Ask any group of Catholics, “Who wants to help the poor?” and most will raise their hands. But the number of hands remaining if asked about serving the poor by living among them will likely be far fewer.
Clark Massey keeps his hand held high. He says, “I like the poor. They’re often more in touch with God and the real issues of life. Desperation is an interesting school of faith.”
Clark lives in one of the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. How did this 32-year-old with degrees in math, economics and finance come to make his home there? By responding to God’s call. He tells Every Day Catholic, “I felt called to get to know the poor. If there was an evangelization field for me, that’s where I really wanted to be. I don’t ‘love’ the poor because they need me. I like and love individuals who are poor. This love is personal.”
Clark founded A Simple House in late 2004 after working and living in a homeless shelter in Washington. “The way this homeless shelter was being run was very ‘with the poor,’ ministering in a friendship kind of way. I wanted to go where I didn’t see people going to help—into the projects—to meet some of the single moms and see what the situation is there,” he says.
Full-time Simple House volunteers live together in voluntary poverty, receiving basic room and board, health insurance and a $200 monthly stipend. There are currently two houses in Washington and one in Kansas City, Missouri. The ministry is supported by private donations.
What was Clark’s own most difficult sacrifice, and what has he learned from making sacrifices for this ministry? Clark says, “Christian life is like playing poker. Each round you’re asked to ante all your chips; you have to go all-in. I really liked my motorcycle, but every dime was needed to start the ministry. I couldn’t hold the motorcycle out of the deal.
“Sacrificing teaches you about yourself. It’s only through self-denial, mortification and asceticism that we learn about what we really need. Some people need to sacrifice things to prove they don’t need them. I once tried the opposite approach: Give everything away and only buy things that you find you need. I found out that you really need a shower curtain, but you don’t need much kitchen stuff or furniture if you live alone.”
Comparing his satisfaction now to his past when he lived a more comfortable lifestyle, Clark says, “I’m happy. I feel relief. I don’t have vague feelings of being in the wrong place. I look around at our cold house, basic food and patched-together belongings, and I think it’s odd how often we laugh and joke.
“There’s something about doing without which makes you appreciate what you have. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich after a hike tastes better than a steak after a day of watching TV. We fast so that we can feast.”
Learn more about A Simple House at www.asimplehouse.org.
Anna loves to create celebrations around seasonal events. It’s wonderful to watch the kids get into the spirit. Sipping her coffee one February morning, she thinks of the upcoming fun holidays: St. Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day and, of course, Easter.
She suddenly feels guilty about avoiding keeping Lent. Ash Wednesday is coming soon, and the family should do something, but all that sadness and fasting is a real downer.
We live in a secular culture that focuses on feeling good. We see celebrations as breaks from the work of making a living and family responsibilities. It’s no wonder that Lent isn’t very popular. Parents, however, must teach their children the full message of discipleship: It’s necessary to “deny yourself and take up your cross” in order to walk with Jesus.
Keeping Lent doesn’t need to be painful. Family projects can turn the words of Scripture into experiences that bring the season of penance into focus. Here are a few favorites:
• On Ash Wednesday, line an Easter basket with plastic and fill it with potting soil. Plant grass seed in the basket and water it. Talk about the lifeless appearance of dirt without seeds and water. When we add the seeds of faith and the water of Baptism, we’re filled with God’s life. On Easter, fill your live Easter basket with eggs.
• Put a canning jar on the kitchen table. Decide upon a family Lenten task (e.g., no complaining, no bad language, no fighting). Whenever a family member breaks the Lenten task, he or she must put a quarter in the jar. The money can be given to a local charity or the parish Sunday collection.
• Plan a family night at a soup kitchen or parish outreach event. After the service, have a family discussion about the experience and why giving of time and talent is so important in our Christian lives.
Carlos, Anna and the children gave Lent a new place in their family calendar. Anna turned her energy to spiritual rather than secular celebrations. The family tried some new activities that made Lent a cherished memory. Holy Week, the parish Reconciliation service and the Easter Fire on Holy Saturday brought them far more inspiration than Valentines or shamrocks ever could.
Anna thinks to herself, Lent wasn’t painful at all. In fact, watching Carlos fill up that jar with quarters was great fun.