In Which I’m Inspired by Direct Mail. Really.

I just finished The New Evangelization: 2003 – 2013 Missionary Letters, which is basically a collection of fundraising letters from A Simple House, an intentional Catholic community which practices “friendship evangelization” among the poor in DC and Kansas City, MO. It’s a genuinely moving book with solid reflections on the theory and practice of charity. There are good explanations of why the authors focus on friendship as vs. efficient meeting of material needs, and there are countless personal stories which show the spiritual battles being waged every day in poor neighborhoods. It’s a slim book and I absolutely recommend it.

If there’s one thing it lacked, it was more of what founder Clark Massey describes here:

The Gospels portray the apostles as a befuddled and fumbling group of men following Jesus. All of their worst mistakes and most embarrassing remarks seem to be recorded in the Gospels. There is a special evangelical teaching hidden in these stories. We know the apostles messed up because they told everyone how they messed up. The apostles used their personal weaknesses and defeats to testify about God’s greatness. It takes humility and courage to talk about our mistakes and weaknesses, but it is our confessions which cut to the heart of our fellow man. It is less powerful (and less true) to say, “Follow God because it has sure worked out great for me!” than to say, “Despite all of my failed efforts, hard-heartedness, and self-deceit, God keeps blessing me.”

There are some descriptions of failure and frustration in the volunteers’ relationships with the people they serve, but a) not enough! These are some of the most inspiring parts of the book, because they show people trying to figure out tough situations and seeking to surrender their own egos and goals–even their own spiritual goals.

And b) I know this is an unrealistic thing to ask of the particular kind of book this is, but I would have liked some description of how interpersonal conflicts among the volunteers get dealt with. Otherwise there’s an impression that the volunteers are basically solid, well-meaning people whose big problem (and it is big) is that they can be clueless, “my will is God’s will,” striving children of privilege, but the conflicts and frustrations of charity are mostly caused by poor people. This framing reinforces the division between those who serve and those who are served–a division all of A Simple House’s work seeks to diminish.

Anyway, I realize that the things I wanted aren’t really things this kind of book can provide. If you’d like a more raw look at somewhat similar projects, Dorothy Day’s letters are a great place to start. But if you’d like to know about a thoughtful, beautiful form of evangelization and service taking place right here in the District, A Simple House’s book is for you.

About Eve Tushnet

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