CHRISTMAS is, for many, the tradiitonal time for gift-giving and charity. But Harold Moss, Veronica Maz and Sally Hanlon aim at the Good Samaritan ideal year round.
Each has given up part of the material world -- which now swamps the Christmas season with torrents of ads, sales and gimmicks -- to work fulltime for the poor. Moss, 39, works with homeless men at the Community for Creative Non-Violence. Maz, 51, founded the House of Ruth for homeless and abused women. And Hanlon, 45, works with street people, substitutes at a day-care center and helps relocate Latin American political refugees.
Previously, they had other lives. Moss worked as a research chemist at NIH for 10 years and had studied toward his doctorate in chemistry at Catholic University. Maz taught sociology at Georgetown University, St. Bonaventure and the University of Pittsburgh. Hanlon was a nun in the Maryknoll Order and served in several Latin American countries.
We're in a dark, cramped room at the Community. Harold Moss is wearing a windbreaker and some scruffy blue jeans. He seems unaware of the lack of heat in the room -- on a day when the temperature is barely above freezing. The only reminders of his past are several chemistry books stacked in disarray on a nightstand by the bed. Moss, of slight build, has just come in to shower after almost two weeks of sleeping on a heat grate in the Mall area. He and Mitch Snyder, another radical Christian, are trying to live under the same conditions as destitute men.
"I was a scientist. I was comfortable. I listened to music. I was a ranked tennis player in the American Tennis Association and played every day. But I was totally oblivious as to what was going on in the world. I was only interested in my own happiness.
"My wife and I began having trouble. She was interested in material success. And I wanted more. I talked with a priest and he suggested that I work at a soup kitchen. I started seeing the great suffering in the world -- all those hungry people. We eat more protein than we need in this country. I realized my life had to change in a radical and extreme way.
"My wife moved out of our house on Walnut Street. I was trying to change my life. My wife always considered me a radical -- ever since we met at Howard.
"Life got to the point where I started having trouble on my job. I was getting to work late because I kept spending more and more time at the soup kitchen. Finally, I just quit. My boss thought I was crazy. But some of the people I worked with knew I was headed in the direction to quit.
"It's very, very difficult for me to deal with the question of how I, a black person, have gone the way I've gone. By the color of my skin, I'm forced to be certain ways that I don't think it's necessary for me to be. A lot of older black people would be disgusted. They would think I'm a complete idiot, and I've had that expressed to me.
"Older blacks would say it took generations of suffering by black people to be free enough to work through the system and get a job like I had. I understand this attitude because I was raised in the South. I knew when my father couldn't go downtown, or when I couldn't go downtown. I was around when you couldn't drink out of the same fountains as a white person.
"My parents struggled for me to get an education so I wouldn't have to go through the things they went through. And to a large extent I'm turning my back on all that. I see that a lot of them were misled -- not in terms of trying to overcome oppression, but I see their relationship to the world as wrong. I think my greatest gift to all of them is to relieve the oppression of our people in a much deeper and different way.
"I was raised by Franciscans in a Catholic Church in Memphis. I admired St. Francis' detachment from the world, when I was a little kid. I used to have passionate thoughts about St. Francis. I thought he was haunting me. He'd say, 'What are you doing? Why are you spending so much time on yourself? Why are you gathering all these material things? Don't you know you're going to have to give them away?"
"I'm awed by the number of blacks who talk eloquently of their people's poverty, but they don't put themselves on the line.
"The only way we can identify with the homeless is that we have to become homeless. Most of us have no idea of what it feels like to be homeless. If we understood it, we would create a situation where we'd never be homeless. We'd create shelters. We'd assist other people to create shelters.
"For the last four years I've worked with the hungry. I claim to be an advocate for the hungry. I've come to understand that I nowhere near carry the sense of urgency or dedication I need.
"When you've been out on the heat grates and you can't sleep, you find out people become alcoholics because that's the only way they can go to sleep. They have to become insensitive, physically and emotionally, to everything that's going on around them so they can blank out.
"I've been on the grate for more than a week now. Friends of mine have passed by me. One, a woman, pretended not to see me. Another friend, a man, thought I was wasting my time.
"I must know a thousand people who live on the street. One of my jobs is to find food. We feed dinner to 300 to 500 people every day. I go through the garbage at Safeway and Giant. They throw away overripe fruit and vegetables that are just going bad. We cut the bad part off and use this food.
"We have so much food in this society. It's sad that some store managers don't want us to go through their garbage. They've started compacting their garbage, and they won't let us go through it. And people out on the street are going without food.
"The thing I miss most is music. Sometimes I'd like to hear the St. Matthew Passion.
"Perhaps I should've never married. Some people would probably say I shouldn't be pursuing what I'm pursuing, that I should go and stay with my wife and make her happy. I think to make her happy makes too many people unhappy.
"I did not choose to leave her. She chose not to follow the life I was following. But I don't want her to feel that I'm taking anything away from her. She's divorcing me. I gave her the house, the car.
"I'm thinking about taking a vow of celibacy. I don't think about sex at all. I'm almsot 40 years old. I've been working at not thinking about sex for 10 years. I don't even dream about it. I dream about cigarettes before I dream about sex.
"Right now to tell you the truth, I don't want to sleep outside tonight. I want to be asleep in a bed.
"I love pleasure".
"But I can't enjoy it. How can I enjoy these things when I know other people are suffering? I feel guilty lying on a bed. I feel much more comfortable sleeping on a heat grate. I enjoy sleeping on a heat grate -- not because it's softer but because my conscience is clearer. I'm not burdened with the guilt or realization that I'm sleeping in a bed when there're a lot of people outside. Physically, I'm not comfortable, but mentally I am."
"If somebody came up and hit me instead of hitting you, I don't feel good worth a damn, but mentally and spiritually I'm more comfortable. You can say that it's Christ-like. That's good. I don't care if it's Buddha-like. I don't care if it's Zorba the Greek-like."
She is a plump, cheerful woman. Almost immediately, it's easy to tell from her eyes that Veronica Maz doesn't take herself too seriously. We're seated in her neat, well-scrubbed office.
"The biggest thing I gave up was a social life and a lot of travel. But those aren't important things.
"The things that actually brought about the change are the sensitivities I had -- and the way I was brought up as a kid. I was teaching at Georgetown when I came downtown making visits to the inner city. This one time I saw all the men standing around one of those fire barrels. I'd seen that many times, but now here was a personal contact. I was right there talking to the man.
"And then I was going back to my car and my real nice comfortable home. And a man fell down right in front of me, right on the sidewalk. And I just walked around him and got in my car. And when I got in my car, I started talking to myself. I said, 'Why didn't you help him? Well, I just assumed he was drunk. Well, what if he were drunk? He could've had a heart attack. He could've had anything under the sun.
"All that night I didn't sleep. It bothered me personally. Whatever these sensitivities that you grow up with that you're not even conscious of. That's faith.
"So after seeing the man on the sidewalk, I walked around in this area and saw a line of men near St. Aloysius Church. That's where Father McKenna was giving out sandwiches. I didn't like the scene -- old men just waiting for a sandwich. And so I said to myself that I should do something. I told Father McKenna I was going to start a soup kitchen.
"I knew nothing about soup kitchens. I went across the street to an apartment building and a lady was standing there by the elevators. I told her I was starting a soup kitchen and I needed some soup spoons. She looked at me kind of funny. I asked her for a spoon and if she would ask her neighbor for one. She agreed. That afternoon she brought over 75 soup spoons.
"And the women started coming. They asked if they could sleep there. The men didn't do that because they had gospel mission. So I talked to our board and we started Little Sholom House, for eight or nine women. The first week over 200 came.
"We're a Band-Aid. Let me tell you what our objectives are. I learned about homeless, destitute women when I started a soup kitchen. I knew nothing about them. The next step was to do something for the women. Now we've done something. The next step is to do something nationally. On March 18, 19 and 20, we're having our first national conference at Georgetown University about homeless women. We're trying to raise the consciousness of people throughout the country. People don't even know they exist. And we want to start some legislation. We want to start some shelter projects. We're literally a Band-Aid.
"It doesn't make any difference that I left Georgetown or any other place.
But it would make a difference if I left the soup kitchen because if I wasn't there, it wouldn't have gotten started. I grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., outside Pittsburg. It's a steel town. I went to school at the University of Pittsburg. My father owned property. He had a restaurant and real estate. He was a businessman. My background -- Polish, Austrian, Catholic. I'm not a church person, but I'm a person of faith. I didn't get that far yet.
"What does it mean if you give up something that's not important? I have all the things I need. I eat all day long here. People are always coming to the door with cookies and sweets. When I first came here, I wasn't fat. I was thin. I have no idea why I've never married. I haven't taken a vow of poverty. I don't know what that means. Sisters talk to me about vows of poverty and they live in these beautiful places with everything under the sun -- big swimming pool, acres of ground. I get $20,000 a year. Oh, I'm living high on the hog. I don't know where it goes."
Sally Hanlon lives in a house in Mount Pleasant with a group of concerned Christians, mostly young, who work for human rights causes. They try to simplify life. We're sitting in an attic she rents in a nearby house. She uses the space as a work area and retreat. It's sparsely furnished. A rickety wood table, three chairs, a pallet, her guitar and lots of photographs and drawings are there. She's protested war and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, and in doing so she's been arrested at the White House and the Pentagon.
"I was born in Boston. I went to Notre Dame Maryland in Baltimore. After I got out of college I went back to New England to teach a couple of years, and I taught elementary school and in the evening I did high school group rap work. Somebody working with me said she'd like to be a lay missionary but was afraid to go to the interview. She asked me along for moral support. In five minutes I was signed, sealed and delivered. And the other one never went.
"That took me to the border of Mexico, to Las Cruces, N.M. After that year I volunteered to go to Latin America because I'd really come to love the people. Then I was sent to Honduras. I lived alone for a year and learned the language from the people. Later I was sent to Peru. After two years, I joined Maryknoll Order -- not so much that I wanted to be a nun but I thought that was what God wanted me to do. I saw the people going on hunger strikes and committing themselves in a number of ways.
"In our family our parents had really taught us that there was joy in service. I was one of six kids and brought up during the Second World War. sWe'd be stamping cans at the local hospital. My parents would be giving blood, be doing community-chest work. On Thanksgiving, we'd go to the train station and look around. I always thought my father was making a fool of himself. He'd yell out, 'Anybody here who doesn't have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner, now you just come along to the Hanlons.' And we'd take servicemen home. Part of me thought, this is ridiculous. He's making a fool of himself. But on the other hand, it was a great way to be.
"I had a vision that I'd be a lay missionary. It's sort of like you want to have your cake and eat it, too. You might want to have a family and a private life, to be able to do service to others but not of the regular walk of life. I had a kind of faith experience where I realized that I could give up anything or do anything that would be for the good of people. And under the strength of that experience was where I was able to make that move.
"Faith has been a key thing for me all along. I said, 'Oh, Lord, you're the one who's been there during the tough times for me all along.' I had gone to Finland for a summer. I left the convent and worked in a factory for a year. I lived in a basement room. I swept floors at minimum wages.
"When I came back after 10 years in Latin America, I went on leave from the Maryknoll Order. The leave kept stretching. I think they knew my interests were changing. So finally I decided to resign. They were very understanding. So now Im an ex-con. That's what ex-nuns are called.
"I'm a friend of the street people. I'm a volunteer at a shelter. I spend one night a week there helping. I also work at a day-care center -- and in our house.
"I want to be one of those who identify with the people and help others to do it, too. I never want to forget there are political prisoners. I never want to have a savior complex. I need people to laugh me out of my seriousness. A lot of my life I spend in the prayer of desperation. It makes for a good night's sleep. I try to make my life a permanent prayer."