Good works inspired by faith

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"For I was hungry and you gave me food ... I was sick and you visited me, I was imprisoned and you came to me" Mt 25:35-36.

Since their retirement, John and Jeanne Muenzen strive to live these words from Matthew's Gospel every day. They meet with prisoners, deliver food to the hungry and do whatever it takes to assist the helpless in their community. Their drive to serve God through the poor is powered by the gratitude they feel for God calling them back to the church many years ago.

While both were raised Catholic, each went through lukewarm periods in their spiritual lives. For Jeanne, the busyness of life took a toll on her church attendance.

"As a working mother with two young children, I found it more and more difficult to even get to church on Sunday mornings," said Jeanne. "I sent my children to Catholic schools to ensure that they learned about their faith, but unfortunately, I was too 'tired' to follow through on a continuous basis."

Like Jeanne, John found his Mass attendance drift to a halt while attending Hofstra University in New York.

"I had fooled myself into thinking I didn't go to Mass often because of issues I had with Catholic doctrine and dogma," said John. "But I finally realized it was just a convenient cover for plain laziness."

After college John spent two years in the Peace Corps, a decision he believes was influenced by his Catholic faith. He then joined the Navy and, in 1983, was transferred to the Pentagon as deputy branch chief in the Defense Information Systems Agency the same agency where Jeanne worked as a computer programmer.

The two started dating in 1987 and two years later were married at St.

Lawrence the Martyr Church in Franconia. The couple continued to struggle with their faith even after their marriage, but it soon became clear that God was calling both of them back into the fold.

Hearing the call

It all started with a chance visit to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. John had decided to visit the cathedral on a whim during his lunch break. As soon as he stepped inside he was blown away by the beautiful sanctuary.

"I was hooked after that," he said.

Around the same time, Jeanne also began thinking about returning to church.

"I longed for the Eucharist and needed to hear the word of God again. So I kept praying on it until one Saturday morning, when John was out shopping, there was a knock on our front door, and there stood two gentlemen from the Legion of Mary."

Thinking the pair were Jehovah's Witnesses, Jeanne rolled her eyes and said that she was Catholic and, yes, she had been saved. To her surprise they smiled right back and said "so are we." 

"We talked for at least 20 minutes, and they left me with lots of material, but more importantly a firm desire to go back to church. When John came home, I explained to him what happened, and that's when he told me that he was secretly going to church at St. Matthew. We went to St. Louis Church that Sunday and haven't missed a week since." They both vowed never to let anything get in the way of their faith again.

Shortly after returning to the church, the couple had a strong desire to serve others and began volunteering with INOVA Friendly Visitors, even though they were working full time.

"I believe our faith and return to the church influenced us to visit the homebound and start to give back for all of our blessings," said John.

After the couple retired they moved from Alexandria to the Northern Neck, dropping anchor just a couple miles from St. Paul Mission in the Hague, a mission known for its "small size, but big heart." Both John and Jeanne joined the Legion of Mary, which opened up new opportunities for service. Once again, they started visiting the elderly in nursing homes as well as the homebound. But as good as these ministries were, the couple decided they wanted to do more.

Visiting the imprisoned

It came to their attention that Legion members from St. Francis de Sales Church in Kilmarnock wanted to pass on responsibility for ministering to the Haynesville Correctional Center to the St. Paul Mission, which was closer to the jail. The couple enthusiastically volunteered.

"We were interested in the challenge of spreading the faith and doing something different," said Jeanne.

In May 2008, the couple made the first of what would become many Tuesday visits to Haynesville Correctional Center, home to approximately 1,000 male inmates.

"Initially with our first couple of visits, it was like, what are we doing?" said John. "Just getting into the prison was an ordeal."

Fortunately, the former government workers were not scared away by a little red tape.

By working with the prison and listening to the needs of the prisoners, John and Jeanne transformed the ministry. Together they provide Catholics and non-Catholics alike with opportunities to grow in their faith through Mass, RCIA, catechetics and the occasional game of Catholic Trivial pursuit. Many times they are surprised by the devotion the men show for the ministry.

"They have to cling to something," said John. "With them it's their faith and that is where we come in."

The husband-wife team now has an entire room in their house devoted to the ministry and a bookshelf with more than 100 labeled volumes ready whenever the men stump them with a particularly hard question. By teaching the men and answering their questions, the couple has learned more about their own faith than they thought possible.

Feeding the hungry

When John and Jeanne aren't working with the inmates, they can be found helping in many other outreach ministries at St. Paul. The mission's new food pantry started in their own basement. The big blue bins, now kept at the St. Paul Mission rectory, hold everything from canned corn to cereal. As parish liaison network coordinator for Catholic Charities, John works with the organization to keep the bins well-stocked for their clients. In many cases the food pantry is just the beginning of the mission's involvement with the individual.

According to John, many of the people who come to the food pantry are not aware of the resources available to them through social services. On more than one occasion John has acted as an advocate for the poor by walking them through the Social Security process or even coordinating with another church volunteer to fix a broken air conditioning unit. Regardless of the circumstance, they try to ensure everyone they help is treated with dignity, regardless of their religion.

"We try to use it (outreach ministry) as a vehicle of evangelization," said John. "It's not forced but it is there."

John and Jeanne have been busy since they "retired" to the Northern Neck, and it doesn't look like they will be slowing down any time soon.

"We cannot imagine our lives without visiting the inmates, homebound, food needy, elderly, sick, etc.," said John. "These activities have only made us even more grateful to be Catholic, and we thank God every day for allowing us to continue with these works."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015