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Editor's Note:

A group of young missionaries pursues a more meaningful way to help Washington's poor -- by living as they do.

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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, January 25, 2009

The light barely penetrates your $1,000 set of custom-fit, room-darkening shades. You snuggle back into your $500 ultra-high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets in your $100 silk pajamas, safe in your $700,000 house in the suburbs. The property taxes are steep, but there hasn't been a serious crime in your neighborhood since forever. Sure, you may have some extra stress at work -- this recession is killer -- but you've got money in the bank, a retirement fund, a $5,000 Sub-Zero refrigerator packed with everything from organic Fuji apples to zucchini fritters left over from last night's $200 dinner at Me Jana in Arlington. Maybe you shouldn't have been so quick to pick up the check, but, the truth is, $200 isn't going to change anything. You won't really miss it. So, it should be no problem to push all that out of your mind and go back to sleep, warm in your $2,800 leather sleigh bed. Except . . .

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Except, after dinner, you went to see "Slumdog Millionaire," that dystopian vision of motherless children left to battle feral dogs for scraps of food in a cesspool of garbage as billion-rupee skyscrapers rise all around them, and . . . well, you can't get it out of your head. It's the basic question, isn't it? Can you lie there, enjoying your comfort, your good fortune, when the only thing that separates you from the millions existing in an earthly hell of disease, deprivation and disadvantage is the pure luck of where, when and to whom you were born? You could at least write someone a check, but even that seems a little lame, doesn't it?

Not that you're going to get on a plane for Mumbai, but you know you don't have to go far to find people in need, people in their own version of hell. Sure, you've worked for what you have. But to wallow in it, grasp it tight so it won't get away, as you carefully step over and around those who haven't drawn the winning cards -- can you live with that? And, if not, just how much are you willing to give, of your wealth and of yourself, in an attempt to even things up just a little bit?

These are the questions all fortunate souls have to answer in their own way. Beginning on Page 8, you'll find contributor Darragh Johnson's beautifully observed study of Laura Cartagena, a young woman whose answer is nearly total dedication to helping the less fortunate at the expense of nearly all the values -- career success, comfort, money -- that so many of us put first. Johnson's ability to capture Cartagena's authenticity, as well as her ambivalence, makes it compelling reading.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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