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A Summer of Mystery and Encounter

Josef is a student at the University of Notre Dame who came to Casa Juan Diego this summer as a Catholic Worker through Notre Dame’s summer learning program.

Time spent at Casa Juan Diego is full of mystery and unknown. Although there are some set schedules and routines like food distribution on Tuesdays and morning prayer at 8:30a.m. on weekdays, the work being done on a daily basis is a direct response to the need that is in front of our noses, a need that is incalculable, constantly growing, and constantly evolving, and behind this need lies true pain and suffering. The response of Casa Juan Diego, though, is dictated by a call to love, to be present with others, and to see each interaction as a new opportunity to affirm human dignity. Although these are ethereal ideals, the way in which I see Casa Juan Diego respond to this present need is carried out by Catholic Workers and guests alike who see the face of Christ in those around them. From here, a sustainable community is formed to share life with each other.

I usually describe the men’s house (Casa Don Marcos) as a self-sustaining ecosystem. The guests cook the food, clean the entire building, and watch the door to receive new guests. Our role as Catholic Workers is to tend to their small requests, arranging for them transportation, getting them clothes and medication, filling out forms for them, bringing them to their appointments, and listening to their stories. Even in this role of service as a Catholic Worker though, I discover that the relationship I have with the guests is far from a unidirectional giving on my end.

A smile lights up on my face whenever I walk through the building and see Miguel. Hailing from El Salvador, Miguel has a good head on his shoulders. After facing brutal economic hardship in his home country, he decided to make the trek to the United States. One morning he knocked on my door and showed me an abscess on his wrist that was fairly developed. His entire left arm and wrist was swollen, and I was confused about how the infection got there and progressed so much. He did not really know how it got infected either and just laughed through the pain. Eventually I accompanied him to the hospital to get the infection resolved, gave him his prescription, and explained how many of each pill he needed to take each day. After this incident, Miguel bellowed my name with a huge grin on his face each time he saw me.

A guest from Honduras named Oscar brings a similar brilliant presence to my day. Oscar was the first guest I encountered. The first night that I arrived I was quite intimidated, and thoughts about my capability to live in the men’s house and serve throughout the summer raced through my head. My Spanish, though at the conversational level, is not good enough to be able to fully understand the guests with different dialects and rapid speech, so I spent much of the evening sitting in my room, nervous about making a fool of myself in some way. Eventually though I worked up the courage to just go sit in the lounge area, where Oscar and Siaka, an African guest from the Ivory Coast, were enjoying some TV. Oscar broke the ice by first asking me questions about who I was and what my role was in the house. Oscar then cheerily told me his story. Although he spent some time in the United States before working as a chef in a casino, he eventually returned to his home country Honduras to be with his family where he worked as a high school teacher. Due to his political connections and the neighborhood in which he resided, his life was in danger, and he was forced to flee and cut off all contact with his family. Despite his internal loneliness as a result of separation from his family and isolation, Oscar showed me true kindness and welcomed me with open arms to his new home during a time when I was unsure of whether I was where I was supposed to be. Other than the examples of Miguel and Oscar, many others have given assistance with work, and perhaps most importantly their time and stories in conversation.

It is through these experiences that the beauty of living in a community where everyone is a foreigner is illustrated. The welcoming spirit of seeing the face of Christ in others is a cycle of grace that works through the people here. No matter the personal suffering, loss, or isolation, here I watch the human spirit find meaning in loving even a stranger through the gift of whatever one has left to offer. Time spent at Casa Juan Diego for me was analogous to training wheels for implicitly saying “yes.” Through serving here and living in a place entrenched in a tradition of individually doing the best that can be done for unknown others with unknown problems, I learn to be more open and more comfortable in automatically saying “yes.”

Along with this closer communion with others that follows from instinctually saying “yes” comes a certain proximity to others’ sufferings and pain. One would not be able to immediately sense the suffering of the guests here because life in the house is quite joyful, but there are painful shadows creeping in the background.

Kipp is a 22-year-old man from Angola with a unique and endearing wheezing type laugh. Although trying to communicate is difficult because his Spanish is a hybrid that contains mostly Portuguese, it is incredible how much we can communicate through expressions, hand motions, and key words. Kipp left his home country because of “mucho problema.”  In Angola the problem for Kipp was a lack of economic opportunity, which initiated his involvement in a political opposition group. This involvement put his life in danger and forced him to flee from Africa to Brazil. There he met a woman, had a child, and made the journey to the United States with them. Not three weeks into his stay in the United States though, his wife left him for another man with more money, taking the child with her.

Regardless of his part in the separation, the result of his story is that Kipp at a young age has experienced much suffering. He has no blood relatives, no family except for the community that is built here at Casa Juan Diego. It is hard to imagine what this would be like for most of us who are shielded from this kind of hardship.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl asserts that if there is to be any meaning to life at all there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering prompts one to choose this spiritual freedom or to choose despair, and for guests like Kipp the choice seems to be difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless I saw Kipp, drawing strength from within and from his belief in God, preserve his spiritual freedom. He bravely makes the decision to find hope and meaning in his situation, and this hope and meaning is to receive asylum and work in the United States where he can make a decent living. Ultimately the choice is his, but by walking alongside him, providing food and shelter, Casa Juan Diego makes the choice of spiritual freedom slightly less difficult.

This type of resilience does not occur in everyone though.

I met Antonio toward the beginning of my time spent at Casa. He is a 46-year-old Mexican man who appeared as though he was only in his 30s. Antonio was able to find work almost every day, especially when he first arrived. Even after he left, I received multiple calls from one of his employers asking about where he was. I came to understand that behind the quietness were the pangs of loneliness. Over a couple of dinners, Antonio offered more about his past and the matters that tormented him. Growing up in poverty, he moved to California where he worked in agriculture but got caught up in the wrong scenes, fighting and smoking. After living on the streets for some time, he moved back to Mexico where he began working with his sister’s husband. Without warning one day, his brother-in-law stopped showing up to pick him up for work, and his sister stopped responding to him. He then returned to the United States and landed at Casa Juan Diego. Antonio expressed hope for his situation that he could pick himself up by staying in the house for some time, but I could sense an unspoken resignation in his face that revealed an unrelenting temptation to return to the streets and drugs. Ultimately, Antonio disappeared without saying any goodbyes and stopped responding from his phone.

Even though Antonio did not manage to overcome his demons, I recognize that to call Antonio’s story and our work a failure would be a misinterpretation. In “Tattoos on the Heart,” Fr. Boyle says, “I just want to share my life with the poor, regardless of result.” This message empowers us to reach all, even those that are difficult and do not operate within our traditional definition of a successful outcome. The guests, other Catholic Workers, and I shared life with Antonio. We asked him questions. We listened. We cared.

It is the beauty of sharing life with the guests that makes living in the same building as them such an important aspect of Casa Juan Diego service. Proximity to the guests teaches me that which I cannot get a full picture of through only my own experience, namely, how to give freely when what one has is so little and how to respond to inevitable challenges that life throws one’s way. Even in witnessing despair, life is shared, and a clearer depiction of what life is unfolds before me. These broader depictions lead to a greater sense of wholeness, and from this sense of wholeness ensues a unique joy.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XLI, No. 4, October-December, 2021.