- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2017

HOUSTON (AP) - Inside a discreet set of buildings, down a Rice Military neighborhood side street, and past a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a weekly early morning pilgrimage of sorts is taking place.

It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday - food distribution day - at Houston’s Casa Juan Diego, which since 1980 has quietly provided services and shelter to thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Cutting through the cacophony of volunteers, full-time Catholic workers and patrons is the gentle, yet distinctive voice of University of Houston Downtown Professor Dawn McCarty. “Buenos Dias,” she says, perched beside a cardboard carton filled with gray-green wool blankets, before excitedly announcing, “It’s blanket day!”

The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2llrccl ) reports some visitors bring grocery-store tote bags, others balance bundled-up toddlers, but almost all recognize the familiar presence of the diminutive 5-foot 4-inch McCarty.

Today, and most weeks, the 50-year-old social work professor, with retro tortoise shell glasses and a brunette bob, is in charge of food distribution.

But McCarty’s dedication to this community runs deeper than a once-a-week commitment or an academic’s occasional field research. From Monday to Thursday she lives at Casa Juan Diego, sometimes in a converted garage apartment nearby and at other times in the shelter itself.

“Not everybody can live in a homeless shelter. Not everybody is cut out for that,” McCarty acknowledged. Still, she revels in the Catholic Worker Movement’s philosophy of accommodating anybody who would like to serve.

After a morning filled with case work, cooking and counseling, she heads to UH Downtown, where she teaches classes and directs the social work program until late at night.

“I feel so much gratitude. It’s hard to explain,” McCarty said. “People sometimes ask, ‘Why do you work 18 hours a day,’ and I’m like, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’

“There’s so little time and so much to be done,” she said.

Many in social work academia spend short periods of time immersed in communities like this, typically for research. But McCarty is “exceptional,” said Sandra Lopez, a retired clinical professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work who taught McCarty. “She is going above and beyond what many faculty members would do,” Lopez said. “It’s not like she does this a couple hours of week. This is so much of her life. This is a part of her world.”

On the wall behind McCarty, a red bumper sticker with white letters reads: “Si quieres paz, lucha por la justicia.” Translated from Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, fight for justice.” The call to action frames the shelter’s Catholic Worker Movement philosophy.

Refugees, immigrants in the country illegally, and the homeless, among others, flock to the nonprofit for sanctuary and support.

Reeling from the inflammatory rhetoric of last year’s campaign and gearing up for the changing policies of President Donald Trump, the communities McCarty serves seem to be under more stress than ever.

“We try to help people not be afraid, but there’s just no way not to,” McCarty said. “You know, all we can do is stay doing what we’re doing and be supportive to as many people as we can.”

For all her efforts, McCarty rarely boasts.

“She’s not looking for any accolades,” said Mary Rodriguez, McCarty’s friend and mentee. “She doesn’t tout into the world the work that she does. She doesn’t do it because she wants recognition. She just does it.”

McCarty’s introduction to Casa Juan Diego began over a decade ago.

With much of her academic research centered on South America, McCarty noticed a distinct connection between communities in Mexico and Houston. Migrant families straddled the border, with the Bayou City serving as a major destination for settlement.

“When I would meet a new family, and they would find out I was from Houston, a sort sadness passed over them for how easy it was for me to go back and forth and how disconnected they were from their family,” McCarty said.

Upon returning in 2007 from her Mexico-centered research, she began to volunteer once a week at the shelter. In September 2008, her house and nearly of her belongings were destroyed by Hurricane Ike.

After much deliberation, and without a house or belongings to maintain, McCarty and her husband decided to move into Casa Juan Diego as full-time Catholic social workers. The couple served for two years before moving out. McCarty now lives there part-time.

“It was like an act of nature,” McCarty said of the hurricane, pausing, and then adding, “An act of God.”

With a portrait of the 83-year-old artist activist Sallie Latch propped up on a desk, a green and purple Guatemalan blanket hanging on the wall, and the Harris County District Courthouse dominating the view out her windows, McCarty’s UH Downtown office typifies her overlapping life as an advocate and academic.

Frequently, McCarty will travel with Casa Juan Diego residents to social service organizations, government buildings, even the courthouse, all the while reminding herself that she is not going “as Dr. McCarty, but instead as an advocate.”

Though her academic work relies on qualitative interviews and interactions, her service brings her face to face with the challenges of being a neglected community in Houston. Her writing’s for Casa Juan Diego’s newspaper draw on these experiences.

“As Catholic Workers, we see, up close, such joy and such suffering, back to back, with little time to recover,” she wrote in one column. “We have the highs of jumping for joy with a woman who barely survived an honor killing in her country receiving her permission to work in the United States, and then the low when we learn that a long-term guest has been electrocuted in an unregulated work environment, and will likely die.”

Though she tries to shrug off the national political debates, McCarty writes with a dedication to educating the public on the implications of public policy - from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - on these communities.

“We want you to think about these policy issues and the implications of them, but we want you to see it in a real person,” McCarty said. “You just can’t miss that.”

Back at the shelter, a quote painted in sweeping blue and yellow colors on a white picket fence on the perimeter reads, “There is only one unhappiness, and that is not to be one of the saints,” from Leon Bloy, a French novelist. It is often quoted by the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day.

Though the notion would surely cause McCarty to blush, Rodriguez said, “If there was an application for sainthood Dawn would be at the top of the list.”


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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