Can the works of mercy be illegal? As municipalities around the United States respond in various ways to the issue of immigration, some have chosen to put in place draconian laws that effectively prohibit the classic works of mercy. Giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty might easily be a crime if the person being served happens to be an undocumented immigrant. Mark and Louise Zwick find themselves breaking such laws many times a day. “Our problem, our challenge, is keeping the law, the law of charity and justice, the law that demands one does not repeat the behavior of those who passed by the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan.” Their experiences at the Houston Catholic Worker are at the heart of this challenging and provocative book. It is a story of love and justice—a story made up of many individual stories, stories that will break your heart, break open your heart to embrace all those met within these pages.
In 1977 the Zwicks (Mark, Louise and their two children) travelled to El Salvador to work as lay missioners. Their experience there with Fr. Rutilio Grande, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the Salvadoran people opened their eyes to the realities of poverty, violence and repression. Subsequent work with Volunteers for Educational and Social Services (VESS) brought them to Texas, ultimately to Houston. Experiencing first-hand the needs of persons fleeing the wars in Central America, they saw the need to begin the Houston Catholic Worker—Casa Juan Diego—at the end of 1980. Several months later they began publishing The Houston Catholic Worker / El Trabajador Catolico de Houston, a voice for the theology, spirituality and social vision of the Catholic Worker as lived out in Houston, Texas. For the past thirty years they have lived out the Gospel call to love and care for the stranger among us. And in the process of doing this, they have often found themselves in the middle of the heated debate about immigration.
The original vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin emphasized the centrality of the works of mercy and houses of hospitality, a way of living out the social vision of the Catholic Church. That vision has taken various shapes over the years, always influenced by the needs and challenges of each local Catholic Worker house; each one is both similar and unique. The Zwicks concentrate on the story of the Houston Catholic Worker, rather than offering an analysis of how the Catholic Worker in general has responded to the needs of immigrants. Their book “contains thirty years of Catholic Worker interactions and life with immigrants and refugees in Houston.” They do not speak for other Catholic Worker communities, but assume a continuity with the original vision embraced by all of them, often quoting Dorothy Day to support a particular point. Readers looking for a broader analysis of the Catholic Worker and immigration will have to look elsewhere.
The Zwicks’ narrative style has an immediate quality, a feeling that the reader is present with them as they relate the stories of Amilcar, Eusebio, Francesca, Pedro, Julia, Ana, and so many others—all true stories, though often unbelievable. It is far from a romantic life: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.” The realities of each day at Casa Juan Diego often seem overwhelming—overflowing toilets, personal emergencies, violence, fires, broken promises—but this is balanced by the generosity and caring of the guests themselves as well as that of the wider community. The reader is also challenged by such chapter titles as “Deportation Is a Sin,” “Christ Did Not Die for Profit,” and “Can the Works of Mercy Be Illegal?” Two appendices offer a set of frequently asked questions along with a listing of houses of hospitality (Albergues) in Mexico and Guatemala. This is a valuable contribution to the literature on the Catholic Church and immigration.