Catholic Workers serve amid Houston quarantine

April 28, 2020

Men move watermelons at Casa Juan Diego House of Hospitality in Houston. The Catholic-run center supports refugees and immigrants, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. (TCH file photo)

HOUSTON — On normal Tuesday mornings at Casa Juan Diego (CJD), the Catholic Worker house located in the Rice Military neighborhood of Houston, a line of people forms to wait for the weekly food distribution wrapping along the building and stretching out onto the sidewalk.

Since the coronavirus and Harris County’s stay-at-home orders took hold in March, that image has changed drastically.

Instead of people waiting and chatting outside nearby, there are traffic cones, idling cars and volunteers with gloves and face masks bringing bags of food to opened trunks, as well as to the hungry who have no car and arrive on foot.

The amount of people coming for food has doubled or even tripled over the course of April, with little sign of slowing down.

CJD is no stranger to crisis: Mark and Louise Zwick formed CJD in the early ’80s during the Salvadoran Civil War after having spent some time there when thousands of refugees fled to the U.S. Since then, the Houston Catholic Worker has served the undocumented community of Houston.

More recently, CJD expanded its outreach during Hurricane Harvey, which hit the immigrant community particularly hard. Since Mark’s death in 2016, Louise and the team of volunteer Catholic Workers, assisted by immigrant guests who live in CJD houses, continue the exhausting yet joyous work of responding to the needs of the poor.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has become a different sort of crisis for CJD’s undocumented demographic. Overlooked within the stay-at-home orders and social distancing (and recommendations to work from home) is the assumption that everyone has a home to stay in as well as the ability to remain at the respective distances.

For the undocumented, who often live in crowded conditions and cannot afford not to go out and work, this is impossible. They cannot work from home. The crisis has shuttered hotels and restaurants where many migrants worked, with many families’ financial livelihoods drying up.

Unlike California, the undocumented in Texas will likely not receive any government check and cannot file for unemployment. Naturally, these days even more people come to the door of CJD asking for assistance.

It is often the only resource for disabled or paralyzed immigrants who cannot receive supplemental security insurance (SSI).

Many of the injured are victims of workplace accidents, revealing a twisted irony to their contributions to the American economy.

Inside the walls of CJD, undocumented children continue to learn, drawing the alphabet or learning to add and subtract. For some, it is their first formal experience of education, a process further disrupted by the pandemic.

Though there are online education programs offered through the school district, for undocumented families in the community without access to computers or wi-fi, it is difficult to keep up with coursework, especially learning English as a second language. The difficulties are increased when, at times, the parents are not literate themselves.
Per the Catholic Worker tradition, CJD receives no money from federal and local governments, relying solely on private donations and volunteers.

Going out as quickly as it comes in, money is spent on supplementing what is received from the Houston Food Bank with rice and beans, rental assistance for the disabled undocumented, medicine and medical supplies, among all the other needs arising unexpectedly on a daily basis.

The world of Houston’s need has become especially glaring in the unprecedented difficulties wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. What was already an epidemic of neglect for the injured, the paralyzed and the sick has only escalated.

In the vein of Catholic Worker cofounders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, CJD is doing its utmost to take a loving responsibility for its neighbors, staying open and serving those whose presence is most easily forgotten.

Ultimately, it is CJD’s mission and joy to ask: Where else does one so clearly find the face of Christ?

For more information, or to donate to CJD, visit

Evan Bednarz is a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego.