Twenty-five years ago, Mark and Louise Zwick came to the sort of crossroads in their lives that explains pretty much everything that's happened ever since.
Mark, a parish social worker, was pacing the hallways of St. Theresa Catholic Church while Louise finished up her final interview for the position of children's librarian for the Houston Public Library. He walked and he prayed and he wondered which path they ought to follow. Both had master's degrees and probably could get jobs that would afford them a comfortable lifestyle so that they could donate generously to the poor. Or they could take the road much less traveled. The question, Louise says, was whether they had the guts to do it.
The answer came when Louise got the job. The Zwicks decided they could survive and support their two children on her salary.
In 1980, they rented -- as Mark jokes -- "the ugliest building in Houston" and founded Casa Juan Diego to provide emergency food, clothing and shelter to the city's immigrants. At that time, the term "illegal alien" had not yet been scrubbed clean from the language.
"Whatever word you want to use," Mark says with a shrug. "As Elie Wiesel says, 'A person may be tall or short, fat or skinny, ugly or beautiful, but to be illegal is impossible for a person.' " At 77 years old, Mark has a gentle, grandfatherly presence that seems more than the sum of his white hair, spectacles and the black cardigan he wears on this winter weekday.
The Zwicks lived in El Salvador briefly before coming to Texas, and that experience gave the flood of Central American refugees to Houston in the '70s and '80s a personal immediacy. "We felt we didn't have an excuse for not responding," Mark says. The Zwicks take their inspiration for Casa Juan Diego from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, which emphasizes voluntary poverty, nonviolence and care for the impoverished as a means of fulfilling the Gospel.
"We knew what a Catholic Worker house meant," says Mark. "That's sort of an anarchistic kind of response to problems -- meaning not going the route of government, not going the route of structures." It seems an odd thing for an old man to speak about -- anarchy -- but it comes from a former priest who married Louise in 1967 while doing social work in a poor, violent neighborhood. "That's just sort of in our blood, to work with the poor," he says. They chose Juan Diego, a figure in the story of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, as their organization's namesake because "he was a nobody like we were."
They get by primarily on donations from the Catholic community, which allows them to speak at churches about their work. "This gives us exposure and approval," says Mark. "That's a powerful thing. Somehow here we are, technically not conforming to what some may see as laws of our society."
On the other side of the ledger, Casa Juan Diego benefits from having an all-volunteer staff. Their facilities twice burned down in the '80s, but despite that, it's grown from one small house to many buildings that offer sleeping accommodations for 150 guests, medical clinics, and food and clothing. They also run a hiring hall for laborers and publish a newspaper several times a year.
The medical care "is crucial because we always have babies being born; we always have sick children; we always have guys hurt in various ways," says Louise. "From the beginning, each person would have a different situation that would arise, and we would try to respond."
Able-bodied men pass through fairly quickly, while women and children stay for longer periods. Mark estimates that since 1980 they've seen perhaps 50,000 immigrants. One of the most common -- and infuriating -- problems Mark says they face is when contractors stiff workers for a day's wage.
"I just sort of can't stand to see it anymore," he says.
The Houston that the Zwicks have watched change over three decades is, it's not surprising, a city of immigrants and of poverty.
"When we started, there were three wars going on: El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala," says Louise. "And we were receiving those refugees, because people came from both sides in those countries. Not just one side. Sometimes they were forcibly recruited by the army or forcibly recruited by the guerrillas...So that was a thrust for us in the early years. But soon we began to receive Hondurans and Mexicans, who are economic migrants."
They've also hosted people from Brazil, China, Eastern Europe and Africa. Major tragedies, both local to Texas and around the globe, often wash up on their doorstep. For example, Hurricane Mitch in 1998 changed Casa's relationship with immigration authorities.
"From then on, immigration became user-friendly," as Mark puts it. "They actually utilized our services." More recently, the center had a few survivors of the overheated trailer that killed 19 near Victoria in the summer of 2003.
"I don't know anybody in the city of Houston who has had more of an effect on helping the poor," says one longtime friend and contributor, who sometimes hires their laborers and asked to remain anonymous. "Without [them], there would be a hell of a lot more suffering in this city. Some people may be a little bent out of shape because not everybody feels these immigrants here should be getting any help."
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Federal immigration authorities acknowledge that they do refer some folks to Casa Juan Diego in times of crisis -- but that they don't officially condone the Zwicks' work.
"We know that they help the immigrant community," says Luisa Deason, the public affairs officer for Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Houston. "We don't necessarily approve of what they do, but we have to prioritize what we do. And our priorities are not to go into schools or hospitals, safe havens, to drag people out of bed."
Immigration may be a polarized political issue, but Mark Zwick avoids labels in talking about their calling.
"I don't know whether you can define where we are," he says. "It's almost creyentes -- we are believers. We are faith people. And we believe that the Lord gives us strength to survive this work and these challenges."