EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Mark and Louise Zwick of Casa Juan Diego
Humantiatrian mission continues to help those in greatest need.
Catholic Online recently had the opportunity to check in with the Casa Juan Diego in Houston, and to speak with the mission's founders, Mark and Louise Zwick. Casa Juan Diego is a humanitarian mission that has operated since the 1980's in Houston, Texas. The mission caters to some of the poorest of the poor in the heart of the city.
We sat down with the Zwicks and talked about their mission, their history, and their needs.
COL: What is the greatest challenge facing Casa Juan Diego today?
Zwicks: Our greatest challenge is responding to the needs of the poor, the sick, and the injured. Second is the need for more bilingual full-time live-in Catholic Workers to join us.
COL: What inspired you to embark on this mission?
Zwicks: We named the House of Hospitality Casa Juan Diego for the man to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. We saw him as a model for ordinary people like ourselves, a humble person being able to accomplish a lot through God's grace.
We were [also] inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and their vision of the Gospel - a special way of living it. We see the Christian life as giving up all and following Jesus and working out our salvation through the Works of Mercy.
When we went to live in El Salvador many years ago, we were inspired by the Church, by Catholics in that poor country giving their lives in helping and serving their neighbors, giving witness to the Gospel.
After our time in Central America, we came to Houston, Texas. When refugees from the wars in Central America began pouring, we felt the responsibility to open a House of Hospitality for homeless refugees and immigrants. In the countries where civil wars were taking place, there was a lot of forced recruitment of teenagers on both sides. A truck drove around and young men were placed in it and thus in the army, or guerrillas found young people and in both cases, there was no choice. Many young teenagers were sent out of these countries by their families because they did not understand what they would be fighting and dying for. Others left escaping death squads. We knew about these realities because we had lived there when the wars were starting.
COL: About how much aid does Casa Juan Diego distribute in a given year?
Zwicks: We have expanded from one shabby storefront building to nine Houses of Hospitality and serve many guests, up to 100 a night. Our guests include refugees, new immigrants, pregnant or battered immigrant women and their children, and many sick. We also provide take-home food to hungry, on average 600 per week. Our medical clinics are staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. We purchase medicines for patients who cannot afford them.
Our biggest expense is supporting very sick or paralyzed people and their families, individuals who are not eligible for any government assistance. If a person is very ill, they cannot work, and the person who cares for them cannot work. The hospitals of Houston call us daily to provide support for people ready to leave the hospital. Each of those whom we currently support, in addition to those who are ill who live in our own houses, costs us between $500 and $800 a month. We are assisting 90 persons at this time.
COL: What sustains you? How are your personal needs for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care met?
Zwicks: Casa Juan Diego depends completely on donations. We do have a secret that helps us survive. That secret comes from Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and St. Francis. There are no salaries at Casa Juan Diego; all Catholic Workers live, work, and eat in the Houses of Hospitality and give their work as a gift. We do purchase health insurance for our Workers through the Catholic Volunteer Network. Casa Juan Diego is a non-profit corporation.
COL: How does the community respond to Casa Juan Diego? Are they supportive? Do you have entities within the community that resist your work or any expansion of your facilities?
Zwicks: Our work is mainly supported by the Catholic community, although those of other faiths also assist. The properties are owned by Casa Juan Diego.
We began in 1980 and still today are located near the inner city of Houston. In the early days there was some opposition, but that faded away after people realized that we were doing the Works of Mercy. In recent years the area has become gentrified, but we have had no major problems.
COL: Have you seen a change since the start of the Great Recession in 2008? What changes have you observed since you started your work?
Zwicks: The biggest change is in the number of sick and injured people that come to ask our assistance. When this first started happening, we said to each other, well we don't do that. However, since no one else helps these families, we felt Casa Juan Diego must ...
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