The Catholic University of America

April 30, 2009

CUA Alumni Minister to D.C. Poor in "Friendship Moments"

  Volunteers (from left) Ryan Hehman, Ryan Fredrickson, Sarah Burkey, Bianca Tropeano and Laura Cartagena in the living room of the Simple House on T Street in Northwest Washington.

Bianca Tropeano, a 2008 graduate who majored in theology and psychology, says her experiences at The Catholic University of America allowed her to "live out what I was learning."

Now a lay minister, she and four other alumni are continuing to live what they learned at CUA as volunteers at Simple House of St. Francis and St. Alphonsus, which works in the poorest and most segregated area of Washington, D.C.

The lay ministers do what Simple House calls "small acts of faith, hope and love" in public-housing neighborhoods where violence, prostitution, drug abuse, homelessness and other social problems are commonplace. The volunteers pray with community members and invite them to church, and they distribute food and other supplies to needy families. But primarily, they build what 2008 theology graduate Ryan Fredrickson calls "friendship in the name of Christ."

Simple House, which operates in Washington and Kansas City using only volunteers and private donations, began several years ago to help children by assisting single mothers in neighborhoods of Southeast D.C. "But it turns out," says 2005 philosophy graduate Laura Cartagena, who helped develop the ministry, "when you get to know moms, you get to know their boyfriends, their children."

The volunteers, many of whom knew each other at CUA and were involved in Campus Ministry, define success in what they call "friendship moments." They rejoice when kids are baptized, women choose not to have abortions, those living in poverty find jobs or better housing, and children get opportunities to attend good schools.

By coincidence, CUA graduates make up all the volunteer staff living in two Simple House homes in D.C. They are among the university's graduates who have chosen to do full-time community-service work after graduation. About two dozen graduates went on to community service after commencement in 2008.

The ministry started by building relationships door-to-door. Today, Simple House ministers do four outreaches a year that allow them to formally meet people - distributing baskets at Easter, bags of goods at Thanksgiving and Christmas and school supplies at the start of the school year. Once a month, volunteers give out grocery bags filled with food, toiletries, items for infants and other supplies.

Simple House's successes have much to do with the volunteers themselves. They aren't pretentious; they have no agenda, says Rev. Raymond H. Moore of St. Thomas More Church in Southeast D.C. "They are who they are - people of integrity."

Father Moore calls their work important and "integral to some of the folks they're engaged with." Among those who have benefited from volunteers' work is a family of seven children that has seen a "ray of hope" - connections to school, church and positive relationships - thanks to Simple House, he says.

In the Simple House on Minnesota Avenue in Southeast Washington, Bianca Tropeano and Ryan Hehman stand among bags of donated food items and toiletries ready for distribution to the poor.

Ryan Hehman, a 2006 graduate who majored in anthropology, was asked by a donor whether Simple House has inspired a lot of conversions to Catholicism. "I think if I measured success only in the number of conversions, I would be very disappointed and frustrated," Hehman says. "But … we all just rejoice in moments when we have evidence of friendships."

The spiritual is the "basis of who they are and what they do," and they are "living the gospel in a radical way," says Father Moore, adding, "It's not too complicated."

As the name "Simple House" indicates, the group embraces a lifestyle that they say allows them to focus on their faith and work. The women live in a rowhouse in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest D.C., and the men live in a rowhouse in the Southeast D.C. community that both the men and women serve. Both houses needed significant improvements to make them livable. The group does not reject possessions, but the homes are sparsely furnished. There is no air conditioning, no TV and no Internet access. Shelves hold books such as "Apostle to the World" and "Life of Christ," and crucifixes and religious images adorn the walls. "Work, prayer, friendship all come together in a cohesive lifestyle," Hehman says.

Simple House volunteers, who do not work outside the ministry, live in voluntary poverty. Each receives a $200 monthly stipend. Tropeano says that surprises many people, but "we're not here to make money."

When volunteers are not out in the community, they are laboring to keep Simple House operating. Tropeano, for example, coordinates the packaging of donations, while Sarah Burkey, a 2006 graduate who majored in social work and a part-time volunteer, provides accounting and technical support.

While the group is gathered one Wednesday for morning prayer, Cartagena's mother arrives with bags and boxes of donations from a Maryland parish that read about Simple House. The volunteers are thankful for the donations, but, with the living rooms of both Washington houses filled with bags and boxes, Simple House struggles with where to put donations until they can be distributed. A proper storage place is among the group's biggest needs. Volunteers juggle the use of two vehicles, making additional cars another critical need.

The response to the ministry surprises even the volunteers. Hehman notices in Southeast "a reverence for church people and Jesus" and an openness. "There's something about how people in Southeast value being real and not putting on airs," he says.

"In Southeast, Jesus is welcome," Cartagena adds. Imagine, she suggests, a Simple House volunteer asking what appears to be the lone person in a small apartment whether she wants to pray. "Before you know it," Cartagena says, "you're holding hands with 10, 12 people. … This happens with some regularity."

Tropeano shares a conversation that she has come to cherish. A high school student, whom Tropeano had been ministering, asked her when they could spend time together again. "This girl wanted to continue a friendship with me," Tropeano says. "It was humbling. She wanted me to be a part of her life. That's what we can hope for."