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Love in Action at Casa Juan Diego During COVID-19

by Angel Valdez

Weeks before the formal stay at home orders were issued, we were planning as best we could to take care of our guests and the many community members we serve. Casa Juan Diego is a literal hive of activity throughout the day, with constant interaction of staff with both guests and community. We have on any given night about 100 people living in our Houses of Hospitality, and people come from all over the region every day for food and supports of all types. While the guests staying in our houses are relatively easy to protect from infection by keeping distant from others, protecting the volunteers and full-time staff is another story. If nothing changed, they would continue to interact constantly with the larger community, either by answering and responding to individuals who come to the door for help, in the daily delivery of sandwiches and water to day laborers and homeless men and women, or in the distribution of food, supplies, prescriptions, and more, to hundreds of people a week.

In the first weeks as we were wondering and working on how to keep the six-foot safety zone, my anxiety grew exponentially with every unsettled response to “dos metros entre cada persona!” Spatial distance differs greatly between cultures. I fought hard against my instinct to call for a shutdown of our services to protect the staff and volunteers. It was easy to fall into my place of privilege and safety as both a citizen and a person for whom poverty is voluntary, not forced, and to assume such privilege for others close to me. The full-time staff here are mostly young people just out of college, who are entrusted to our care during their year or two of service, and I was afraid.  But I reminded myself that none of them have come to Casa Juan Diego for comfort, not one. Most are giving up privilege and doting parents to be in solidarity, to serve, to love those on the margins. To love them not only in theory and prayer, but also in action. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, often quoted Dostoevsky to remind Catholic Workers that “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams,” an insight that has never been more relevant. Sharing voluntarily in the vulnerability of the poor, and in this case, the real possibility of exposure to illness, transforms a person for good. The staff may be tired, but they are steady and resolute. They are doing a remarkable job of protecting themselves and those arriving for help and food, a growing precious and scarce commodity.

Putting it simply, we have adapted. Implementing and following all the new guidelines meant the reduction of some ancillary services, but our main services continue, even as the number of people needing help doubled and doubled again. During these weeks filled with anxiety and grief, my heart has been comforted and inspired by the power of our small community at Casa Juan Diego. To see in action that love for a stranger is stronger than fear, even in the heart of a global pandemic, is a miracle I attribute to the intercession of Dorothy Day, Servant of God.

Casa Juan Diego has a long history of adapting to a changing global context. Founded by Mark and Louise Zwick to serve desperate refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America, the work soon changed to include a growing number of battered women and their children. As the decades passed by, an ever-increasing number of those that are catastrophically sick, injured, or aging in a harsh environment became more and more our focus. Most recently, as the business of detaining asylum seekers for financial profit has accelerated, the work of Casa Juan Diego has expanded yet again to people incarcerated while awaiting their day in immigration court. Depending on ever-changing government policies, some of these families can be released on bail if they have a government-approved sponsor and place to stay.

So, when the immigration authorities call and ask us if we can take in a person or a family so that they can be released from detention, we always say yes. We send a letter to the detention officer that reads like a poem, telling the story and history of Casa Juan Diego in just a paragraph, and ultimately offering what I have come to think of as five magic words, words that must be the answer to a million prayers: “We are willing to receive…”

While the time of the coronavirus can be dark and destabilizing, it can be a time of great insight. In “normal” times we naturally get into habitual patterns of thinking and behavior. The drastic changes in our lives that have been necessitated by the virus have the silver lining of encouraging us to see things more clearly. Here at Casa Juan Diego we are long accustomed to seeing the terrible effects of poverty on human beings – the suffering, the shortening of lives, the loss of hope. We get plenty of chances to observe the gross injustices of an economic system rigged to enrich the few at the expense of the many. But now that it is increasingly obvious to everybody that the virus is not an equal opportunity killer, that it preys disproportionately on those on the margins of society, more and more people are coming to see that the suffering, the premature and unnecessary deaths, not just of the undocumented, but of the working class in general, means that just getting back to the way things were will not be enough.

To me, the greatest insight of the Catholic tradition is that we are all in this together, that depriving one part always damages the whole. We hurt and heal as one body, a fact that our hypercompetitive economic system wants to hide from us. If our neighbor has a deadly and contagious disease, it is not just her, it is all of us in trouble. Once we see that, it is easier to see that our interdependence is a part of our nature, not just a reaction to a virus. It is literally in our DNA. The revelation that we are never really disconnected, by any border, and that we need each other becomes clearer each socially-distant day by socially-distant day.

The one thing that I can say with confidence, in a time of great uncertainty, is that when this isolation ends, we will need you, the reader. There will be a reckoning in our economic system, and a need for hands to serve and minds to discern. This is an unprecedented time of clarity and opportunity. Join us as we work to imagine and build a new world out of the ashes of the old.

Houston Catholic Worker, April-June, 2020, Vol. XL, No. 2.