By Russell E. Saltzman
The first thing to say about Simple House, it’s not so simple. The concept of an inner-city Catholic mission to the poor is not new. But how it is implemented can sometimes be another story.
Simple House, 2432 Agnes Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, is not a “social agency.” It has none of the typical trappings that one would think of as belonging to poverty outreach. There is no food pantry, no clothes closet, no daily soup kitchen, no overnight housing.
“Kansas City already offers plenty of those,” notes Clark Massey, founder and house director. “The poor and homeless are well-served in Kansas City.”
By that he means material needs are generally being addressed. “What we do not have is a lot of regard for those who are the ‘poor in spirit.’”
What the house instead offers are Catholic missionaries to and for the poor. The missionary life at A Simple House of Sts. Francis and Alphonsus, to use the proper name, is marked by daily mass, communal prayer, and voluntary poverty.
“We try to integrate ourselves into the individual’s need,” as Massey explains it. “We do that by meeting them, coming to know them.” He describes Simple House as “non-professional, deliberately volunteer, and non-institutional.”
Most days, the three or four missionaries – the house usually has four to seven in residence – emerge and go visit the poor and the homeless. They offer little beyond friendship, prayer, encouragement, and some hands-on life coaching when invited.
Yet friendship, one learns fast, is frequently harder in practice than handing out groceries. Friendship is the first thing and that comes from knowing the neighbors and visiting with them, not as a demographic set to be served, but as persons in need of friends who will pray with them.
That involves the witness of Christian presence in the life of the poor. It is less “what would Jesus do” and more “how would Jesus live.”
How it works out is sometimes running interference for someone trying to interact with a city agency, or giving a ride to the Division of Motor Vehicles, or help with collecting and filling out the right forms before seeing a social worker. It can mean repeated visits with a homeless woman and, after overcoming a lot of initial distrust, helping move them along to housing.
“It means forming a patient relationship with the individual,” says Massey, “and praying with and for that person.”
There are three missionary women presently at Simple House, young college graduates who have signed up for a year, maybe longer to hear them talk. Michaela Pezza, Shawnee, Kansas, and Erin Bunker, Overland Park, Kansas, are both graduates of Benedictine College in Atchison. The third, Kara Cruickshank, is a University of Kansas graduate from Sidney, Iowa. They provide the bulk of outreach. Michaela and Erin heard Massey speak at Benedictine. Kara heard of Simple House largely by word-of-mouth and signed on.
None of them has an outside job. They each receive $200 a month and help with health insurance for the work they do with area families.
There is plenty of opportunity. The house is located in one of the poorest zip codes in Kansas City. Simple House is surrounded by projects, single-family homes, residences converted to rental apartments, and many abandoned houses. In the immediate neighborhood around Simple House, there are no nearby gas stations, convenience or grocery stores. I-70 splits through the area a few blocks to the east.
The median family income is less than $30,000 and housing values are among the lowest third in Missouri. Real estate tax revenues amount to $1.5 million; contrast that with almost $17 million in a comparably sized zip code in the Kansas City Northland.
The house itself fits into the neighborhood niche. Perhaps a century old, it had been long abandoned before Simple House bought it, and shows it. Two seminarians – Dylan Ostdiek and Brandon Allen – from St. John’s Vianney in Denver are spending an urban immersion at the house. A Jesuit novice is expected in March. Massey has the seminarians hanging up dry wall.
Simple House purchased the structure from a bank for $12,000, provided by a donor who prefers anonymity. When last occupied, it had been used for cheap apartments. That is long over. Prior to that it was once – like much of the housing around 2 streets – a working class, single family home.
There are three bedrooms upstairs, two down, a generous dining area on the first floor (careful moving the table, the legs aren’t firmly attached), and a living room with a fireplace. Much of the interior has a distinctly rugged, unfinished look. While the upstairs is centrally heated, the ground floor – where male missionaries have their rooms – has no central heating, and installing the duct work for it is probably cost-prohibitive. A small fireplace and a wood pellet furnace provide the downstairs heat. The other spaces rely on small space heaters. Voluntary poverty acquires a personal if cool significance at Simple House.
Massey has had experience with what is called the “intentional community movement” among Catholics and other Christians. He started the first Simple House in southeast Washington, DC, selling his motorcycle and using his savings to do it. The original house in Washington has since expanded to three houses, each next door to the other. When Bishop Robert Finn conducted the house blessing in Kansas City five years ago, the Washington house was already seven years old.
All the houses operate on a combined annual budget of $180,000, all from donations, which arrive on a sometimes fitful schedule. At Easter in 2010, Simple House was down to twelve days in operating funds. It is a budget of faith.
But how does one measure success in an endeavor that purposely eschews statistics, like how many people fed, housed, transported, brought to Christ, or any of the usual markers we look for? Massey has no way of telling you. Simple House doesn’t keep a book of numbers. That’s what “non-professional, deliberately volunteer, and non-institutional” means.
Yet there is something afoot. “It’s called ‘friendship evangelism,’” Fr. Ernie Davis says.
Davis was pastoral administrator at Saint Therese Little Flower Parish, 58th and Euclid, for seven years until June last year. He recalls a family introduced to St. Therese’s by Simple House missionaries. Out of the family’s relationship with Simple House, Davis relates, the entire family went through RCIA and Davis conducted the baptisms.
“Simple House accepts people where they are, makes no judgment, and then tries to bring Christ into their situation.”
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor and a web columnist for First Things magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org