A Not-So-Simple Life: In a cramped Washington rowhouse, six women share one shower and a quest to serve God

A group of young missionaries pursues a more meaningful way to help Washington's poor -- by living as they do.
By Darragh Johnson
Sunday, January 25, 2009

Now for the peekaboo pumps: Do they stay? Or go?

The missionary spins a shoe in her hand, admiring its red sole, slinky heel and winking peep of open toe. She's worn the pair just once, when she dressed as Tina Turner for Halloween. They were so uncomfortable. And totally impractical: In her ministry work in Southeast Washington, when she's climbing the stairwells of public housing projects and praying with families in their living rooms, she opts for T-shirts and jeans.

But the shoes are so glam and unlike anything else she owns. She can't bear to throw them out; yet she cannot keep them -- there's no room. So Laura Cartagena leaves them on her bedroom floor and turns to the other possessions strewn across her bunk bed -- the Japanese paper lanterns, the Twister board game, the sleeping bag -- nearly all of which she will store at her parents' house in Maryland.

In two days, her new roommate will be here, moving into this cramped and once decrepit rowhouse in Shaw, unpacking belongings into half of the skinny closet that Laura is now clearing out. For the last year and a half, this small room bisected by bunk beds has been Laura's private enclave. The bookshelves, the dresser, the floor space were hers alone. In the evenings, when she spoke on the phone, no one could walk in with equal claim to her domain. In two days, all that will change.

And that's good, Laura tells herself. She's glad the ministry is growing: It's exactly what she and Clark Massey hoped for six years ago, when they were plotting the details of A Simple House, their Catholic lay ministry devoted to the poor of Southeast. She knows you can't take a rowhouse with two female missionaries -- plus Lucy, the 72-year-old homeless schizophrenic who came with the house when it was donated -- and add four more women and expect it to be easy. After all, the four-bedroom house has only one full bath.

Still, when Clark suggested a couple of weeks earlier that maybe they could eliminate clutter in the bathroom by having everyone use shower caddies, Laura recoiled. "I don't want," she enunciated, uncharacteristically fierce and emphatic, "a shower caddy."

"Maybe you all need one," Clark persisted. "There's no way six women's shampoo, et cetera, will fit in the bathroom."

But shower caddies? Icky, slimy, always-wet-and-dripping shower caddies? Already, Laura had been weighing how much longer she wanted to remain at Simple House. Now her uncertainty was being aggravated by her impending loss of privacy.

"I don't want a shower caddy," she told Clark. He backed off.

Now the two of them are on the third floor of the rowhouse, fixing up a bedroom that will be shared by two of the new missionaries. Clark, who lives in a similar house in Southeast with three male missionaries, tries to figure out how to get paint off the hardwood floor while Laura scrubs at it with a cleaning solution mixed in a red Folgers can.

"There's some floorboards with wide spaces," she says to Clark.

"I know," he sighs, then adds, worriedly, "I mean -- your foot won't fall through them, right?"

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