I first saw that delivery truck in 2003 or 2004 while teaching at the University of Houston. I was driving down Kirby Street when I stopped at a railroad crossing so a train could pass. While waiting in my car, I saw the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe rising out of the traffic ahead of me. I was startled and instantly thought that I had been privileged to see an apparition of Mary, who has appeared from time to time in places like Fatima, Lourdes, and the little Irish village of Knock.
Staring intently, I realized that the image of La Virgen Morena had been painted on the rolling steel door on the back of the truck. After the train passed by, I caught up with the mysterious vehicle. I looked over and saw two ordinary men sitting in the truck cab. I spied nothing that would explain why the Virgin of Guadalupe was painted on the truck’s cargo door.
I could not get this seemingly trivial incident out of my mind, and I mentioned it to John Burke, a Catholic friend of mine. John said the truck belonged to Casa Juan Diego, the Catholic Worker homeless shelter and food pantry just off Kirby Street in West Houston.
I had an unpleasant job at a local university at the time and looked for ways to escape from vicious campus politics. I volunteered to help haul food from the Houston Food Pantry to Casa Maria, Casa Juan Diego’s food distribution site located in one of the barrios of southwest Houston. Every Thursday morning, I joined a group of volunteers who traveled in Casa Juan Diego’s food delivery truck to help load and unload four tons of donated food to Casa Maria. Occasionally we would stop at a Mexican food wholesaler, picking up several hundred pounds of rice and pinto beans.
This volunteer work was a blessing to me. I was doing something useful for at least a few hours every week. As a result of my vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Kirby Street, I was introduced to the Catholic Worker movement and the writings of its founder, Dorothy Day. I also learned about the seven corporal works of mercy, which form the mission statement of the Catholic Worker movement.
Perhaps most importantly, I came to know Mark and Louise Zwick, who founded Casa Juan Diego and devoted their lives to assisting the poor, particularly the undocumented Latin American immigrants who reside within the sheltering folds of a welcoming and generous metropolitan Houston. Someday, Dorothy Day will be canonized by the Catholic Church, and I believe Mark and Louise will be canonized as well.
In the meantime, the Catholic Workers of Houston have replaced the stolen cargo box. Soon, they will paint a new image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the rolling backdoor of Casa Juan Diego’s venerable food delivery truck, thereby invoking the protection of the Little Brown Virgin, the Patroness of the Americas.