CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Father Gregory Shaffer (center), pastor of Assumption Parish, and Will Fitzmaurice, a seminarian volunteer, offer food to a guest at the parish's Pope Francis Outreach Center in Southeast Washington.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Father Gregory Shaffer (center), pastor of Assumption Parish, and Will Fitzmaurice, a seminarian volunteer, offer food to a guest at the parish's Pope Francis Outreach Center in Southeast Washington.

Volunteers and staff of the Pope Francis Outreach Center in Southeast Washington say they hope the upcoming visit to Washington of its namesake will help the faithful better know and love the poor.

“Pope Francis said that the poor are not to be pitied because Jesus is present among them. In their suffering, they know Christ in a special way,” said Ryan Hehman, director of Assumption Parish’s Pope Francis Outreach Center. “We hope our efforts reach out to those who hurt the most and are in need the most, especially those in need not just of material help, but of love and friendship.”

Father Gregory Shaffer, pastor of Assumption Parish, said the center is aptly named because “Pope Francis is the pope of the poor. He told us we can learn much from the poor.” 

“Pope Francis is in solidarity with the poor, the needy, the marginalized,” Father Shaffer said. "Pope Francis lives as poor a life as he can to be like Christ who was poor, and to be in solidarity with the poor.” 

The priest noted that in serving at the Pope Francis Outreach Center he has learned “sometimes those who have so little are grateful for anything and everything they have. Our people may not have much, but they have gratitude. They see everything as a gift from God.”

“The people we serve see the Kingdom of God through the volunteers and staff here,” he said. “They see our love in the bags of food – their daily bread – and in the bags of clothes they receive. And, they receive with joy. Those of us who serve are the real recipients because we are getting something back when we serve. We can feel their joy.”

The Pope Francis Outreach Center is located on the grounds of Assumption Parish, at 3401 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. in Southeast Washington. It provides food and clothing to residents of the Ward 8 section of the city. 

“We love and care about our neighbors and people in need,” Hehman said. “We try to offer more than just food and clothing. We try to offer the consolation of personal attention and prayer.”

The center is open three times a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday ­ – from 9 a.m. to noon, and serves about 600 to 700 guests each month. Food for the pantry comes from donations from individuals, donations from other churches and from the Capital Area Food Bank.

The need for food is not necessarily the most pressing need, Hehman said, because “spiritual poverty is a large problem facing the poor.”

“People suffer, and they can face a lot of extraordinary needs, and the effects of this can be astounding. The consolation of faith is the greatest and only real answer to those needs,” he said.

Father Shaffer called the outreach “a goldmine for Christianity.”

“We want to represent the generosity of God. In the Gospels we learn ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first,’” the priest said. “In this world, the people we serve are last, but in the Kingdom of God they are first. That is an anomaly that God taps into that the people can identify with.”

Volunteer Richard Miller said he has served at the center “for 20-some years now, and as long as God gives me the strength, I’ll keep on doing it.”

“My work here has taught me what it means to give to others,” the 74-year-old member of Assumption Parish said. “The most important thing is to care about those we serve. If you don’t care, then you can’t be a volunteer.”

Jeannette Thomas, a 40-year member of the parish, volunteers with the outreach center’s clothing distribution.

“We give people the best. Everything we give is clean and sorted and ready to wear,” she said. “That is because we are working for the Father in His house, and these are His clothes we give.”

The outreach center also offers Bible study and makes available rosaries, Catholic prayers and literature for guests to take home.

“What we really want to convey is not just ‘here is food, take it,’ but ‘God loves you and I love you,’ ” Hehman said. “We want to develop friendships with the people we serve. The material help we offer serves the feeling of friendship and love we also offer.”

Hehman’s philosophy and that of the Pope Francis Outreach Center are exemplified in Simple House, a ministry Hehman also directs. The two ministries have formed a partnership.

Established in 2003 and located in Southeast Washington, Simple House is a lay-led, inner-city outreach effort. The lay volunteers live in community and attend daily Mass, say morning and evening prayer, and make time for personal prayer and Scripture study. The missionaries visit families in the neighborhood and the homeless in their camps, offering prayer and fellowship. 

Hehman said the goal of visiting those in need is “to create an authentic friendship that benefits the poor and glorifies God.” He called the work of Simple House a “friendship evangelization.”

“We go to the poorest neighborhoods, we visit the sick and elderly,” he said. “Sometimes we bring groceries or children’s items. We offer rides to doctor’s appointments or to visits with a family member in jail. We can also help people get the rehab help they may need. We always pray with people.”

He added that with the partnership with Simple House, “guests know we (the Pope Francis Outreach Center) are more than just a social service. We want people to know that this is run by Christians who love them.”

Hehman said the outreach center strives to operate according to the teaching of its namesake because “Pope Francis stresses the poor are conduits of God’s love and God’s grace for us.”

As the papal visit draws near, he said, the outreach center is thinking of celebrating with a large welcome banner or maybe offering cupcakes to its guests.

“Even the non-Catholics we serve are happy for us that the pope is coming,” he said. “This is a very beautiful event that many people share in.”

He said that those who wish to honor Pope Francis’s visit to Washington by helping the outreach center can donate food or clothing, “but most importantly, pray for us.”

He said that while volunteer opportunities are available, “we are open during the week, so those who work may not be able to volunteer. However, there are so many opportunities around the archdiocese for people to help the poor. Just go do it, it doesn’t matter where, as long as you get to know and love the people you serve.”