a stage rendition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Though I knew the story well, it never failed to excite my imagination, perhaps understanding even as a kid the good and evil that battled inside of me, just like Scrooge. One year, as my family and I stepped out of the warm theater lobby into the chill of a November night, we saw a group of bystanders circled around something. Making our way over, people were standing concernedly over a man sprawled out on the sidewalk. At first, I was horrified, thinking he was dead, but I saw him still breathing, and my mom quietly explained that he just had too much to drink. Someone had already called an ambulance, and with nothing else to be done, my parents ushered my brother, sister and I to the car.

Two decades later I still remember the politeness with which we sidestepped the homeless man and the sense of dread disrupting the festive warmth of Scrooge’s change of heart. When I idle outside Houston’s Greyhound station and stare at the poverty camped out on the sidewalks there, the feeling revisits. Whose problem is this – the city, the government, the people themselves, me? In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the spiritual elder Father Zosima says, “Each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth.” Even as a ten-year old it was as if I had intuited this truth, and even as a thirty-year old I am still avoiding it. In that Chicago night was not simply a homeless man but a visible sign of the world’s hidden cruelty in which I would have to confront my own role.

Karl Rahner described Christian existence as one of radical perplexity, saying, “All our riddles, our ignorance, our disappointments are but forerunners and first installments of the perplexity that consists in losing ourselves entirely through love in the mystery that is God.” Living with eyes of faith often evokes perplexity: where is God in the swirling litter of parking lots, Black Friday or the sociopolitical forces forcing men and women and children to seek shelter at places like Casa Juan Diego? To what extent has my upbringing of comfort and convenience been gained at the expense of the men with whom I am now living? Talking with a young Honduran recently, I was dumbfounded to learn that he earns more in one hour here than in an entire day back home – how many pieces of my clothing have been stitched in Honduran maquiladoras?

It makes sense that if life unfolds solely on the material plane, one should strategically keep one’s eyes closed so as to avoid the soul-muting melancholy that arises when one confronts the brute fact of the world’s suffering. Pleasure depends on the avoidance of pain, ours as well as others. As a sign of contradiction against such bourgeois joy, Christian hope must, in the words of the late J.B. Metz, see with an “open-eyed mysticism”: the perverse unity of suffering must become a shadow-image of the solidarity we share in Christ and his Body, our dividedness a precursor to the communion to which all humanity is destined. It seems to me that the Catholic Worker is founded upon not flinching from the world’s misery and yet acting in accord with the light shining through the Gospel. A light that nonetheless points to a cross.

More and more I consider the political aspects of the work done at Casa Juan Diego – not in terms of vocal protest or electoral politics – but what it means to presuppose that every human being, without qualification, is made in the image of God. If we accept this, then homelessness becomes more than a social nuisance or the inevitable offal of market dynamics. Christianly speaking, it is an indictment, a complicit reenactment of Jesus’s rejection by his own. “The poor,” Jesus said, “you will always have with you.” Did he mean this to say that have-nots are inevitable, as some would interpret, or as a summons to generosity beyond an instinctive self-concern? I did not choose or deserve the privilege that characterized my upbringing, just as the young Honduran neither chose nor deserved the poverty and violence that caused him to leave his home; simply put, both are the worlds we were thrown into. That we are sharing the same roof and meals is more than a practical arrangement then: it means a continual challenge to look past our respective worlds toward where our humanity converges in the image of God.

Though I misplace my keys all the time and my Spanish is lousy, there is at least one lasting insight God has given me: to be-with is revolutionary. It can be easy to associate men at Casa Juan Diego with their immigration status or countries of origin – even the men nickname each other by countries, calling out “Cuba!” or “España!” But I think what Casa Juan Diego does is well-conveyed by the opening of the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” To listen to stories of shakedowns by Colombian bandits, vicious Panamanian jungles, and for-profit American detention centers, to meet our guests as people who are desperate to start their lives anew or for work to send money home to their families for whom they are even more desperate to again see, seems to be the real work being done at Casa Juan Diego. It is the upbuilding of a world where everyone has a seat at the table, every story heard.

The consumption and convenience that most of us breathe in as thoughtlessly as air, through the ubiquitous presence of Amazon, Instagram, Apple, et al, constantly tempt us toward a moral drowsiness that makes us incapable of imagining a world in which it is easier to be good. Perhaps we volunteer while driving a luxury car, incapable of discerning such contradictions. The dread I feel passing by tents pitched beneath overpasses or the intermittent claustrophobia of living in close quarters with thirty or forty other men are moments to recommit myself to the mission envisioned by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day: take less so others can have more; be responsible for the poor of your community; do small things with great love; when the people you are trying to help mock or reject you, rejoice, for your love is being purified of selfish aims! It is the mission and privilege of Casa Juan Diego to give hospitality, at least for the night, to the hidden Christ en camino, welcoming each with rice and beans, soap and underwear, a place to lay one’s head. In other words, the burden and gift of faith.

Houston Catholic Worker, January-March 2020, Vol. XL, No. 1.