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

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?"

Through the windows comes the smell of Lucy's Newport 100. After lighting her cigarettes on the gas flame of the kitchen stove, she sits on the front steps and smokes. Because there is no air conditioning at Simple House, and no screens, the open windows on this humid-as-a-shower-stall summer afternoon let in every outdoor smell and noise, along with bloodsucking swarms of mosquitoes.

Inside the bedroom, the walls are a freshly painted mint green, but the closet is still a dusty horror. Laura pulls up the Shop-Vac, turns it on, then turns it off. "I was gonna vacuum in here," she announces, "but a piece of wall just came off."

***

Laura didn't grow up in a house like this. Neither did Clark. Laura's childhood home in Howard County features white pillars out front and a newly remodeled kitchen with two refrigerators, a wine rack and swaths of gleaming granite.

When Laura moved into Simple House in February 2006, it had been a Catholic Worker homeless shelter: The walls were disintegrating; rats roamed the floors; prostitutes had taken over the back yard; and the shed was a drug dealer's stash house. "I was afraid to touch anything," Laura says, "and I was so embarrassed to have my friends over." Her mother brought lunch one day, and when Laura offered a fork, Margarita Cartagena answered, "I brought my own."

But more than the crumbling house where Laura slept every night, Laura's mother worried about the part of Washington where her daughter was spending her days -- in Southeast, where gunfire, drug dealing and turf wars are a very real part of the landscape. "She's putting herself in a lot of danger," Margarita still frets.

Still, no one tried to talk Laura out of the choice she was making. When her best friend, Catherine Corso, first heard what Laura planned to do after college, she says all she could think was: "That is so Laura. So Laura. Service to others and God has always been Laura."

Laura is a shorter, livelier version of every irrepressible tomboy ever played by Sandra Bullock. She wears green-edged cat's-eye glasses and often pulls her dark, wavy hair into a messy knot atop her head. She is 25, a bilingual, college-educated child of Puerto Rican parents who has given serious thought to joining a convent even as she hangs out at Adams Morgan bars with her closest friends. Her boyfriend is an accountant with Deloitte & Touche, and she loves him. But she also has an intense relationship with God and a desire to serve the poor. "I personally wouldn't feel right if I wasn't living my life for others," she says, "especially for those most in need."

Laura's quest to serve God has meant, in essence, turning her back on the material comforts and professional aspirations of her suburban upbringing. And there are others just like her at Simple House and a growing number of Christian "intentional communities" across the country, where residents share a living space as well as a common spiritual purpose. For the devout Catholics and evangelical Protestants in their 20s and early 30s attracted to these communities, it is not enough to attend church, pray before every meal and spend hours at Bible study. It is not enough to ask, "What would Jesus do?" The preferred question is: "How did Jesus live?"

At Simple House, as at other Christian intentional communities, the answer demands devotion and sacrifice. None of the missionaries at Simple House has an outside job. Laura earns just $200 a month to minister to about two dozen families in Southeast, doing everything from delivering food to helping a couple deal with their daughter's suicide attempt. She and her housemates have taken vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. They pray every morning and evening and attend Mass daily. In their rowhouse on T Street NW, they have no TV. No Internet. No alcohol inside the house. And no sex. Ever. What the young women lack in amenities, they make up for in sightings of rats and roaches.This is what it looks like to reject careerism and affluence in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. This is what it looks like to become a modern-day radical.

***

The cozy kitchen feels like a closet now. There are even lines for the microwave. At breakfast, the room is so crowded that when Lucy shuffles in, four women have to move aside to accommodate her.

Lucy is now the only person in the rowhouse with her own bedroom, a sparsely decorated, tidy space where she makes her bed every morning. The other three bedrooms are shared by the missionaries. It's not entirely clear what Lucy thinks about the sudden influx of young women, though she sometimes seems overwhelmed and annoyed. Somehow, she has come to believe that Simple House is a funeral home, and that people come here to die. Laura has tried explaining that Simple House helps people live, not die, but Lucy persists in her morbid impressions. "I don't know why you just moved in here," she has informed some of the new arrivals. "You're not going to last very long." Lucy lights a cigarette at the stove. Next to the fridge, Laura's new roommate, Bianca Tropeano, who just graduated from Catholic University, thumbs through a container of tea bags and groans: "They're all caffeine-free." Kelly Deustch announces, helpfully, if randomly, "I have my mom's naturopathic sinus mist." The kitchen goes silent; then, slowly and in unison, the others ask: "Really?"

"Yeah," deadpans Kelly's roommate, Sylvia Artiles. They have just moved into the mint-green room. "If you need anything, Kelly has everything."

"Just the essentials!" protests Kelly, who worked among Ohio's poor while attending the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Sylvia, who is from Dallas and expects to become a nun, looks at her. "Like that Halloween mask you pulled out?"

They are the new Lauras, all gung-ho, helpful and sweet. Laura herself has the day off, and this morning, Clark is the one handling the training session. He's organizing chairs around two tables and fretting that the fan sounds like an airplane just before takeoff. "Do we have a fan that's quieter than this one?"

Then he turns to Sylvia and asks her to lead morning prayers. "Noooo!" she pales. "I'm used to praying by myself. I'm not used to --" She stops. Clark laughs: There is so much in her future here that will involve discomfort. Sylvia begins reading from the prayer book, and the room echoes with their words, spoken in unison: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . ."

Once they finish praying, Clark wastes no time explaining what will be demanded of them. "You're going to be sent to parts of the city wearing just a cross," he says. "For a while down on Southern Avenue, the postman wasn't going to the building because it was too dangerous. But we were going into that building."

He looks around the table at these fresh college grads who had either volunteered with Simple House while attending Catholic University or who'd found the ministry online and applied to spend the year here. Sylvia is Latina; the others are white. They all grew up in relatively affluent households.

Clark tries to impress upon them what it will mean to minister to the impoverished, almost entirely black community of Southeast, where some of their own deeply held moral beliefs -- premarital sex is wrong, and so is cohabitating -- will crash headlong into the reality of other people's lives. Yet even more important than withholding judgment on the unwed couples and pregnant teens they minister to, Clark believes, will be the urban antennae these suburbanites must swiftly acquire.

"Listen to your Spidey sense," Clark tells them over the roar of the fan. If, while in the neighborhoods and apartments of families they visit, they get a vibe that something's not right, "it's okay to knock off the ministry."

When doing missionary work, Simple House volunteers wear four-inch crucifixes because, as Clark puts it, "Christ has good street cred." And because no one wants to be mistaken for an undercover cop.

***

Clark is the lanky boy scout of the bunch: clean-shaven, collared shirts, big brown sandals. He gives off an air that's part priestly mien and part financial whiz, which is apt: In 2000, when he was 23 and working toward his PhD in finance, he decided to devote himself to God. It was a decision, he says, that his parents back in Dallas were "very unhappy about. 'Why can't you be the guy who makes a lot of money and gives to charity?' they asked. 'Why do you have to be the guy who does this?' " After leaving the University of Rochester, he paid off his student loans by working on Pennsylvania Avenue as a litigation consultant. For two years, he earned a six-figure salary and bonuses that began at $20,000 and promised to increase dramatically each year. In those years, his refrigerator broke, and he didn't bother getting it fixed: He just ate out for every meal.

That's when Laura met Clark. She was a student at Catholic, and they both volunteered with the same organization, working with disadvantaged children in Northeast Washington but never really getting close to them. Laura and Clark decided they could do better. During long walks around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when Laura's much shorter legs worked double time to keep up with Clark's long stride, they brainstormed ways to create a more intimate and loving ministry. They wanted to live like Jesus, among the poor, befriending the poor. They wanted their lives to be the antidote to something Mother Teresa once said: "Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is very unfashionable to talk with them."

They operate their ministry with an annual budget of about $120,000 in donations, and so far, Clark says, their funding has not been affected by the country's deepening recession. Clark raises some of the money by attending Mass every month at the Copley Crypt Chapel, a small but wealthy Catholic community on the campus of Georgetown University. The parishioners who support Simple House's work offer everything from $1 to $100 to $1,000 checks before driving off in their Lexuses and Mercedeses. The rest of the ministry's funds come from friends and family members.

Clark's father donated the $45,000 that was used to purchase the house in Southeast. The house in Shaw was a gift, too, on the condition that Lucy be allowed to stay. The ministry's cars have all been donated, though Simple House must pay for the insurance, as well as for health insurance for everyone in the ministry. The volunteers' families pay for cellphones. To live and work on the largess of others requires faith, but Clark says he wouldn't want to be doing anything else with his life. It's Laura who is getting restless.

Her new housemates have finished lunch and returned to the living room for the next training session when Laura appears. She enters the darkened, finally empty kitchen to make lunch. She is talking about making one of her favorite dinners -- sushi -- when one of the new missionaries, Kelly, pops back in for some water. Kelly is bursting with a puppyish enthusiasm, an eagerness to make this community thing work.

"Oh!" she gushes. "I love sushi!" Like -- Hey! Great idea! We should all do that!

Laura says nothing. The silence turns heavy. This community thing, Laura says later, will take some getting used to.

During the first week of the newcomers' arrival, Laura opens the fridge and notices a used tea bag, which, in her head, she knows is good. It's good to save something that can be reused. Or it would be, if the fridge belonged to only one person. Or two. But their fridge now belongs to seven people. And the old tea bag is disgusting. "At some point," Laura muses, "being simple can complicate things."

She brings this up when it's her turn to run an orientation-week training session -- "Kitchen Etiquette" -- which she delivers in the midst of other sessions on "Common Missionary Dangers" and "Becoming a Saint."

"If you bring leftovers home, you have 24 hours to eat them," she tells the group one afternoon at the guys' house on Minnesota Avenue SE. "And then it's pitchable or public."

"You're allowed to be a chocolate fanatic," Clark adds, "but store it in a way that's not gonna attract mice or rats."

"And the mouse and bug and rat threat is real. There's been mice in every room," Laura says.

At the end of that day's lessons, Sylvia cooks rice, black beans and chicken just like her Cuban grandparents used to make, and everyone eats around a dining room table covered with a Mexican blanket. Laura spends the time before and during dinner fidgeting and checking her cellphone. She leaps up as soon as everyone finishes, ready to do the dishes and hustle back to the women's house in Northwest. She is late to meet her boyfriend, Dave Sluga, and other friends for a pickup game of soccer.

But just as the group seems ready to exit, one of her fellow missionaries, Ryan Hehman, starts playing a CD he and his band just recorded. And now Laura is stuck: She cannot leave until everyone has finished listening. They all share cars, and there is no Metro stop nearby. She says nothing, but, as everyone listens to song after song, she gets this intense, impatient look on her face, this furrow that draws all of her wide, open features to a minced, birdlike point.

"I feel bad because I feel like I'm always the antsy one," she says later. "I feel selfish because I want to hang out with Dave."

Recently, she says, while doing ministry, she has begun forgetting to wear her cross.

***

So how did Jesus live? And what does He expect of His followers?

"When we get to heaven . . .," writes Shane Claiborne, a leader in the intentional community movement, "I don't believe Jesus is going to say, 'When I was hungry you gave a check to the United Way, and they fed me,' or, 'When I was naked, you donated clothes to the Salvation Army, and they clothed me.' "

This is from Claiborne's essay in "School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism." The book has become an unexpected sensation among young Christians ready to renounce their parents' pursuit of worldly success in favor of a low-income lifestyle and a commitment to working with the poor. Even more surprising has been the success of Claiborne's most recent book, "Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical," a memoir that also offers a deeper introduction to alternative Christianity and intentional communities. Published almost three years ago, it has sold almost 200,000 copies.

Last summer, a few hundred Christians in their 20s and early 30s packed every pew of Calvary Baptist Church in Northwest Washington to hear Claiborne speak. He asked how many were already living in intentional communities, and at least one-fifth of the audience stood up. He asked how many were interested in intentional communities, and nearly everyone else stood up. "Talk to each other," he told them.

Though no one keeps track of the number of these communities around the country, Claiborne believes the movement is flourishing, particularly among evangelical Protestants.

"It's happening absolutely everywhere," says Claiborne, 33, who credits interest to a dawning realization that "our possessions possess us; this clutter that fills our lives, the television and meaningless stuff that we cram our days with, is sucking us dry."

But sloughing off material desires and mainstream status, as exalted as it sounds, can be hard to do. This is especially true in a city such as Washington, a magnet for college-educated climbers from all over the country who often measure others by their job titles, salaries and access to the powerful.

"American life has such standards of what counts for a successful life, and this doesn't look like a successful life," notes Stanley Hauerwas, a professor at Duke University's divinity and law schools who has worked with intentional communities.

Status shock is a familiar problem to 26-year-old Dawnielle Miller, who worked with international refugees at a Washington area company before quitting in 2007 to create a Protestant intentional community called Casa Chirilagua. Now she and two other devout college-educated young women live in a roach-infested, two-bedroom apartment building in a largely Hispanic section of Alexandria. In addition to taking personal vows of celibacy and poverty, she and the others also took part-time jobs so they could spend most of their time ministering to their Spanish-speaking neighbors. They invite them to dinner, tutor their children and help parents with limited English advocate for their kids at their school.

Still, it's been hard to leave behind her old Washington ways, Miller says. When her former co-workers, in their suits and high heels, walked into the organic market where Miller was running the customer service station, she found herself recounting work she'd just finished in El Salvador and shrugging off the job at the grocery store. "This is only temporary," she told them. She couldn't bring herself to say, "I'm simply living like Jesus."

Claiborne understands such conflicting impulses. "People are not crucified for helping the poor," he writes. "People are crucified for joining them."

***

A nun? Seriously? Was this Franciscan friar really asking 16-year-old Laura -- star catcher of the Academy of the Holy Cross high school softball team, basketball aficionada, future senior class treasurer -- if she had ever thought of becoming a nun?

Because Laura knew nuns. There were several at her all-girls Catholic high school in Kensington, and if those sisters were any guide, nuns were "ancient" and "decrepit" and completely uninspiring.

"Whoa, dude," she remembers telling the friar at Union Station, where she was on her way home from an antiabortion march that she'd attended with classmates. She had only started talking to the man because he had looked "interesting" -- with his beard and his earnest, balding head. And he wore a robe. And sandals. And it was snowing. But now she was creeped out. A nun?

"See ya."

"No, really," she remembers the friar gently persisting. "Come back. Come back. Do you ever pray the rosary?"

"No." Laura laughed. "Who does?"

It wasn't as if she didn't own rosary beads. She'd grown up going to Mass and saying grace before meals. She has warm memories of poring over an illustrated Bible with her grandmother, looking at the gorgeous pictures of King Solomon -- "I thought he was so clever" -- and Moses parting the Red Sea.

Laura was born in Puerto Rico but moved to Howard County with her parents when she was 3. Her father, Luis, built and sold a series of small businesses, including a contracting company and a sign store. He now manages a construction company in Frederick. Her mother, Margarita, stayed home to raise Laura and her three siblings. Catholicism was the backbone of the family's moral code, and the Cartagena children learned, Laura says, "you do what's right."

The friar at Union Station was talking about a different kind of Catholicism. Something deeper. "You should really start praying the rosary," he told Laura.

She walked away and decided, as she met up with her friends, "That guy was weird."

But also compelling. Back home in her bedroom, decorated with collages of friends and autographed baseballs and a crucifix over her bed, she dug around in her drawers until she found the special silver rosary beads her grandmother had given her when she made her first Communion. On an impulse, she began praying the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." Fifteen minutes -- and five mysteries, six Our Fathers, five Glory Be's and 53 Hail Marys -- later, she finished a ritual that, over the next few months, would become an anchor in her life.

High school afflicted Laura. She was sleek and well-toned -- all those softball and basketball practices were great for her physique -- but she didn't shop at Abercrombie, and she often felt awkward and shy. She hated how the years preceding college were one long, competitive episode of "gossip and anorexia." Even lunch could be treacherous, she remembers, "because if you wanted to dip your french fries in mayonnaise," clots of girls would stare and ask, witheringly, "Are you going to eat that?"

But when Laura began saying the rosary, "I started feeling peace. And I never felt peace in my life. I was happier. More whole. More" -- Laura shrugs -- "peaceful. It was crazy how much more peaceful I was." She went, she says, from being "like, I'm Catholic because you do the right thing, to, like, I kinda like this Jesus guy!"

And Laura found herself wondering: If that besandaled friar could be so right about the rosary, could he also be right about the convent? What if she lived her life for Christ?

Laura broached the subject with her best friend, Catherine Corso, who was as wild as Laura was cautious. Catherine, Laura says, "just loved trouble and loved partying, and when we became friends, she'd done a lot of things I had never even heard of." Not that Laura wasn't game for, as she puts it, "parties I wasn't telling my parents about." But Catherine remembers her restraint. "She'd be keeping an eye on the party," Catherine says, "making sure no one was in trouble or driving drunk or trying to have sex with a sleeping drunk girl."

On the phone one day with Catherine, after obsessing about her latest crush, Laura abruptly interrupted herself: "What if I became a nun?"

Catherine was dumbstruck. Laura repeated her question, "What if I became a nun?"

"I guess I would still be your friend, probably," Catherine remembers answering. Her real concern was this: "Are you sure you don't want to have babies? And take our kids to the pool, and have them play on the same soccer team?"

Laura could imagine the rewards of that kind of life, too. She said nothing to her parents about the idea of becoming a nun. "I didn't want to be pigeonholed." Still, she appreciated its novelty: "I was definitely always attracted to 'off the beaten path' -- and this was off the beaten path!"

So, off to Catholic University she went, intending to major in theology. Her father had hoped she'd choose engineering, though he counseled, "Figure out what you like, and then we'll figure out how to make money at it." And she had thought, for a while, about politics, until she spent two weeks in Annapolis as a page in the Maryland General Assembly. "I saw nothing accomplished," she says, "and I saw people treating each other terribly. I wouldn't feel right to be paid to do what those people did."

At Catholic, she wound up studying philosophy -- a perfect fit because Laura is big on learning how things work, why they work and what the greater framework looks like. Which is what the sisters in convents do -- they're "trying to get at the core of life," Laura says, "and what's real."

Laura was after that sense of meaning and authenticity when she and Clark started Simple House. They are the same things she is seeking now, two years later, as she weighs where her future lies.

***

"You know, there's going to be a problem," Kimberlee Campbell warns Laura and fellow missionary Heather Jacobs. The two women have driven the Simple House minivan over to Campbell's house on Alabama Avenue SE, where white bugs crawl up the back of the microwave and another, darker insect disappears into the folds of the living room sofa. Campbell, who lives here with her eight children, is moving soon, and she cannot wait.

Right now, however, she's focused on what to do about her oldest daughter, whom Laura and Clark had gotten accepted into Don Bosco Cristo Rey, a private Catholic high school in Takoma Park that prepares low-income students for college. After only a few days, the girl dropped out, promising to enroll, instead, in a D.C. charter school. Except that now, her mother says, "there's no spaces. So she's going to have to go to public school."

Exactly what Laura had been trying to avoid. Simple House had even invested $600 in Don Bosco's required "business attire" for the girl and had made plans to pay for her transportation to and from school each day.

"AGGGGH," Laura groans and makes like she's going to tear out her hair.

"I just know they won't take her back at Don Bosco," Campbell says.

"Are you sure?" Laura brightens. "Because they . . ."

"I'm embarrassed to call them back."

"Would she go back there?" Laura asks.

"No." Campbell leans defeatedly against the door frame of her living room. "This is, like, what I was not hoping for . . . I was not expecting her first year of high school to be in a public high school."

Her other school-age children have scholarships and, because Laura and Clark helped arrange it, attend a Catholic school in Southeast. "I had no idea -- everyone's taking their kids out of public and putting them into charter school," Campbell continues. "Everyone I call says: No, there's a waiting list. No, there's a waiting list."

Then she mentions that her daughter has been trying to discourage her son from attending DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville when he's finished middle school. " 'You can't go to DeMatha,' " Campbell reports hearing the girl tell her brother, " 'because that's a hard school.' "

"AGGGGH!" Laura cries.

Simple House calls its work "friendship evangelization," and it's messy and often frustrating. This is not like giving food to those dying of starvation. Gratitude is often elusive, and the problems the missionaries see -- signs of child abuse and neglect, drug dealing, repeated stints in jail, even a girl refusing to attend a private high school that could help lift her out of poverty -- don't lend themselves to simple solutions. At times, to avoid losing their faith in the power of God to change lives, the missionaries debrief one another by asking: "Where did everyone see Christ today?"

"That's important," Clark says. "Not just for the sense of keeping it prayerful. But, like, people go away more disturbed if you don't do it. They're more scandalized than edified."

So, where does Laura see Christ on the afternoon she buys diapers and baby wipes for a teenage mother who is part of the Simple House ministry? Driving to the mother's house, Laura overshoots the front door and has to drive again around the block because "we can't walk too far in this neighborhood."

Her welcome? The mom, who is 15, bounds into the living room wearing a T-shirt that blares: "I (HEART) SEX." She glances at the diapers and wipes and says ... nothing. No "Thank you." No "That's great." No "I appreciate it."

"Sometimes," Laura says later, while slaloming a ministry minivan through road construction on Minnesota Avenue SE, "you just have to be okay with people being rude . . . If you're following the Gospels, they don't say: Love your neighbor only if he loves you back."

"If you want to be overwhelmed with thanks," Clark adds, "that's a false charity."

Still, they acknowledge that there's a fine line between being godly and being taken advantage of. "The greatest poverty we see," observes Jessica Hensle, who has been a Simple House missionary for two years, "is a poverty of love . . . the poverty of not being wanted by anybody, not being supported by anybody, not being loved by anybody." As a result, the people they are trying to help "are confused by us a lot."

But when asked about the Simple House ministry, many on the receiving end of its efforts use the words: "They are a blessing."

For 19-year-old Angelica Williams, the fact that Simple House exists has been revelatory. "When we needed food," she marvels, "they came by and gave us food. I actually thought, I'm like, 'There are nice people in the world.' "

For Carol Bowman, who is 55 and lives with her daughter and 9-year-old grandson, Simple House offers not just aid but "friendly conversation, and that's nice." Some of her neighbors, she concedes, "do say, 'That girl have a lot of white people comin' in that house.' Well, it's church people, and they might be white, but . . . they real friendly, and they help people."

And then there's Kimberlee Campbell, who met Laura and Clark in April 2004, four months after she gave birth to her fifth child. She writes, in an e-mail from her Facebook account:

"I really was going through a deep depression at that time. I felt really alone and just wanted to die . . . I remember coming home from work one day and I could not stop crying . . . and I remember asking God to please help me."

It was Easter, and Laura happened to be in the neighborhood handing out holiday food baskets. A week later, Campbell had a Bible study with Laura and Clark. Their lives have been intertwined ever since.

"I very much believe that A Simple House was sent to my family by God, because I was really on the verge of ending my life, and I did not have any hope," Campbell writes. "They are the family and the love I never had in my life, but always prayed to God for."

***

In September, a young man who had been helped by the Simple House ministry is gunned down a block from his house. It was just a few hours after Simple House missionaries had happened to visit and pray with him. As soon as they hear about his death, Laura and Clark spring into action.

While Clark lines up volunteers to make food for the man's wake, Laura stands on the man's front stoop, talking with his family and neighbors. She's accompanied by Ryan Fredrickson, 23, a gentle, bearded scholar who has been a missionary for just four weeks. Laura knows they are taking a risk by being here. Shootings in Southeast almost always raise the specter of drugs or neighborhood rivalries or, scariest of all, the threat of retaliation. But it's 9 a.m. -- too early for Laura to feel unsafe. Although, Laura says, someone did walk up to the man's girlfriend and cousin not long after he was shot and warn: "Watch out. You're next."

But as it gets closer to 10, Laura starts fretting because, by now, people are awake. If we get shot on the porch right now, she remembers thinking to herself, maybe we'll be martyrs. But she also prays, forcefully, "God, I am really trying to help you out right now, so please, please, please, please, please take care of me."

And then, suddenly, a strangely long line of cars is coming up the road and slowing at the speed bump. Laura's heart both races and freezes, like a car in neutral with the engine gunned. This is it, she figures, until swarms of police show up with a search warrant and start ordering everyone out of the house. One accusatorily asks Laura's inexperienced partner, Ryan, what in the hell he's doing there.

"Uh, well," Ryan starts to answer nervously. "This guy was killed on Friday. Uh. So we were gonna help [his girlfriend] run some errands."

The cop stares disbelievingly. This white guy? In Southeast? Is helping the girlfriend of a murder victim "run some errands?"

"I don't have time for this," Laura recalls the police officer barking. "Tell me the truth." And she remembers thinking to herself, Just tell her where we work.

It takes a few hours, but finally the cops finish searching the house and release them. "I'm glad you told me I was going to be in over my head," Ryan says to Laura as they leave, "so I wouldn't worry about being in over my head."

Laura knows what he means. Today, she made sure she was wearing her cross, front and center, in all of its oversize glory.

***

If you'd asked Laura's friends where she would meet the man of her dreams, they'd have guessed somewhere exotic and adventurous: the jungles of Africa or the mountains of the Andes.

Instead, two Septembers ago, she met him in an Adams Morgan bar while she was chugging a beer with a close high school friend and his college buddies. She was halfway finished downing the beer when she heard her friend jokingly singing her praises: "Laura's, like, the best girl I know. You'd love her. She's a real boozehound."

That was her introduction to Dave Sluga, whom Laura describes as "this balding, preppy accountant who's not at all like any guy I'd ever be interested in." Where Laura is exuberant, warm and extroverted, Dave can be quiet, aloof and, for Laura, frustratingly introverted. When they argue, he sometimes asks so many questions that Laura barks, "Stop auditing me." But he's also terrifically sweet, she says. And he's a good storyteller.

Dave declined to be interviewed for this story, but Laura says the night they met they found they had a lot of things in common. He's Catholic, too, though not as devout as Laura. And he's got great taste in music. When he brought up Pearl Jam, and she said how much she adores that band, he announced giddily to everyone at the bar, "She loves Pearl Jam!"

She had dated other guys but dropped each of them pretty fast. With Dave, she told herself: Give him a chance. He's a really nice guy. A really sweet guy. See where this goes.

Which is what she did. Until six months later, in the spring of 2007, when Laura packed her suitcase near the end of her first year at Simple House and flew off to a convent in Italy.

***

She was conflicted when she left. Things with Dave were "unexpectedly going pretty well." So well, Laura says, that "one day, I was like, whoa, I think I'm in love with this guy." The news about the convent freaked him out. "Holy crap," Laura remembers him saying. "My girlfriend wants to be a nun."

Laura herself wasn't so sure, but the convent was "the open book I never opened," and her barhopping social life was getting old, and she needed to "reconsider everything," and get away from Washington, and away from her friends, and just away -- period. She told Dave she needed what would amount to a personal retreat. She had become, she worried, "a jerk." Dave was shocked. "You're the nicest person I know!" she remembers him protesting. "Do you know what you do for a living?"

In college, she had become friends with a group of nuns, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, who live near Catholic University. A relatively new order, its sisters tend to be young and fun. Every Friday night, at each of their convents around the world, all the nuns eat pizza.

So, she chose to fly to Rome and stay in one of their convents, surrounded by women of all nationalities -- Italian, Ukrainian, Portuguese -- while she tried to discern her future. But when she spoke with the priest who was assigned to be her spiritual adviser, he focused only on "Indications You Might Be Called to Vocation," and he never discussed the flip side: "Indications You Might Prefer to Get Married, Have Kids and Serve Pigs in a Blanket at Their Birthday Parties."

Laura had planned to spend two months contemplating what she describes as "one of the most innermost matters of the heart: I want to dedicate my life to God, and how best can I do this?"

But the priest and nuns at the convent kept pressuring her, Laura says. And there was only one answer -- Yes, I want to marry Christ! -- that they seemed prepared to hear. One of the other sisters even told her, "I know for sure you're called to be a nun." Laura's jaw dropped, and she recoiled. She can't say that, Laura remembers thinking. This was a decision between her and God. This was not sorority rush.

Though she'd never been a quitter, she started wondering how soon she could leave. Then she'd feel guilty for wanting to escape, believing that the call to become a nun was a call "from God, and now I'm letting God down."

Finally, five days before her actual departure date, she simply took off. Arriving at the Alitalia ticket counter, she was told that she'd just missed that day's flight, and she burst into unstoppable sobs. Even after she returned to Washington, she couldn't stop crying. She spent that fall and winter seeing a Catholic psychologist.

Dave still fears Laura will become a nun, though she says she is "99.5 percent sure" that the nun thing is over, which has left a deeper question that has been haunting Laura for months: What next?

Laura herself doesn't have an answer, but her mother is quick to offer an idea. "I know what I want to happen next!" Maria Cartagena exclaims. "That Dave will propose, and she will say yes, and they will have a family."

***

When she wants to talk on the phone with Dave, Laura often leaves her bedroom. She doesn't want to bother Bianca. And she wants her privacy. Laura is also a lot messier than Bianca, which makes her feel guilty. At least Bianca can sleep with lights on, because late at night, Laura likes to "putter around," and when she finally does climb into bed, she reads. This whole sharing-a-room-at-25 thing? Not easy.

Tonight, Laura is escaping all these complications by driving to her parents' house in Scaggsville for Sunday dinner. Her brother will be there with his pregnant wife. Dave is meeting her there, too, though things are strained between them. Technically, he and Laura have broken up, in the vague how-did-this-start-and-who-started-it way that couples break up without breaking things off: They still talk and send text messages and meet up for soccer games. And she still calls him "my boyfriend," though with varying degrees of confidence, depending on the day.

When he arrives, Dave is so quiet it's as though he has taken a vow of silence. But there's plenty of chatter swirling around him.

Laura's father, Luis, comes in from the back deck, where he is grilling steak, and her mother -- who adores entertaining -- has made bruschetta appetizers and set the table with an embroidered tablecloth. She is showing pictures of their family, back in Puerto Rico and here in Maryland. She points to a portrait of her children that hangs in a back hallway: "This is my favorite one." In it, her two older daughters and son are posing beautifully, while Laura -- who is 21/2 and apple-cheeked and has long, dark curls -- cannot contain her disdain for formality. She only half-sits on her little chair, as if she's ready for a jailbreak, and she glowers impatiently at the photographer.

"We always thought she was going to be the perennial student," her dad says, "because she always had this --"

"This desire to learn," her mother jumps in.

"My mom still occasionally tries to get me to go to law school," Laura says.

"Yes!" Margarita beams. "I always tell her poor people need good lawyers. She could be very useful for other people, and she could help them. . . But she says, 'I'm not going to law school.' And I said, 'Okay, I won't mention it again.' "

"But she does," says Luis.

"Well," Laura's mom explains, "I always say it's good to have a lawyer in the family."

This house is Laura's respite. She comes back often, for dinner, or to spend the night, or to go shopping with her mom. "My mom is really generous with me," Laura says. Two days before she and Dave and several friends went to the Outer Banks for a week, Laura hopped into her mom's white Lexus SUV for a trip to the Mall in Columbia, where her parent-funded purchases included new jeans from Express and this "really awesome" brown bikini with an orange/pink trim.

Laura spends a lot of time away from Simple House. When the new volunteers all go out to dinner one night, Laura begs off and spends the evening with a friend down the street, checking her e-mail on a borrowed computer, adding friends on Facebook, watching "Seinfeld" reruns and eating mahi-mahi. She has another friend who gave her a camera in exchange for Spanish lessons, so one evening she heads to a bar with him.

"Dave is always like, 'You need to hang out with your roommates more,'" she says. "I'm like: 'I hang out with my roommates enough.' "

***

"I want to be a corporate whore," announces Laura's best friend. "I want to make lots of money."

Laura takes another bite of Mexican takeout and smiles at Catherine Corso's less-than-saintly declaration.

"I want the commercial things," Catherine continues, here in her College Park apartment. "I want to send my kid to private school and drive a nice car and live in a safe neighborhood with a bedroom for her and an office for me."

Catherine is studying for her MBA at the University of Maryland and raising her 2-year-old daughter, Michaela, alone. Laura's other best friend from high school is getting a law degree at Duke University. Their lives seem light years removed from Laura's, and she is still feeling uncertain about what comes next. Catherine has some ideas: "I want her to get her master's in social work." Or maybe: "Lobbying. That's something where you get to put a lot of passion into your work."

"I feel like I'm on the verge of something," Laura agrees, "but I don't know what it is. And I'm like, C'mon!" -- she waves her hands -- "Get there."

Lately, Laura says, she's been thinking a lot about her paternal grandmother, the tiny, silver-haired woman who gave her the silver rosary beads and read the illustrated Bible with her. Laura describes her as "a pillar of sanctity and virtue." She went to college back when that was rare for women and became a teacher. After retiring, she volunteered with an order of nuns, going into the public housing projects of Puerto Rico to help the poor.

"She is always kind of pouring herself out for other people," Laura says. "Most people might see her life as quite ordinary," but she has been devoted to "serving other people, and [that] has made her a very happy and serene person." Her grandmother and late grandfather were married for almost 60 years.

"I've realized," Laura says, "that having a family is beautiful," and it can be another way of honoring God. She and Dave have talked about getting married, though the conversations take place in roundabout ways. "Dave is really good at coming up with euphemisms for 'If we were married,' " Laura says. He uses words like "In a different setting" -- as in, "In a different setting, who would pay the bills?"

Yet overshadowing Laura's questions about her future is something more immediate: another expansion of Simple House. Last year, the ministry was given a house in Kansas City, Mo., offering the opportunity to work among the poor in a second city. Initially, Clark and Laura thought they would help get the new community off the ground while remaining in Washington. But, as the year comes to an end, Clark decides that he will move to Kansas City to run the new ministry himself. Laura is staying behind. She'll miss Clark, but the new ministry is a testatment to what they've accomplished together. "It's really cool to be part of something that's growing and successful," Laura says. "There's more to be done."

Darragh Johnson is a contributing writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at johnsond@washpost.com.

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