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A Vaccine for the Heart

by Dawn McCarty, Ph.D., LMSW

by Rita Corbin

These days at Casa Juan Diego feel like being in a pressure cooker. Those of us who work and live in one of our houses of hospitality have mostly escaped direct harm from the virus; we adhere to and strictly enforce CDC guidelines and trust in God while we wait on the vaccine. The problem is that the pandemic takes a disproportionate toll on the people we serve. Their needs for food, shelter, and above all for safety, have skyrocketed. We are able to continue to serve and respond to this crisis only because the many volunteers that we depend upon have stepped up wonderfully, despite the risk. The contrast between their stories of care and love with the examples on television of anger and hate could not be greater. We have seen so many unhappy people, combative and fixated on political differences, while our volunteers and staff, who doubtless hold a variety of political beliefs (I wouldn’t know), continue to work together harmoniously toward a common goal: serving our neighbors.

Casa Juan Diego, as a traditional Catholic Worker community, is unaffiliated with any political party of course, but our lack of political affiliation extends beyond political disputes to government in general. As a matter of principle, we never apply for government grants and would not take government money if they asked us to. Our financial support comes mainly from individuals who donate knowing that all the money goes to the work; no money goes to pay a salary, a consultant or search firm, or even a nurse or doctor in our clinics. We work and serve because it is our responsibility, and our joy, to care for one another.

This financial independence has practical advantages as it gives us freedom from bureaucracy, freedom to try to meet the needs of people as they arrive at the door. Because we serve asylum seekers, refugees, and those not authorized to be in this country, we use this freedom to create our own ways of responding, unhindered by State and Federal rules and restrictions that dictate who is worthy of help and who is not. This insistence on keeping our distance from government is not just tactical, it is part of our heritage, and the very thing that facilitates our solidarity with people on the margins.

The co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Servant of God Dorothy Day famously kept her distance from political partisanship. She offered a different way to live and serve in the world. In the December 2012 edition of this publication, Mark and Louise Zwick talked about the uniqueness of the Catholic Worker in the world today. Quoting in particular Cardinal George of Chicago in response to the unanimous support by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for Dorothy’s Canonization, that “…the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making ‘laws’ beyond its competence. Few there are, however, who would venture to ask if there might be a better way for humanity to organize itself for the sake of the common good. Few, that is, beyond the prophetic voice like that of Dorothy Day…with her voice that calls the world, from generation to generation, to live at peace in the kingdom of God.”[i]

Despite the controversial nature of the work we do, Casa Juan Diego is that most hallowed of places today, a place of common good and common ground. A place where political affiliation is unimportant. Where the real and tangible chance to care for a stranger means more than the judgement of your peers on social media. We find common ground not in our beliefs about who is to blame for hunger or food insecurity, but in our daily practice of giving individual people the food they need. We find common ground not in our ideas about immigration policy, that may not happen, but in our direct service, for example to a new family that just arrived from Angola in need of bandages for their feet. These Works of Mercy are a balm for our own injured souls, and this space of common ground, where we are more connected than separate, is what our creator must have envisioned for us. In the past 40 years of work at Casa Juan Diego, in good times and in bad, this has always been the way forward.

[i] https://cjdengp.wpengine.com/2012/12/29/what-the-new-york-times-did-not-say-about-dorothy-day/

Houston Catholic Worker, January-March, 2021, Vol. XLI, No. 1.