Farm's Ripple Effects Reach Newark Inner City

Posted: 2/7/2014

Volunteers participating in Glenmary Farm-inspired Mission Immersion program in inner-city Newark, N.J.Mark Mattheiss, 47, of Newark, N.J., participated in group mission service experiences in the summers of 2008 and 2010 at the Glenmary Farm in Lewis County, Ky., original site of Glenmary's Group Volunteer Program. But he had no idea how those trips would change his and others' lives—or what ripple effects they'd have on fellow Newark residents and beyond.

Since early 2010, Mark says, "I've known the Lord was calling me to reach out to the poor and live a life of prayer and service." At the same time, he founded—and still leads—the Gratia Plena Evangelical Community in Newark and began living at his current home, an inner-city Catholic church. (Gratia Plena is a Catholic group dedicated to growing in personal holiness through prayer, the sacraments, and the reading of God's Word—and to sharing the Gospel in word and deed, especially outside Church bounds.)

"I remember driving back from Kentucky with a friend after the 2010 mission trip," says Mark, "and turning onto our block in Newark—when I had a revelation from the Lord that this inner city is our mission territory. We (Gratia Plena members) meditated on it and realized our Glenmary Farm experiences taught us wonderful ways to provide missionary outreach—and that God was inspiring us to use those methods here."

Glenmary established the Farm in 1971 in Lewis County, where fewer than 1 percent are Catholic and economic resources are very limited. It eventually became the site of Glenmary's Group Volunteer Program, which just recently expanded to include a second site in Grainger County, Tenn.

Catholic groups visit these two sites to experience a weeklong, retreat-like experience of missionary service to county residents; prayer and reflection; community building; and immersion into Appalachian and local culture. These volunteers say that, through helping and learning about county residents, they learn even more about themselves—and that their stays are meaningful, fun and life-changing. Mark and his fellow New Jersey volunteers certainly felt this way.

"I had never had that kind of experience before," Mark says. "It was real community serving and sharing. And there was a beautiful balance of service activities."

Work locations that Mark's groups visited in Lewis County included a nonprofit home building/renovation site, a nursing home, a day care center for developmentally disabled adults, a food pantry/rummage store, and more. After work, they could relax and experience Appalachian culture, participate in Mass, and attend services at a church of another faith. And then they would gather for reflection, prayer and sharing.

Later, after Mark had his revelation, he and other Gratia Plena members recognized the Glenmary Farm program would provide a great service model for Newark's inner city. Mark was so moved that he became a full-time missionary and has led new Farm-inspired service initiatives in his city. Fellow Glenmary Farm participants from Gratia Plena and nearby Catholic groups have been key partners in prayerfully, financially and physically supporting and carrying on this work.

In January 2011, Gratia Plena organized and held its first "Mission Immersion" program in Newark, largely patterned after the Farm's one-week mission trips.

"We've now had six weeklong Mission Immersions in our inner city," Mark says. "They've been very well received, and people from several states have participated after hearing about them by word of mouth.

"We've ramped up the programs' spiritual aspect because dark, bad things are happening around us, with gangs, drugs, violence and brokenness. We're dealing with physical and spiritual poverty and significant spiritual warfare."

The first night of Mission Immersion week, participants have a group reconciliation service, receive reconciliation, and pray for openness to the Spirit's guidance. They participate in Mass and prayer each morning, pray with and for people they serve each day, and hold a eucharistic adoration service late each afternoon, praying for those they've encountered.

Newark inner-city service locations for volunteers can include a nonprofit home building/renovation site, a nursing home, a daytime shelter for homeless women, a soup kitchen, and a train station where homeless people gather.

Volunteers engage in a different group activity each evening—such as Bible study, a prayer meeting, or a "holy road trip" combining enjoyment and evangelical outreach—then share and pray about the day. "Just as at the Glenmary Farm," says Mark, "our volunteers say they get back much more than they give."

Beyond Mission Immersions, the Gratia Plena community and other volunteers also serve Newark's inner-city people through weekly and monthly outreach efforts largely based on the Farm's example—as well as reaching out on the streets and door to door. And Mark is on those streets every day—listening to people; helping them find food, clothing, a job, an apartment, a drug treatment program; and praying with them.

"Ultimately, I think God wants us to get people involved in building better lives for themselves," he says. "Those seeds are being planted through the work we're doing."

Mark emphasizes that his and his friends' lives were changed by their experiences at the Glenmary Farm, and they are now helping change the lives of others in need.

The ripple effects continue.

This article appears in the February 2014 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.