"Our mission statement? When people ask us what it is, we just tell them Matthew 25—the section about welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked,” said Mark Zwick. I was speaking with Mark and his wife, Louise, about the Houston Catholic Worker, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary. As its founders, they follow in the tradition of Dorothy Day, who—with Peter Maurin—began the first Catholic Worker House in New York City in the early 1930’s.
The Houston Catholic Worker’s location in the Southwest has largely determined the tenor of its own ministry, which revolves primarily around helping undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. “When we first began in 1980,” Mark said, “they were mostly refugees fleeing from the wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.” But since then, it is refugees from poverty to whom they minister. Mark and Louise emphasized that despite increasingly restrictive laws, and despite the increased number of Border Patrol agents and physical barriers, the immigrants’ destitution is so dire that in one way or another many find a way across the border.
Over the years, the number of arriving immigrants has grown, and on any given day 150 may be staying in the dozen or so simple buildings that together make up the Houston Catholic Worker complex, whose Spanish name is Casa Juan Diego (www.cjd.org). Many of the immigrants find work in the Houston area, where they are “tolerated”—to use the Zwicks’ term—because of the cheap labor they provide in homes, restaurants, landscaping and building companies. But this very availability of cheap labor can easily lead to exploitation. Louise gave the example of smaller contractors. “They might pay the workers for two weeks, and continue to use them for another two weeks without pay, and then simply disappear.” Exploited workers seldom complain to the authorities, out of fear of deportation. But for those connected with Casa Juan Diego, the Zwicks have created what might be called a shield against some forms of exploitation, through the establishment of a cooperative. They explained that under the provisions of the 1986 immigration law, members of cooperatives—even if undocumented—can work in the area without fear of apprehension. About 70 such members currently live at Casa Juan Diego. Thanks to the cooperative—and to a hiring hall the Zwicks began that includes a $7 hourly hiring fee paid to the workers directly—immigrants can live and work with some degree of dignity and peace.
Most of the arriving immigrants stay at Casa Juan Diego only a few weeks. Some move on to join relatives already in the United States. Others rent apartments and remain in the area. “They’ll rent together, sharing space among several families,” Louise said, going on to add that because of their low wages, after paying rent little is left over for food and other necessities. “So we buy staples like rice and beans for those in need—that’s one of our biggest expenses.” An even bigger expense concerns immigrants who arrive sick, or disabled from accidents along the way. On being released from an area hospital, those requiring ongoing care are sent to board and care homes—private residences whose owners provide not only room and board but also some degree of medical attention. The cost, again, is covered by Casa Juan Diego. For this and all other expenses, the Houston Catholic Worker depends on donations, both from local and national sources.
As for the Zwicks themselves, they—like Catholic Workers elsewhere—live lives of voluntary poverty. In fact, Mark says, “the secret of Casa Juan Diego is voluntary poverty. It’s liberating, and lets the creative juices flow. There are no salaries and no payrolls to meet.” In a talk at Notre Dame University, they observed that in living out voluntary poverty “you just work and pray.” Prayer, in fact, begins the day at Casa Juan Diego, with Mark and Louise and others who choose to join them praying the Liturgy of the Hours in Spanish. Because few of the immigrants speak English, Spanish is the basic language throughout Casa Juan Diego. On Wednesdays, Mass is celebrated, introduced by an immigrant who tells the story of how he or she got here.
Immigrants who remain at Casa Juan Diego are known as ayudantes (“helpers”), and are considered Catholic workers themselves, because inclusivity is part of the Catholic Worker movement’s threefold dynamic of pacifism, prayer and personalism. (Personalism involves accepting personal responsibility, but also avoiding structures and bureaucracy.). Some ayudantes are in charge of the residential houses; others handle the cooking or related tasks. American-born volunteers also assist in a variety of capacities, some full time—such as students and seminarians who stay for several months, or even years—others part time. All gather together for a shared meal on Friday nights. Together, they represent what Mark and Louise call “circles of community” that are at the heart of Casa Juan Diego’s day-to-day life. Although a majority of the immigrants are men, there is a house for women and children too. Some of the women arrive pregnant, and others may be dealing with domestic abuse problems—a situation for which Louise offers counseling.
Like other Catholic Worker communities, the Houston Catholic Worker has its own newspaper. It differs from others, though, in that half is printed in Spanish. “The paper has always been bilingual,” Louise said, “from the very first issue on May 5, 1980.” That was the year of Dorothy Day’s death. Her thought continues to inform both Casa Juan Diego’s work and its spirituality. So deeply are Mark and Louise imbued with both, that they have written a book entitled The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins. It has been published by Paulist Press.