Denver — “Have you told the women?”
Father Michael’s question disarmed Martha Reichert — and changed her life.
“I saw dignity revealed,” she says about her continuing work with women who are abuse victims, prostitutes, and addicts at a homeless shelter in Denver.
She was recently honored for her service by the Denver-based Endow. And to any newcomer, it was immediately clear why. There is an unassuming radiance about her. In a work that needs light, in lives that need light, she is exactly that. She is “down to earth,” and yet knows she doesn’t need to be conformed to any of the darkness here. She is made for more, to share the good news that there is more to life than abuse and misery and pain and addiction. You have dignity: Love it and love with it.
In a video telling her story, Reichert, the mother of a beautiful young family that keeps her plenty busy, recalls her first time at the shelter. She woke up with “a pit” in her stomach, believing she had made the wrong decision to say “yes” to Father Michael’s request. “I had no idea how to relate to homeless women and addicts and prostitutes,” she remembers thinking. When she pulled up at Samaritan House in her car, “there was a line of about 40 men waiting for their TB screening. I was seriously terrified.” She recalls grabbing her steering wheel and putting her head down on it, praying to God: “You know how weak I am, you know how I’m not ready to do this, so you’re going to have to do it for me.”
“And so I got out of my car,” she remembers. “I dragged my little suitcase behind me by all the men waiting, and I get to the front desk and Father Michael looks at me and says, ‘You look terrified,’ and I say, ‘Father, I totally am.’”
Martha’s moment of revelation at Samaritan House came two nights after she delivered a stillborn baby. That was when Father Michael asked her that question: “Did you talk to the women of the shelter about this, about your pain?” Never had she thought of such a thing. “I’m here to hear their suffering,” she thought. But that’s not the Christian life; the Christian life is receiving love, too, and having authentic encounters with men and women in our lives, whoever they are. In fact, if we do not know a love that is ultimately in unity with the love of our Creator, we’re going to settle for something less in what we offer and what we find ourselves choosing.
“I realized that there was not some gulf between me and this homeless woman,” Reichert tells us. “We were two women trying to get through life. We had our ups and we had our downs, and so when I had the realization that I saw really the dignity in this woman who sat across the table from me not with the label of homeless or whatever she was going through at the time, but she was just a real woman.”
It has been made clear that “war on women” rhetoric will be employed yet again by the Democrats during the upcoming months as we near the midterm elections. However well intentioned, it’s a patronizing ideological manipulation. It’s drenched in an understanding of women and men that is driven by the changed expectations that the sexual revolution imposed. We talk about choice, but do we, as a culture — as families and churches and, yes, even public-policy makers — consider that the complementary differences between men and women are needed to help women and men flourish? Do we consider that there is something about our very bodies and in the structure of the family that that makes sense, but that has been hurt in so many ways by the reigning ideologies in the academy, the culture, and our politics? And that might help up with happiness and virtue?
This isn’t a screed about the current fashion and refashioning of our laws, believe it or not. It’s a proposal for consideration: Perhaps there is something about human dignity to be seen in the eyes of the most vulnerable: the unborn, the elderly, the child with Down syndrome, the woman who has been abused, the man who is addicted to porn, the woman who thinks she has no option but prostitution — the list goes on. Maybe there is something about their desire for and response to tenderness that can teach us all about our responsibilities to one another.
Yet again, I can’t help noticing Pope Francis, who months ago encouraged Catholics to unpack just what it is about women the Church teaches. The Church celebrates women and believes women have a unique role — as Pope Benedict emphasized to me not long before he stepped down — to do nothing short of “aid[ing] mankind in not falling.” Endow is doing that by walking women through “the feminine genius” that is natural to them.
Endow exists to “educate women toward a deeper, more profound understanding of their God-given dignity and vocation as women.” Listening to Martha Reichert speak, I am reminded of the words of the martyr Edith Stein, who was among those murdered at Auschwitz: “Everywhere the need exists for maternal sympathy and help, and thus we are able to recapitulate in the one word motherliness that which we have developed as the characteristic value of woman. Only, the motherliness must be that which does not remain within the narrow circle of blood relations or of personal friends; but in accordance with the model of the Mother of Mercy, it must have its root in universal divine love for all who are there, belabored and burdened.”
The world needs mothers and fathers, as mothers and fathers. You may not be a biological father or mother, but you can mentor, you can be an older sister or brother, you can model responsibility and self-sacrificial love to someone. This is what Pope Francis is doing, as an ecumenical matter and as a matter of reform and renewal in the Church. They don’t call him the Holy Father for nothing. This is what Martha has been doing at Samaritan House. In complete vulnerable trust in God, she encounters sisters and daughters in love. This stewardship, this answer to the need for adults taking responsibility for their call and for the dignity of all, indeed aids mankind in not falling, the individual in not falling, starting first with the one who receives a love meant for sharing.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.