“I’m ready to accept now” – A Letter From a New Volunteer

“I’m ready to accept now” – A Letter From a New Volunteer

Dear Friends and Family,

This past February, I received a phone call telling me I had been accepted to A Simple House of Saints Francis and Alphonsus. I was told to call back once I had made a decision. “That’s OK,” I replied. “I’m ready to accept now.” It was easy to make this decision because it didn’t feel like there was a decision to make. I desired to give myself entirely to God. I wanted to prioritize relationships. I sought to renounce the world and delve into prayer. This did not just seem like a good way to live, but the only way to live in integrity with my faith. Life at A Simple House, then, just made sense. I felt excited and anxious, but at peace with this conclusion.

In retrospect, “to accept” is all that I was ready to do. I was not ready to rescue a single mom and her kids from a broken minivan in rush-hour traffic. I was not ready to perform a house blessing with our parish priest for a family experiencing paranormal activity. Nor was I ready to approach stoops where young men loiter and smoke, armed only with a crucifix pendant and chicken broccoli casserole. I was ready only to accept the call of Christ to pick up my cross and follow Him. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appoints 72 disciples to go out in pairs “like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). At A Simple House, we seek to live out this commission. With a ministry partner, we knock on the doors of Southeast DC project housing neighborhoods. By encountering people in their homes, we encounter them as friends. These sincere relationships give us a better sense of how to meet people’s material, social, and spiritual needs.

During one of the first weeks of ministry, I expressed to Ryan a concern that I was not meeting the poorest of the poor. He promised to bring me on “awkward little visits in bad neighborhoods.” The next day, I met Gerald. He emerged from his apartment in a yellow Hawaiian shirt and colorful plastic rosary beads. On our way to lunch, my meager attempts at conversation were met with disinterested murmurs. I had a feeling that this would be a long visit. After 35 minutes of waiting in line at Popeyes in agitated silence, that feeling was affirmed. Ryan later explained that the Five Dollar Big Box was likely Gerald’s only meal that day. The agitation then made a lot of sense.

At A Simple House, volunteers live without Internet, television, or air conditioning. This radical simplicity is part of what attracted me to the mission, and I certainly got what I signed up for as I sweated through many August nights. But my life as a volunteer is comfortable compared to that of Gerald. He lived without electricity and gas for over three months. He took his microwave to the laundry room in order to cook, and depended on candles and flashlights to see. One time I buzzed his apartment expecting to be let in. He came to door, explaining that we wouldn’t be able to see his paperwork. Therefore, much of our ministry took place in the car and in fast food restaurants.

During our next visit, Ryan and I took Gerald to the library to search for utility assistance. He emerged again from his apartment, again wearing the Hawaiian shirt and rosaries. We asked where he wanted to eat, and I just prayed he wouldn’t say Popeyes. I was already anticipating another long and unpleasant visit. “I want to go to Popeyes,” he said. My heart deflated. “AND McDonald’s.” We paused. “Both? Man, you gotta pick one,” said Ryan, and Gerald started laughing. I didn’t know what to make of this. I was not expecting laughter – a grumble or protest, sure, but laughter? The realization slowly sank in. Gerald was making a joke.

Before serving at A Simple House, I held notions of the poor built from experiences at homeless shelters, pregnancy centers, and soup kitchens. I conceptualized the poor as a source of either inspiration or penance. In the former case, they passed along wisdom gained by overcoming life’s many hardships. They were witnesses to Christ among the marginalized. In the latter, the poor were unpleasant and ungrateful. Ministry with them enabled me to become more Christ-like; I could act as Jesus to the lepers and those who persecuted Him.

Then God put someone like Gerald in my path and totally upset my neat categorizations. After my first visit, I subconsciously labeled him as a source of penance. He was difficult to engage, hard to understand, and chose a restaurant with a ridiculously long line. I envisioned our visits as opportunities to bear the crosses of patience and grace. Then he made some jokes that made me laugh and I realized that he has a personality and sense of humor. He is not a source of penance. Nor is he only a source of inspiration. He is a person whose life gets to intersect with mine for some time. We get to eat fast food, navigate the mayor’s call system, sit in traffic, grumble, and laugh. We are witnesses of God to one another, but Christ was both fully divine and fully human. I cannot claim to know God through Gerald without really knowing Gerald. This is the beauty of our ministry. We meet people in their homes. We fully experience the chaos and messiness of their lives without artifice or separation. And thus, we come to really know them.

Just as God upset my notions of Gerald and the poor, He continuously upsets the ideas we have of Him. When I reach some theological conclusion, He forces me to reconsider. When I am on a happy path to holiness, He knocks me off kilter. When I began college, I thought I was setting down the path to prestige and wealth. Now I am living in DC like many young graduates. But I am living among the poor on the wrong side of the river. It can be frustrating to feel that we will never understand Him or His plans for our lives, until we realize that this is His plan for our lives: to keep us ever in a state of restlessness and conversion. We cannot be prepared for the ways God upturns our understandings and uproots our contented lives, for “how unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways” (Romans 11:33). We can only open ourselves to the ways He calls us to Him: to love, to serve, to go on awkward little visits in bad neighborhoods. And we can only respond, “I’m ready to accept now.”

Our ministry is always in need of prayers. We visit many people who, like Gerald, are in material and spiritual need. Several of our friends are waiting for housing vouchers, studying for the GED, searching for employment, struggling to pay bills, and raising children on their own. God’s grace is all that sustains the poor and those helping to carry their burdens. We also depend on His providence for our material needs. A Simple House is committed to personal and corporate poverty, and never has more than three months’ operating expenses saved. We would appreciate your generous donations so we can continue the works of our ministry. Thank you for your spiritual and financial support.

God bless you,

Mary-Kate Burns