In Northwest Washington, there’s a park called McPherson Square. The park sits in the shadow of the White House as well as many other important governmental and private offices. Within the park, a couple dozen men and women reside. Some are there temporarily. Some have been familiar faces there for years. Some were residing there for years, but now have secured small apartments through the assistance of the DC government or Catholic Charities. Some of these men and women come back to talk to their friends and bring what they can to support them. Some of these people who come back do so daily.
There’s another group of people who routinely come back to McPherson Square a couple of Sundays each month. It’s a group of Catholics, most of whom are young professionals in their 20s and 30s. There’re also a couple of seminarians from St. John Paul II Seminary who join as part of their pastoral formation as future priests. There’s also Bishop Mario Dorsonville, an auxiliary bishop in Washington who founded the mission and still attends when he is able. For about a decade, this group has been coming to spend time with those who spend time in McPherson Square and two other parks in Northwest Washington. The group is constantly changing, as new people hear about the mission and want to join while others move away. I have been going—when my other commitments allow—since 2018, the year before I began my seminary formation for the Archdiocese of Washington. In late January, I was able to join for the first time in a while.
Here are five thoughts from that experience:
1. Because we’re Catholic. Sometimes, people wonder whether our time and talents could not be better served in our own churches. Leave this sort of direct outreach to the poor to secular social service organizations, the argument goes. Someone once made a similar comment to the late Cardinal James Hickey, the former Archbishop of Washington. His response, I think, was spot on: “We serve the homeless not because they’re Catholic, but because we’re Catholic.” The church is living out its mission precisely when she goes out and encounters our brothers and sisters on the peripheries of society, as Pope Francis has called us to do.
2. About people, not things. Through generous donations, the mission does bring the people who inhabit our parks warm clothing, food, and drinks. The greatest thing we offer, however, is to recognize in these men and women the inherent dignity which is theirs by virtue of their humanity. Each person is made in God’s image. To a person who is daily ignored or even scorned by passersby on the street, a warm smile or conversation can be a particular moment of grace.
3. Christ goes before us. When we go to the park, are we bringing Christ to the residents or encountering Him among them? The question, of course, is a false dichotomy. As Christians, we come to serve the poor with the light of Christ that is within us. It is no less true, however, that Christ is already and always with the poor, since he has definitively chosen in the Incarnation to pitch his tent and become poor for our sake, that we might become rich in the knowledge and love of God. My mind turns to the Homeless Jesus sculpture by Timothy Schmalz outside of the DC Catholic Charities offices on G Street in Chinatown. There, Jesus is shrouded under a blanket on a park bench, His identity betrayed only by the nail marks in his exposed feet.
4. Escaping the Ego. I never cease to be amazed how energized I feel after taking part in one of these missions. For a brief time, at least, I am drawn out of the small sphere of my own ego. Every personal problem is magnified when it has no reference outside of one’s own little world. By serving others, particularly those who cannot repay or be useful to us in a utilitarian sense, we are invited to realize that we are not the director, producer, or star of the show of our own lives, but rather character actors in a cosmic drama that God is producing. Life becomes more meaningful and joyful to the extent we become self-forgetful and make a gift of ourselves to others in love.
5. Gratitude. Over the years, I have been edified and challenged by so many people I’ve encountered who seemingly have far less than me yet can easily enumerate blessings for which they are grateful that I never consider. They may not have a house, but they have their health. Their health may be poor, but they have their friends. Their friends may have died, but they have the gift of life from God. No matter the situation, we can always find occasions for expressions of gratitude to God. This last visit, a man in McPherson Square named Kenneth told me that when the winter months arrive and the weather turns bitterly cold, he warms himself with prayers of gratitude. I’m grateful that God sends people like Kenneth into my life to minister to me.
Mr. McHenry is a Second Theology seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington.