Washington Post Magazine: A Not-So-Simple Life
Monday, January 26, 2009; 12:00 PM
A group of young Christian missionaries pursues a more meaningful way to help Washington's poor -- by living as they do, in a Shaw rowhouse known as A Simple House. Does sharing showers and giving up sex, new shoes and careerism bring one closer to God?
A Simple House's founders Laura Cartagena and Clark Massey and Washington Post Magazine contributing writer Darragh Johnson were online Monday, January 26 to discuss Johnson's cover story, "A Not-So-Simple Life."
A transcript follows.
Laura Cartagena: Hi, this is Laura Cartagena, I'm looking forward to answering your questions about A Simple House.
Clark Massey: Hello, this is Clark Massey of A Simple House. I look forward to answering as many questions as possible.
Darragh Johnson: Hi, this is Darragh. Thanks to you all for reading and joining us today ... Let's get started.
Chantilly, Va.: It's an inspiring story. The only thing I'd suggest is putting structure in your days, as they look pretty much catch-as-catch-can, with apparently everyone flying off in all directions. Someone needs to be in charge, to lead prayers, to hand out assignments, and generally oversee things. You might want to check out assorted religious orders and see how they structure their days. I'd suggest the Benedictines, whose days are scheduled with times for work, study, and prayer. You don't seem to have any down time, and that's not good.
Clark Massey: I agree with you, and we are still learning the structures to avoid burn-out. Over the last couple of years, we have developed a lot more structures.
We have a Benedictine on our board of directors.
Laura Cartagena: Hello. Thanks for your suggestions. Like Clark said, we have been working on developing more structure. Our day to day work is planned out at our weekly planning meetings so that every one always knows what they should be doing and who is in charge. We have structured prayer and work time, and enough time to hang out with our friends and relax. We are still learning though on how to improve.
D.C.: For Darragh -- have missed your work! Loved the Widow's Walk story, the Calixto story, the stories about trying to make a good summer for poor kids in Annapolis. Are you going to be writing for the Magazine regularly? Are there other places to read your work these days? My favorite scene in this story: Campbell and 'friendship evangelization.'
Darragh Johnson: Oh, thank you! ... I am going to be writing for the Magazine regularly, so keep reading! And thanks again.
Watertown, S.D.: How do you select the people you help?
Clark Massey: Hello, Watertown!
People are introduced to us in many ways. Some people are found by the Contemplative Missionaries of Charity in SE D.C., and they give us a call if a family is in desperate need. Other people live in our target neighborhoods. Most people we know are introduced to us by their friends and family.
for Clark: Clark, in the story we learned a little about how Laura's family feels about her living in Simple House. I'd like to hear more about your background and what your family thinks about the work you are doing.
Clark Massey: My family is very supportive of this work, and I think the work has been good for my family.
My family is from the midwest, and this type of work has a natural resonance with them. They understand the concept of trying to do something 'simply Christian'. That same idea resonates with the poor. For the most part, the poor are more religious than other parts of society, and they have a natural distrust of secularism.
I also hope that A Simple House gives an outlet to other people to serve and donate directly to the poor.
In general, parents don't like to see their children fail, and they often don't want their children to take great risks. A Simple House represents a great ongoing risk. I have no savings, no retirement etc.... This loving concern about risk is why my parents hesitate to endorse everything. Once a risk is taken, my family is 100% on board.
Silver Spring: I loved the nuanced tone of this piece, and certainly admire the dedication these young people demonstrate. However, I was struck by the fact that Laura's path seemed possible because she was able to recharge at her parents' home. She could store belongings there, go shopping, have a suburban respite from her gritty day to day existence. Not to diminish what she is doing, but would she be able to do this if her parents were not affluent, and she didn't have any choices? Is it really that hard to renounce affluence if you know you can get back to it at anytime?
Laura Cartagena: I think that is a good question. I am very grateful for all that my parents have done for me and the possibilities that this has given me. My parents are very generous with me and I always try to keep in mind that it is a gift. Not all of our volunteers are from the area and can enjoy spending as much time at home as I do. I don't think this has hampered their work. It can be hard to be a volunteer when you see your friends advancing in careers, buying homes, increasing their savings, and being able to buy things they want or need without worry.
Washington, D.C.: Darragh, how did you first hear of Simple House and what made you want to write this story? I'm curious about how long it took to write, etc.
Darragh Johnson: I had heard of A Simple House after spending some time with another intentional community in Alexandria. It was last summer, and I was interested in writing about people who had chosen another path from the one most Washingtonians -- especially most young, ambitious, career-oriented Washingtonians -- start down. It was interesting to be working on the story, and spending time with Laura and Clark and the others at Simple House, as the economy faltered, then continued to fail ... It was almost as if their search for something more -- for another way of living that wasn't consumer-driven or ambition derived -- was becoming more and more prescient as each month of the end of last year passed by ...
Fairlington, Va.: I think the most obvious question for the kids running the ministry in Southeast D.C. is: Are there really no -black- Catholics you could find to minister to the people in that area? Really?
Clark Massey: Washington, D.C. is actually a hub for black Catholics, and there are many black Catholics in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. There are quite a few Black Catholic Churches in SE D.C., and they are doing great work. We work with many black Catholics at our parish, St. Thomas More.
Olney, Md.: Laura, I really admire you for your unselfishness and your zeal to help those less fortunate. That said, you have a young man whom you love and who loves you. I appreciate your vow of chastity, but I'm wondering how this is affecting him. He is only human, after all. Why don't you get married and raise a family? You've done more than your share, and you've earned some happiness.
Clark Massey: There has been some confusion from the article related to the 'vow' of chastity. Simple House volunteers have not taken any vows. All volunteers are committed to chastity and voluntary poverty while they are at A Simple House, but it is not a life long vow.
Laura Cartagena: I have not taken a vow of celibacy but my boyfriend and I are both committed to chastity, we both see marriage as the right context for sexual intercourse. I look forward to having a family one day. My boyfriend and I are not ready to be married yet.
Laurel, Md.: I so much appreciated the opportunity for The Simple House to be highlighted in the Post Magazine Section. What a wonderful tribute to young people who are living out of their deepest spiritual convictions in service of "the least of thy brethren." Blessings on their continued work, and hoping that other such groups will also be written about exemplifying the idealism and action of people toward one another.
Laura Cartagena: Thank you for your encouragement.
Chantilly, Va.: Question for Clark Massey: Clark, are you the son of Clark Massey the real estate developer? In any event, I applaud the sacrifices all of you are clearly making.
Clark Massey: Nope. I haven't even heard of anyone with my full name before.
Anonymous: How do you respond to people who think that you are on the path to "burn out" and crushed idealism? Is this just a youthful phase for you?
Clark Massey: There comes a point in your late twenties or early thirties where you are no longer 'a young person doing something interesting' or 'going through a phase'. Your friends are married, your friends are buying homes, and you should have been saving for retirement.
At this point, the glam of this life style should start to wear off, and the reality of the sacrifice sinks-in. If you are doing it for the right reason, this is fine. If you are centered in daily prayer and constantly purify your intentions, you are not going to burn out.
I have worked with volunteers from other groups that have suffered severe burnout after only one year. Fortunately, we have never had a volunteer who claims to be 'burnt out'.
Our idealism is not crushed because are ideals are merely Christian and not something that we created. We live in an era of many ideologies. President Obama says that he wants us to move away from ideologies, and this is partly good. Christianity is not merely an ideology. A mere ideology leads to burnout, and Christians who don't tap into the fullness of Christianity get burnt out.
If Christianity hasn't been burnt out and crushed in the last two millennia, it will last out my life time.
Sorry for the strange and wandering answer. I think you are hitting on something important, and it is hard for me to fully answer on the fly.
Laura Cartagena: We have to trust in God and pray a lot to avoid burn out. As far as this being a phase, nobody at A Simple House is merely trying to get over the angst of being young or not knowing the meaning of life. This is a conscious and discerned choice to be here. I don't know how long I will be at A Simple House, but I foresee myself working in service of the poor for the rest of my life.
Rochester, N.H.: It's impossible to "walk in their shoes." 1. You've had a different upbringing -- it equipped you to handle a turn of bad luck. 2. You can leave at any time -- they're stuck there.
Clark Massey: It is not possible to walk in their shoes, but it is possible to befriend anyone.
It is fashionable to think that what makes us different is more important than what makes us the same. Evangelism is centered on the opposite. What makes us the same is more important than what makes us different, and we all have some common human experience. The common human experience is what religion addresses. This is why a Chinese man in Communist China can be a fellow Catholic to an Italian noble.
This is also why the less fortunate can teach us so much about ourselves.
Laura Cartagena: We do not pretend that we can walk in the shoes of the poor or that any sacrifices we've made to be at A Simple House can equal the difficulties that many poor people face.
Friendship and love are beautiful ways to get to know someone and what they have been through. We offer friendship, support, and counsel; just as many people we serve have offered me their friendship, support, and counsel though we come from different backgrounds.
SE D.C.: I enjoyed this story, and I offer the following unsolicited suggestion: Put screens on your windows. (Use net cloth if necessary.)
I was a Peace Corps Vol. for over 3 years in a very poor place (with malaria). During my service, I noted that many volunteers, consumed with zeal to live like those around them, nevertheless failed to take proper precautions for health and safety. As an example: like you, some volunteers did not use the simple public health intervention of screening their windows to keep out mosquitoes.
It sounds silly but, often living simply with the poor also means demonstrating health, safety, and saintliness by example. These small measures will make your service more pleasant, too.
Darragh Johnson: This is such a good point -- and illustrates some of what I was talking about earlier [the issue of how not having screens to keep out mosquitos can be so pernicious] ... though the writer also makes another point for me: Simply put, the Simple House missionaries work a _lot_ ... Seven days a week, there's work to be done. And as happens with most time crunches, postponing the screens issue was one easy solution ...
Washington, D.C.: I commend both Laura and Clark for their work. The writer documented Laura's debate with becoming a nun. Clark, I'm curious, did you ever consider joining the priesthood as part of your calling?
Clark Massey: I've never felt called to be a priest, but I have considered it. I feel deeply called to be a missionary, and many people think 'Catholic Single Guy Missionary' = Priest.
When Simple House came about, it was like finding the perfect synthesis of my call.
Ruston, La.: My girlfriend wants to do some mission/volunteer work for about a year when she graduates from college. (She will graduate before me). She has been considering Simple House, and so I was thinking a relevant question would be: What is the Simple House Policy on dating?
Clark Massey: You should give me a phone call on that one. If you guys are respecting Christian ethics, there won't be a problem.
Laura Cartagena: We look forward to hearing from her. I've had a boyfriend most of the time I have been with A Simple House. We try to be mindful that I live in a community and strive to have a Christian relationship with each other.
Alexandria, Va.: Laura, do you feel that the article represented you well?
Clark Massey: Darragh did a good job with this article, and we gave her almost complete freedom to gather information. We did not try to direction the article, but it is not the article that I would have written.
If you see our website www.asimplehouse.org, you will find old newsletters. Those letters are how we characterize our own ministry.
Burke, Va.: I don't understanding why celibacy is essential to your mission. You are all so young and are not nuns or priests. I think you will really regret giving up a major gift of youth later on on life. Exactly, how does celibacy contribute to your service of others?
Clark Massey: This is an interesting question, and I have struggled with sexual purity particularly during college.
It is hard to believe this if you have never tried it, but sexual purity (chastity) purifies your prayer life, makes you more available to others as a true friend, and adds a credibility to your witness.
If you want more information on this, the Catholic Catechism has very good stuff on this. The work of Pope John Paul II termed 'Theology of the Body' is a great place to hear more truth on this subject.
I never would have believed any of these Christian teachings if I hadn't witnessed the benefits first hand.
Laura Cartagena: There has been a confusion that we have a vow of celibacy. We do not have a vow of celibacy but we are all committed to living chastely. We believe that sex is a gift from God and belongs in the context of marriage.
D.C.: for Darragh: in the article it seems you focused on Laura's conflicts and struggles rather then the work of A Simple House. I was wondering what motivated the direction of the piece. thanks!
Darragh Johnson: This is a good question ... thank you. I think conflict and struggle are a very real part of any work, though with work like A Simple House does, it's an especially real part. Laura's situation and honesty about struggling with what she should go next were compelling -- and make, I think, the reality of what A Simple House and other intentional communities are accomplishing that much more poignant: This isn't easy work. It's demanding, it's countercultural, it's hard. It can be thankless ... and it doesn't offer a typical career ladder. I do think there was a lot in the piece about the work A Simple House accomplishes, and what is required, and how its recipients see the ministry and Laura and Clark and the others ... and as a writer, being able to add to all of that the texture of Laura's personal situation only deepened the story.
Sparkle Motionland: Laura, I had no idea you were doing this work in the community. I enjoyed the article. Keep up the good work!
Laura Cartagena: Thanks :)
Upper Marlboro, Md.: To Laura or Clark, What is your take on "liberation theology"? The last two Popes were hostile to the tenets of the theology.
Clark Massey: I am not an expert, but I am of one heart with Pope Benedict. I think there are good elements and elements that are led astray by a too-materialistic view of man's reality.
Baltimore, Md.: I don't get it. Why do you have to become poor in order to serve the poor... isn't that just making a mockery of their situation?
Laura Cartagena: That is a good question. We are not trying to pretend that we have all the struggles of the poor or want the struggles of the poor. We are not trying to live in squalor and do not swear off material possessions.
We are not seeking poverty as an ideal in itself. We are seeking Christ. Asceticism can be a way of taking distractions out of your life to leave more room for God. It is also a way to keep from being too attached to earthly possessions. Throughout the gospels there are warnings of how difficult it can be for a rich man to get to heaven. Many great saints have benefitted from practices of asceticism.
The gospel story of the widow giving all she had to live on for the offering speaks to me. Jesus points out that she is not just giving from her abundance but from all she has.
Washington, D.C.: While working in service of the poor is admirable, I am picking up an undertone of distaste for those of us who are working, paying bills and struggling with life, because we haven't renounced our "consumer" lifestyle and decided to live among the poor. I work in a school and tutor our students after working hours. Yet I'm getting the sense from this article that I am not doing enough. Did you feel guilt that because you had better opportunities in life that you therefore didn't deserve to pursue them while others went without? I too have felt that sensation tugging at me but realize that giving up everything that I worked for/had the opportunity for wouldn't make the poor's lives any better. Sorry to sound mean, I just felt these undertones in the article and chat.
Clark Massey: I hate guilt. I hope that no one ever gives money to our ministry because they feel guilt.
If someone wants to volunteer with our ministry because of guilt, we try to work with them, and show them better reasons.
I also don't believe in riding the bandwagon of anti-consumerism. I love to shop, and my favorite season of they year is Christmas. I like Christmas partly because of all the shopping and all the presents.
This anti-consumerism bandwagon is why I don't want our ministry lumped together with other ministries which are merely rebelling against the dominant culture. This is not an attempt to be radical. It is an attempt to be normal, and from this normality discover our true selves.
Falls Church, Va.: It seems the poor of D.C. could use more jobs and education and less religion. Instead of getting $200 a month to pray with these folks, wouldn't having a traditional job and paying for a poor family's education, career-training or day care also be a Christian, God-like thing to do? You may aspire to poverty, I doubt the poor of D.C. do.
Clark Massey: Poverty always has a material dimension, and there are parts of the world that desperately need material goods. In the case of SE D.C., the solution is not so simple. I suggest that people visit SE D.C., and get to know the people who are struggling in these neighborhoods. Often times, they have jobs but quit them. Or they have access to services but don't take advantage of them. We help alleviate material needs, but we also try to address the root human problem, which is a need for friendship and love. If the problem of poverty in D.C. was a simple material problem, it would have already been solved.
I'm still interested in new and creative ways to address material poverty, but I don't have faith in them as the final solution.
Philadelphia. Pa.: Have you ever considered lifting some of the vows during volunteers' periods of service in order to perhaps obtain more volunteers? Or do you consider the vows essential?
Clark Massey: They aren't really vows (in the sense of life long vows), but they are commitments. We consider them essential for the spiritual health of our volunteers and for the good order of our organization.
Cheverly, Md.: The notion of "saints" is for some antiquated and for others life-giving. What saints (I know Francis, and is it Alphonsus?), either past or present, inspire you in your work? Thank you.
Clark Massey: Our houses are under the patronage of:
St. Therese of Liseux
Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
St. Teresa of Avila,
St. Stephen the Martyr,
St. James the Lesser,
St. Francis of Assisi
and St. Alphonsus Ligouri
Anonymous: Keep up the great work! Perhaps the lack of burn out is also due to the fact that you are not fighting against the establishment but doing a ministry of love. It was nice to see mentioned the part about "poverty of love" and the importance of that. It is incredible how sometimes simple interaction or genuine interest in someone's life can make such a great impact.
Darragh Johnson: Yes yes: You are so right about the "poverty of love." I loved Jessica's line about that ... and I think it's a reality of many, many people's lives, not only those who are part of the Simple House ministry.
And interesting point about A Simple House's mission being one of not fighting the establishment v. doing a ministry of love ... very interesting point.
Laura Cartagena: Thanks a lot!
London, UK: Do you believe that living an ascetic lifestyle such as you have chosen for yourselves is essential to one day entering the Kingdom of God?
Clark Massey: I believe that every Christian has to have an understanding of penance and asceticism. There is no one lifestyle necessary for entering the Kingdom of God, and Catholicism embraces a balance of fasting and feasting.
You can't really enjoy the feast if you don't fast. The people who have satiated every material aspect of their lives are often the most disatisfied with the material world.
Our missionaries are given $200 a month to get what they need and to get a few things that they want. For example, one of our missionaries is a musician, others like games, etc...
We enjoy the good things in life more when we live simply. This is part of the reason that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich tastes so good when you are camping, but it doesn't taste as good when you are just relaxing at home.
Marylander amidst the hidden poor: What do you think about your secular peers who volunteer to help the poor in other ways? For instance, I'm thinking about community activists that represent poor and uneducated homeowners facing foreclosures. Or young idealistic social workers fighting poverty on the front lines.
They don't ask the people they work with to pray with them, but they often do give practical, empowering advice for how to fend for themselves in an exploitive economy, for instance.
What advice could you give them to help them sustain themselves in their work without the framework of a (somewhat conservative) religious tradition such as yours? Do you believe in the spirituality of good secular people?
Clark Massey: All acts of Goodness are beautiful. I don't know how a secular person can avoid burnout. There isn't enough recreation in the world to make up for the stress of that type of job.
I do believe that God interfaces with people in many mysterious ways, but these mysterious ways aren't a good substitute for religion.
The worst anti-burnout attitude is to start measuring your gifts. People often try to give less in order to sustain themselves. This doesn't work. It makes people bitter. This doesn't mean you give into abusive situations or deny yourselves the things you need. Christians have been known to fall into this measuring attitude too (it even occasionally happens at Simple House). This is not the attitude of Jesus on the Cross.
Takoma Park, Md.: As a fellow journalist, Darragh, I found this story refreshing and surprising. It was quite unexpected. I've forwarded it to several friends and it has raised an interesting conversation. I think that may be because many of us are longing for significance, something that is not often compatible with the busy, upwardly mobile lifestyle of the D.C. area. I'd like to think of myself as a Christian but realize that my lifestyle comes with no particular sacrifices. I don't feel that I need to sacrifice, per se, but I constantly think about how modern Christianity has made it difficult to stay in touch with those less fortunate. Many of the skeptics only know us for what we are against, not what we are for. That may be the reason why so many people in the comment section were so negative toward the story. It could be that they haven't seen any difference between those who have called themselves Christian and those who do not.
Darragh Johnson: Thank you, Takoma Park ... These are all really good points: Thanks for reading -- and sharing the story! Among the many successes that A Simple House has had, their ability to raise bigger-picture questions is one of the ones I most admire.
Freising, Germany: Regarding the quote from Mother Theresa, "Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is very unfashionable to talk with them," how difficult is to spend much of your time with less fortunate people who, because of their negative experiences, are prone to pessimism and cynicism? Does it rub off?
Clark Massey: Yes.
At the risk of sounding trite, it is only through prayer that we escape pessimism and cynicism. If volunteers don't pray and recreate, they burn out.
Burnout is not a necessary or desirable stage of the spiritual life. It is a sign that something went wrong.
Besides pessism and burnout rubbing off, there is the idea that we need to 'fix' or 'save' someone. This attitude creates burnout, and it leads to a savior complex. You know this attitude has taken hold when you experience intense disappointment at the failure of a some plan or strategy.
Ellicott City, Md.: It sounds like you are relying on money that other people are earning to support your lifestyle choice. Your article suggests that you could use the opportunities in your life to generate a lot more impact on people's lives than this does.
Laura Cartagena: We are absolutely relying on the generosity of others. Many people are familiar with our work and eager to give us money and other donations. I don't think that my lifestyle is putting any of these people out or that they see it as a burden. God provides for people often through each other and we should accept these gifts.
As far as using my opportunities differently, the work I have been doing for the last three years has been very life giving and made me a more mature person. We focus on relationships and loving the poor. It is time intensive and takes up a lot of my energy. There is a great poverty of people not feeling wanted or loved in D.C. If I had a job it would not be possible to do the work I do.
From the fruits of our work, I would say our impact has been large to the families we serve, my family, my friends, and my donors. Families we serve often invite us to their children's birthday parties and graduations as well as family reunions and I am even the godmother of the children in one family. We have been there to help with struggles, and to help people do things on a day to day basis. Sharing so deeply in the lives of those we serve would be difficult if I had a job.
Falls Church, Va.: Must saintliness be an all or nothing proposition? I know saintly people who work with really vulnerable needy people, who still hold jobs, have joie de vivre, and a rich family life.
Second question: wouldn't these people be more effective in helping the targeted population if they were trained in social work, or community organizing, or other skills?
Clark Massey: 1st Question: I think that we must give our lives to God. This can't be a 80/20% or even 99/1% proposition. The Bible talks about dying to self and being reborn. This is 100%.
Christians should strive to be saints at least as hard as a businessman tries to make a million or a drug addict strives for a fix.
2nd Question: I don't know. This is a mystery to me. Social workers are very important, and we constantly take people we know to social workers for help. There is a shortage of social workers, but there is also a shortage of friends/missionaries.
There is something about social work that troubles me. It is built on materialistic premises, and the now dated work of Msgr Furfey and Mary Elizabeth Walsh talk about this problem. I think that all of Christianity will start rethinking social work in the next few decades. It is hard to imagine, but I think that Catholic Charities will be more spiritual in the near future. As a whole, society is getting tired of secularism and materialism.
Alexandria ... by way of Cairo: For Darragh: Such a beautiful piece, thank you so much. You've opened a window on a world that so few of us -- especially those of us in status-seeking, ladder climbing Washington -- would ever see. Can you tell us what strikes you most about the young people you wrote about? What unites them and drives them toward such lives?
Darragh Johnson: Hmmm .... this is a good question. Kind of a chicken-and-egg question, actually. I will say that one of the things I was most struck by, of everyone doing the Simple House ministry, was how _quiet_ and centered and really peaceful they all were. Not in an obnoxious, in-your-face sanctimonious way, but in a genuine, really centered and personally quiet way. So I don't know if that type of person is drawn to this type of work, or if the work helps center them, etc. Or maybe a little bit of both. Obviously they all believe very much in God and they spend lots of time during the day praying ...
At the same time, having said all of that, the thing that really struck me was that they all have just fantastic senses of humor and were a whole lot of fun to hang out with ....
Great Falls, Va.: While you attend to the spiritual need of the needy are you not faced with their material needs? And how will you attempt to answer them?
Clark Massey: We run a food pantry, and give away almost anything that people donate to us. We have given away refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, clothes, dishes... even cars.
Washington, D.C.: I am so happy to see this story. I support a small group of Christians living in intentional community in the Adams Morgan area called the Discipleship Year Program. It's a one year program living in which people young and old live in intentional community and work in jobs that place them in direct contact with the area's poor.
My spirit is lifted when I see people taking up the cross in this way. I lived in an intentional community working and living with torture survivors for a year. It was a trying and uplifting year. It is not easy to live a "simple life", but the rewards of trying are wonderful.
Aeren, member of Seekers Church, Takoma, D.C.
Darragh Johnson: Ah, yes: Even -- and maybe especially -- the "simple life" is never so simple, is it? Thanks for reading and commenting.
Seattle: Wow. I am having an interesting time seeing our questioners reflected in their questions:
"Gee, I'd love to help, but I don't wanna give up sex!"
"Gee, why don't you get people jobs?" (presumably, the questioner has a jobs program they fund)
"Gee, richie kids are just playing poor."
"Gee, shame on you for making me feel guilty."
Laura Cartagena: I'm sorry you that that is your impression and for any way that you feel bad. We are not perfect but are trying our best.
Clark Massey: Thanks Seattle. This has been interesting for me to see also. In talking about our work with people over the years, we get all different types of reactions.
Olney, Md.: Do you ever wonder if you are letting your parents down by not following their hopes or expectations for you? We sent our children to college (and our youngest to law school) so that they would have good, happy (and, yes, comfortable) lives. Is it so wrong to want to be comfortable after working hard for it? And of course we want grandchildren. Don't all parents? I wouldn't be surprised if even the Virgin Mary would have loved to have had one or two. Are your parents completely happy with your choices? No offense, but I wouldn't be, even though I do admire you.
Clark Massey: Parents are often scared that their children fail and hurt themselves. This attitude sometimes keeps children safe, but it can also lead people to be overly protective.
A parent should want their child to become fully themselves even if it happens through a great series of failures. A Simple House is off the beaten path, and many parents hesitate when their kids want to volunteer with us. Those same parents often become our greatest supporters.
I think a lot of pressure is put on kids who come from small families. If you have 8 kids, it's not as bad if one 'freaks out' and becomes a priest. If you have 2 kids, this seems like a tragedy. In reality, it may be the best thing that every happened for a family.
I mean no disrepect to parents or children who find their real success and fulfillment as doctors and lawyers.
Laura Cartagena: My impression is that Clark's family is very proud of what he does though they may have been initially upset.
This ministry has provided a chance for both of our families to get involved and I believe that they have been very happy and often eager to do so.
Baltimore, Md.: Comment/response. It seems that by simplifying your life you are not attempting to simulate poverty so much as to simplify life in order to allow more focus on God and serving the poor.
Clark Massey: That is a very good observation. Our voluntary poverty is to help our prayer life, give some credibility to our friendship, and to free us to give more away.
We also believe in Corporate Poverty. The article didn't discuss this. It is the idea that we don't save money or create an endowment. This keeps us praying for divine providence to support us.
Laura Cartagena: Good insight. Thanks
Washington, D.C.: The article mentioned some sacrifices you've made... sharing cramped space, maybe having to use a shower caddy. do you consider these the real sacrifices of your life... or are there parts you consider more difficult?
Darragh Johnson: I can't speak for Laura and Clark on this, but I will jump in and say that there are many, many more things that they've given up by living the way they do: Beyond even the simple comforts of AC in the summer, and screens that keep out the torturous mosquitoes, and the convenience of having email and internet IN the house, they've given up earning regular paychecks, and doing their own grocery shopping, and having a kitchen stocked with personal items that they like to eat, and going to Starbucks with their friends and not thinking twice about how much a frappuccino would cost. They've given up privacy. They've up owning their own cars. They've given up a sense of self-financed independence, in a way. And yes: Those are all small things. But they are lots of small things that can add up. They are, in the end, sacrifices that plenty of Americans would not be willing to make ....
Waldorf, Md.: I am also a Christian in ministry -- now in my early 50s. Years ago I heard someone say that burnout is a function of naivete. In other words, burnout occurs when we have a simplistic view of people and of situations and expect the solutions to come quickly and easily. Positive change can and does occur -- but it takes time -- lots of it.
Laura Cartagena: Thank you for your insight, it's nice to hear from some one further on the missionary path.
Richmond, Va.: A few days ago I was in line to pay for gas. The guy in front of me caught my attention. He smelled, his coat was ripped and dirty. He had an uneven beard. When he got to the clerk, he placed a candy bar on the counter with a one dollar bill.
The clerk had apparently seen him before; and in a friendly way said the candy bar looked good and that he couldn't wait for lunch. The "homeless" man then insisted -- in a fatherly way - that the clerk keep the candy bar as a snack until he gets his lunch break.
I was in tears. There was this man, probably mentally ill, probably homeless, probably experiencing starvation in a very real way, may have been his last dollar... but his reaction (it was an instant reaction) was to help.
Darragh Johnson: What a heartening anecdote: Thank you for sharing this, Richmond.
Baltimore, Md.: To an outsider, life at Simple House sounds like something that one would cycle through, like the Peace Corps. Do you see yourselves trying to find ways to reach more people in the future or help others set up their own "Simple Houses" in other cities?
Clark Massey: We have already tried to help people set up a similar ministry in New Haven, Connecticut, and we just started a house in Kansas City, Mo. I hope that we will someday have a few more houses, but that is in God's hands.
Laura Cartagena: Many people have asked us the same question. It seems like there is room for A Simple House in other cities and I look forward to what the future holds in that regard.
"If I had a job...": You do have a job. You're just not paid a regular salary to do it. Would those who say "you could affect more people" say the same thing if you were working for Social Services?
Darragh Johnson: I'm going to just post this: Interesting question ....
Washington, D.C.: As a Catholic who has served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and who has many connections with the Catholic Worker movement, I want to thank the writer and the Post magazine for presenting this well-written piece on an often-invisible lifestyle. Not enough people know that this sort of choice -- to reject material gain, to live communally, etc -- even exists.
My question to Clark and Laura is, did you ever consider joining a Catholic Worker community (like the long-serving Dorothy Day house in Petworth) or creating Simple House as a Catholic Worker house, and if not, why not?
Clark Massey: The Catholic Worker was an influence on the original ideas for Simple House. I lived in a Catholic Worker house for almost a year, and Laura used to help out there too.
Our second house was given to us by the Catholic Worker.
Our reasons for not being a Catholic Worker are important.
1. We are only inadvertently (not overtly) political.
2. We wanted to reach out to families who are being ignored in project neighborhoods. The Catholic Worker usually focuses on the Homeless.
3. We wanted to add a truly evangelical part of the ministry.
Laurel, Maryland: To Silver Spring, I have known Laura's parents for many years and know that her parents have been generous with Laura, but they have also opened their doors and hearts to all the missionaries in A Simple House.
Darragh Johnson: Yes, this is true -- and true, too, that they've had many of the people A Simple House minister to up to their house for dinner, and attended baptisms, etc., of those in the S.H. ministry. Thanks for writing in.
Laura Cartagena: Thank you for the nice words about my parents. The example of my parents' hospitality has been one of the most formative things in my life. Much of what I have learned about how to be a Christian I have learned from them.
Chesapeake, Va.: Fantastic report! We know so little about how others are serving Christ in their daily lives. Thank you for covering it so well! I would really like to hear how the opening of the Kansas City house fares.
Darragh Johnson: Thanks for reading -- and commenting. You can also follow A Simple House's progress on their website: www.asimplehouse.org
Laura Cartagena: Thank you so much! So far, so good in KC. Be sure to look at our website.
Philly: Yo Laura, this is Dan M., just wanted to say hello. That was a great article about you guys.
Laura Cartagena: Hey Dan. Thanks :) glad you liked it.
Falls Church Va. (again): I don't understand the response about the materialistic basis of social work, and I am unfamiliar with the two authors you cited. What is "materialistic" about it? I am also thinking about the example in the article about the difficulty of helping the woman with several children keep them in decent schools that were arranged for her children.
Clark Massey: By materialistic basis, I mean that it tends to ignore the spiritual and supernatural. Social Work is a social science, and as a science, it limits itself to the material world.
Most people think that the material world is real, but they also know that the real world isn't limited to the material world.
I look forward to people of faith rethinking social work and helping it to encompass more of human life. Pope Benedict's first letter addressed this topic, and I hope that starts the ball rolling for a big reform.
Please don't think that I'm slamming material help. We spend a lot of time materially helping people.
Ellicott City, Md.: Does WaPo have a policy for when the discussion about an article includes the subjects answering questions? I have not seen this approach here before, and, like the article, it seems to be more of an advertisement than an objective study of the project.
washingtonpost.com: Actually, we do like to have the article's subjects participate in the online discussion when possible. It makes the discussion richer and more informative, I think. -- Elizabeth Terry, discussions producer
Darragh Johnson: And often -- as is the case here -- questions are directed directly to Laura and Clark ...
NE D.C.: Laura, what was it like having a reporter spend that much time with you? Did you get tired of having Darragh shadow you? Did you become friends?
Laura Cartagena: I enjoyed having Darragh with us. I think both she and we were surprised by how well we got along and did not feel too awkward. The community missed her when she was no longer following us around.
Springboro, Ohio: I think the idea of joining the poor and trying to show their love of God by sharing the unfortunates' living conditions is a wonderful idea. I would however think the missionary group were more serious in their quest if they pledged to live in those surroundings for say 6 months to a year. Knowing they can go back to a warm and loving church family and loving parents is totally different from living in conditions these people might be saddled with for the rest of their lives. I do feel however that anytime anyone in any walk of life gives with joy in their hearts it is a true blessing. So God Bless you kids for your loving gift to others and to God.
Clark Massey: Thank you for the encouragement. We are trying to balance solidarity and safety. Simple House volunteers feel safe in their homes, and it is our goal to have a slightly monastic aspect to our houses.
Alexandria, Va.: I guess I just don't understand this concept of having to pretend to be poor to understand poor people. Why not fix up the houses you have and put some poor folks in them and minister to them and their neighbors and drive to and from those neighborhoods during the day from a safe house where you can have some comforts and get rejuvenated to do your "good" works each day? It all just seems so much like method acting to me.
Darragh Johnson: I can't speak for Laura or Clark here ... but I will say that, after having talked with many many people in their ministry, I was astonished by the appreciation for something as simple as _friendship_ ... There are programs for building houses. Programs for handing out food, etc. But there aren't many programs for simply showing love and friendship to people who've never known it. When one of the people in the ministry said that she was at a terribly low point in her life before she met Laura, and that Laura's friendship and attention really helped bring her back from the brink ... that's powerful. When Jessica talked about a "poverty of love," that a very very real poverty, and one that not many people -- as well as programs -- have dedicated themselves to eradicating.
Dallas: Laura, thanks for sharing your story (and thanks to Darragh for doing such a nice job in telling it). I used to attend Holy Cross and also CUA and it's great to see them turning out people so committed to their faith. I wanted to encourage you that discerning your vocation doesn't necessarily mean a vocation to the religious life, as you know, but can mean a vocation to marriage and family life as well! My question is, do you feel like you've made a difference with Simple House in the last few years? Are there any "success" stories you have that really stuck with you as giving you motivation to keep going?
Laura Cartagena: Thanks a lot for the comments! As far as making a difference, I hope so! I think that many of the friendships that we have built have been authentic and life giving to both parties. Many people have thanked us for being there in times of loneliness and many other needs and have really made us a part of their families. We have been there to counsel and support people in times of crisis (people considering suicide, crisis pregnancies, family being murdered or incarcerated, etc...).
It is hard to measure success when I think that the crux of our work is bringing people closer to Christ and to loving themselves and those around them better. There have been material successes, like we have helped a number of people get jobs or better housing. My closest friend from A Simple House was considering suicide and I think she is much happier and her kids are doing better. I would say that that relationship could make all of our struggles worth it.
Baltimore, Md.: What would you each say is the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of being part of Simple House?
Clark Massey: On a pretty regular basis, something small and wonderful happens which is a great consolation. It might be a cute kid or sharing with someone during a major breakthrough. Last night, someone beat me at Monopoly in a very improbable way. It was a pretty cool moment with someone who is truly a friend, and I met her and her children throught his ministry.
The most challenging thing is to hang out with peers who either don't understand our ministry or who measure success by standards which make me a failure. By grace, this usually doesn't bother me, but if I've been slacking in my prayer life, I can get caught up in their attitude.
Clark Massey: Something that has not been mentioned in the article is that we are a functioning 501c3 non-profit. An interesting note is that Laura was the first Chairman of the Board and that her father Luis is the new Chairman.
Washington, D.C.: I work with college students, and so often when they want to join the Jesuit or Lutheran Volunteer Corps (or one of many other programs out there) their parents have a fit that they won't be making money for one or two years. Very often these are Catholic/Christian parents who have cultivated these values in their children's lives! I'm grateful for this article simply because so many of these parents have never even realized that experiences and commitments like this are possible -- I hope people will see that it's not as unusual as they think (there are too many volunteer/missionary houses in this city to count).
Laura Cartagena: Thanks a lot for the comment. I think parents worry so much about their children's futures that it can be difficult if they do something they see as abnormal or not useful for advancing. But you are right! Many people do things like this and grow a great deal from it.
Bethesda, Md.: Ellicott City, how are questions to the subjects of an article that ran yesterday an advertisement? An advertisement for what? A free online article? The mission? I don't understand. Also, an objective study of the project? The questions to these folks who do very good things for people have been hardly objective. Several of the questions (including two from Ellicott City) today have been rude, accusatory, and fully-loaded. I could see if Blago or Scooter Libby was on the chat today, but young people who help others? I thought this was supposed to be a new era, change we can believe in.
washingtonpost.com: I'll just add that I think it would be fascinating to have Gov. Blagojevich, Scooter Libby or anyone in the news do a chat with us! -- Elizabeth Terry
Clark Massey: There are a lot of different attitudes towards our work. It is not because this is an internet chat or the Washington Post that some people are hostile to our ideas/work. I often find it in one-on-one conversations where I've gone out of my way to be non-confrontational. Some of these same people end up donating to our work. I think that our frugality wins some people over even when our Christian message is unpopular.
Washington, D.C.: There may be a lot of questions on this, but I'm curious -- why give up sex?
Laura Cartagena: Thanks for the question... I think that we have already answered that question if you want to refer to our previous responses for a deeper answer, though I will say that we have not sworn off sex forever, rather are trying to live as we have been informed from our Christian values.
thanks: thanks for showing young Catholic people in a positive light. Sacrifice is a dirty word these days. We all should be comfortable, well off, healthy, and never have to give up the daily latte. However, all this shows us is that we are too closely tied to our material well being. You really must practice sacrifice (small or large) to get close to God. Question to Clark and Laura: have you ever considered Opus Dei?
Clark Massey: Thank you for the kind comment. I used to visit the Catholic Information Center when I worked downtown. I became familiar with Opus Dei in that context, but I never felt called to join.
Darragh Johnson: Thanks to everyone for joining us -- and for reading and being interested. It's been a great chat.
Clark Massey: Thank you for being interested in our ministry. Please understand that all of my answers were made on the fly, and they may not be the most thought out essays.
Signing Off -- Clark
Laura Cartagena: Thank you so much for your questions. I am happy so many people were interested by this article. I hope that I was able to give meaningful answers. Bye!
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