When Sharon Murphy went to National Airport to pick up the new arrivals from Kosovo, she knew the 45-year-old woman was dying. She drove them from the airport to the hospital, aware that this family of four would be complicated in ways unlike the dozens of others she has had in her care, and that the bureaucracy of death would add new phone numbers to the 200 already in her Rolodex.

She took the Kosovars in anyway. She took them to an apartment building on Fairview Avenue in Takoma Park, one of the houses for homeless refugees and immigrants that she and her husband Bill Murphy call Mary House--houses they bought, renovated, furnished and maintain. But in this apartment there would be an extra piece of furniture: a hospital bed, and an IV supplying morphine to a woman with terminal cancer--lying in an apartment with the peach-colored walls that Bill painted--far, far from home.

"How could I not take her in?" Murphy asks in response to the inevitable question. And, if you are Sharon Murphy--and not someone who might worry about adding to her already intense life the turmoil of a dying Muslim woman who speaks only Albanian, her distraught husband and her two teenage sons--that is the answer. You can't not take her in, because taking people in is what you do.

The Murphys began Mary House 18 years ago with what seemed to them a very straightforward idea: offering families who needed a place to live space in their own home, a seat at their dinner table, and a hand in finding a place in the world.

It was an idea of such astounding simplicity that most people had to ask twice to make sure they'd understood. Families are homeless, ergo, take them in. Families need help, therefore, help them.

But in your own house? With your own kids to feed and raise? How will you pay for it? What about health insurance? And retirement benefits? And days off?

The Murphys have found answers to these questions over the past two decades. With enthusiasm born of '60s activism, religious commitment and a natural affection for people, they have managed to acquire 10 houses and operate them on a budget of $361,500 a year. Currently there are 30 families with 59 children between 2 months and 18 years old living in their apartments. The Murphys feed an additional 15 families with biweekly deliveries of groceries, operate a clothing bank and a small children's library, and offer lots of counseling.

Their successes are not sweeping or statistical. They are homely and measured in moments: A Bosnian grandmother who has been crying continually since her arrival starts working, dry-eyed, in the community garden. A Kosovar stops pacing the floor all night. A family of three from El Salvador takes every class, signs up for every program, saves every penny, and buys a house of its own.

The Murphys do it with a combination of frugality, cleverness and energy. Neither of them came with a trust fund or a mandate from some foundation. They have no special training--Bill has a degree in economics from Holy Cross College and Sharon never went to college. They do it because they want to. They live what they see as an ordinary middle-class life, complete with cable TV and computers--it's just that their cell phones ring with crises in four languages.

On a recent Sunday, Sharon Murphy was again in the apartment of the ailing woman from Kosovo. It has been barely two months since she arrived. Her hospital bed was set up on one side of the room; on the other side the teenage boys sat on the couch watching TV. The husband and father wore an Old Navy sweater with frayed buttons; he is always cold, he told her. He does not want their names published because he does not want his sons to know that their mother is dying.

On a top shelf, above the woman's medications, sits one of the few possessions the family was able to take when they went to the camp in Macedonia: a framed photograph of the couple when they were young. They have their arms around each other and are smiling.

Sharon Murphy sat on the hospital bed and held the woman's hand. The woman is pale, dressed in a jogging suit. She is afraid to fall asleep. Murphy listened to the sounds of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film coming from one side of the room, and to the annoying, repetitive click of the IV on the other. On the one side death was hovering; on the other, adolescents summoned life with movie noise.

Somehow, she would manage to help them all.

Sharon's Story

Growing up in Detroit and small towns in Illinois, Sharon Murphy knew the unromantic truth of poverty. Her mother gave birth to her and married when she was only 15, and they moved often as Sharon's father bounced from one factory job to another. Her childhood was grim: instability, screaming fights, abuse. There were nights without supper, and days without heat.

She is remembering this past in her office in one of the Mary House buildings, a shabby, clean flat-front duplex on Bunker Hill Road NE. The window looks out at the Brookland subway, but it lets light into a simply furnished room. There are inspirational posters and poems on the walls, including a quote from Elie Wiesel that has become her mantra: "Above all, in times of darkness that is the time to love--that an act of love may tip the balance."

One of the residents brings in cups of sweet Bosnian coffee, as Murphy, 45, returns to her story.

There were people who showed her a way out of Rockland, Ill., and gave her ideas and friendship. There were her grandmothers, who offered love and stability when her parents failed at both. There was also her maternal great-grandmother, a Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust and been reunited with her family in America by the Red Cross. She spoke only Yiddish, which Sharon did not understand, but her unstinting affection gave an enduring reservoir of strength to her great-granddaughter.

"They protected me against chaos," Murphy says. "If you ask me where my social conscience came from, it was from my three grandmothers, who gave of themselves so selflessly all through the first 18 years of my life." Her mother's mother worked as a cook in a Detroit restaurant until she was 88, a tiny woman with bright red hair who walked to work each morning at 5 a.m. through parts of town others thought dangerous. Her father's mother owned a restaurant in Rockland, where Sharon worked as a teenager.

"This restaurant was always in the red. But I remember once someone from the neighborhood came in and said the TV repairman who had a shop down the street had a brain tumor and couldn't pay his bills. My grandmother immediately organized a spaghetti dinner to raise money. And we had nothing! But if somebody needed something, that's what she did, start boiling water."

At 18, Sharon turned down a scholarship to college and went to work as a nursing assistant. "I wanted to get out there and work and help people," she says. "I had no mentor to say, 'Are you out of your mind?' "

Her way out of dead-end jobs and the Midwest came through a church retreat. There she met the new breed of activists--anti-poverty workers, anti-war demonstrators, people out to change the world. A couple invited her to join their "intentional community"--a popular buzzword of the 1970s--in Columbia, Md.

To raise money for the move, she took all her possessions to a pawnshop, sold her Toyota Celica and bought a cheaper car. She'd never driven more than two hours at a stretch, and didn't know how to read a map. Everything was fine until she got to the tunnel in Wheeling, W.Va. She'd never seen a mountain. She'd never been through a tunnel. So she pulled over on the side of the road and cried for an hour. "I couldn't believe God wanted me to drive through a mountain," she says.

Finally she pulled herself together. "I found out it was actually a very short tunnel," she says with a laugh. "I was really proud of myself. Until I discovered the Pennsylvania Turnpike!"

Her friends in Columbia were welcoming. For a few months she worked at a menial hospital job and read books like "Rules for Radicals." One night she heard a talk by Ed Guinan, a former priest who several years earlier had co-founded the Community for Creative Non-Violence. He talked about how they all lived communally in a couple of houses near Thomas Circle, ran a soup kitchen and took in the homeless.

"She was searching for something significant to do. The next day she arrived, bag and baggage," says Guinan, now director of a housing program for the disabled and still a close friend.

Bill Murphy had arrived at CCNV a few years earlier, imbued with passion for the new brand of radical Catholic activism. He showed up at CCNV with a well-equipped toolbox, and Guinan put him to work fixing things. Murphy came from a middle-class family in Waterbury, Conn., eschewing his high school yearbook prediction that he would be the first to make a million dollars, and was well on his way to becoming a man who accumulated as little as possible.

Sharon was not immediately attracted to Bill. He was so Catholic, and she was so not-quite-anything, and in any case he was dating someone else. But after 18 months of working together, they found they had common goals and compatible talents and fell in love. Guinan performed their marriage ceremony in 1977, and they had their first son, Mark, in 1978.

The Murphys spent a few unsettled years searching for the right place to commit themselves. They tried a Catholic Worker house in Bill's home town, then a shelter for battered women in Maine. It was there one cold and damp winter day that Sharon decided they should go back to Washington, and in helping the poor, somehow counterbalance the Reagan Revolution, which was just beginning.

Sharon's Day

First I . . . was dealing with a family--the child had to be hospitalized because she was suicidal. She's 8 years old, Latina. . . . She's now out of the [Children's] hospital after two weeks. I talked with a psychologist who works with children but he can't see her. . . . Her school won't have her back without a diagnosis, and you can't get a diagnosis without testing, and testing is expensive. So the school is working to get two places to share the cost. . . . My job is to find a pro bono lawyer.

Then there's a couple from Cameroon. He has political asylum but they had to leave two babies behind. He was tortured over there and is paranoid. He's decided the work authorization cards he was given are not real and there is a conspiracy. . . . I met with them from 11 to 1:45. . . . The plan is to try to get them grounded and get some sort of counseling. At this point they won't go. They are exhausted and wounded.

Then I got a phone call from the husband of the woman who is terminally ill. He said the home health aide from the Hospice gave her a bath and made her cold. He wanted us to buy two more hot water bottles. I told our caseworker to put another blanket on her and change the water in the hot water bottle. . . .

Monday night a Brownie troop collected stuffed animals for us to give to our children. So I spent some time sorting through them and putting them into different categories. The big fluffy ones I'll give to kids when they come in. . . .

Then I met with a Bosnian mother who has been turned down for Medicaid, so she must apply for the insurance you can get for your children if you have no Medicaid. It took six weeks for D.C. to say they didn't qualify. . . .

I met with the staffer who is starting the teen group. They want to go on a ski trip. They need $200. So we decided they could have all the furniture and things we can't use and have a big yard sale. If they raise half, I'll raise half. . . .

I returned 17 phone calls!

Oh, and there's this couple from Kosovo and the caseworker said they had TB and she didn't want to go into their apartment. So I checked and found they had had prophylactic treatment for TB like everyone coming out of Kosovo. They don't have TB. . . .

And planning the Christmas Party!

Loaves and Fishes

It was really by chance--or "grace," as Sharon says--that Mary House took in immigrants and refugees. The Murphys knew two things: They wanted to help families, and the way they wanted to do it was by bringing them into their own home, to model and redefine the meaning of family for all of them.

But where to start? With a $12,000 deposit contributed by friends, they bought their house at 13th and Upshur NE. Through the Family Place, a walk-in center in Adams-Morgan where Sharon had been a volunteer, she was introduced to their first family.

She remembers going to an apartment building, one of those places where men and women newly arrived from Central America--some legal, some not--got a place to sleep for $80 a month. She was taken to the basement, where the building manager kept what seemed like 150 cats, a reeking, damp place she thought unfit for human habitation. In the back, behind a plastic sheet, she found a pregnant woman sitting on a cot, holding a baby.

"Come home with me," said Sharon.

And that's how it began.

That first year, 1981, the Mary House budget was $21,000. They learned that immigrants were an especially needy group. "As tough as it is for the Washington homeless, at least they are citizens, and they speak English," she says.

The Mary House budget has grown as the Murphys learned more about grants and fund-raising, but their hallmark is still to stretch a dollar until it screams for mercy. In the early years, Bill worked construction jobs and Sharon worked in a gift shop to support the program. For a while Bill worked 10 hours a week at Erol's video rental because he could qualify for health insurance; now a consortium of nonprofits in Washington provides medical coverage for the Murphys and their staff of volunteers.

No one gets a salary, but each of the six staff members--Sharon, Bill and some AmeriCorps volunteers--gets a stipend of $50 a month plus $50 for each child, plus room and board. In addition, each of the Murphys is paid as a "consultant" for 20 hours a week, Bill for his work renovating and repairing the houses, Sharon for her program work, which allowed them to give up their outside jobs. Their joint income was $42,460 last year.

Their fund-raising appeals, mailed to 800 people maybe twice a year, are created by Bill and feature murky photocopied pictures of the 10 houses. He also stuffs most of the envelopes. On principle, they have no government contracts and will not take referrals from the city's human services department--if governments are going to cut back their services to the poor and foreign-born, as they have in recent years, Sharon Murphy says she will not bail them out. They do get referrals from the International Rescue Committee, which is partially funded by the State Department.

Each Mary House family pays between $250 and $350 a month in rent (a requirement that, in practice, is remarkably flexible), and gives five hours of service to the community--keeping the stairwells clean, for example, or baby-sitting for someone's child while she goes to a doctor's appointment.

Bill Murphy is adept at creative financing, and every house has a story. One place was bequeathed by a supporter in her will, although it took two years to get through probate. Another belonged to a friend--teacher and homeless activist Robert Hoderny--who was killed by a car two years ago. Each house secures the mortgage on the next.

According to their last financial report, their 10 mortgages total over $700,000, all of them co-signed by the Murphys. "If Mary House ended tomorrow, all we own is this rocking chair and this lamp," says Bill. He exaggerates, but not by much. There is one other property he and Sharon own, which he bought after their daughter Katie asked how much was in her college fund, and the answer from her parents was laughter. He financed this house by selling part of the lot to a neighbor, and rents it to some AmeriCorps volunteers to pay the mortgage. They're not quite sure what they will do with it, but it's their only nest egg.

But what about a pension? A Keogh plan? A 401(k)? Again, he laughs. "I guess this is where I become a religious fanatic," he says. "I trust in God. You're not supposed to worry about money if you take the Gospel seriously."

Meanwhile, they have both become what he calls "accomplished beggars." Their dinner table once graced the conference room of an airline company. The fancy new kitchen in one of the houses came from the owner of a high-tech firm who was remodeling his own. The carpet tiles in the community room were bought and installed by two boys working off a major punishment debt to their dad.

Electrical and heating work that requires permits is also donated, with Bill as prime laborer. Sharon can "schmooze a hospital bill" and persuade doctors--sometimes--to treat a resident free. She's arranged scholarships for refugee kids at private schools, and finds people, somehow, to adopt her families for Christmas, and insists that the teenagers get gift certificates for stores they really like. "You've got to have bread and roses," she says.

Their four children have gone to private and parochial schools on scholarships--which never cover the entire cost. An uncle of Bill's helps out. Not sending the children to D.C. public schools was one of the deals the Murphys made with themselves. "I knew that if my kids were in public school I'd have to be constantly pushing and fighting the system," Sharon says. "I didn't have the energy for that."

But, however thrifty, their lives are not ascetic or without comforts. "We were never trying to add to the number of poor people," says Guinan, their mentor, with a laugh. "I think the middle class is great!"

They go on vacations (usually in a borrowed house bartered for repair work). Until 1993, they never owned a car that cost more than $300, but Sharon is currently driving a new Volkswagen Beetle, a fantasy come true courtesy of her husband. He arranged the financing and surprised her with it.

When the McAuley Institute recently gave Sharon a Courage in Community award--$1,500 to Mary House and an equal amount to her personally--she went directly to Pentagon City. "I did something I'd always wanted to do, and bought a suit off the rack, not on sale." It was less than $200, but the most expensive thing she'd ever owned. The rest she gave to her children and saved for a weekend getaway with Bill.

That the Murphys live their jobs, and that their jobs are an expression of their ideals, is what makes them so unusual.

"This isn't volunteer work you do when everything else is in place," Sharon says.

They are on call 24 hours a day. Every tenant has their home number.

A small child rushed up to Sharon one recent afternoon when she visited the house at 3012 14th St. NE. Marel raised her arms to be picked up and hugged, and showered Sharon with kisses and chatter. Her mother, Altagracia Sanchez, showed off her new sofas, purchased with the money she makes cleaning a health club. She was a lawyer in the Dominican Republic, but left to escape the grinding poverty. Her husband, also a lawyer, is working now in a restaurant kitchen.

Four days after they came to Mary House four years ago, Sharon got a call one Sunday morning from another resident concerned about Sanchez: "Her baby is sick. She needs help."

When Sharon and Bill arrived Sanchez was holding Marel, wrapped in blankets. The baby was gray, and wasn't breathing. Sharon gave her a shake, and she inhaled.

They drove the five minutes to Children's Hospital. For the next four months, Marel struggled for life, battling a rare virus that premature babies like her often succumb to. Every day, Sharon drove Sanchez to the hospital, sat with her by the incubator, held her hand and translated what the doctors said. "Every day they said she couldn't make it," Sharon recalls. The Murphys brought a priest to the hospital, who baptized Marel and gave her the last rites.

One day Sanchez, weeping, looked at her baby and at Sharon and said, "I don't want her to suffer." Sharon was crying, too. She turned to the sick baby. "You and God have to make a decision," she said to the infant. "Your mother and the doctors have done everything they can do." She hugged Sanchez and left.

The next day Marel was much better. Within three days she was taken off the respirator. "She really is a miracle baby," says Sharon.

The miracle baby, now a busy 4-year-old, hops off her lap and runs outside to play with two children recently arrived from Kosovo.

"She is my angel," says Sanchez, looking at Sharon. She wipes her eyes with her hands. "Forgive me, I am crying."

The Kids

Katie Murphy, 18, has one major beef with her parents. It isn't that her home has been shared with refugees all her life. And she never minded the "giveaway" clothes or the beat-up cars. What she is mad about--and they know this--is that they sent her to private schools. She is now a senior at Barrie Day School in Montgomery County, and she hates it.

Every day she makes the trek by car, subway and bus to a 45-acre campus in Silver Spring. From a city neighborhood clinging to the middle class, to a niche of suburbia where--from her perspective--the kids feel underprivileged if they don't get a new car when they hit 16.

"I wanted to go to Coolidge or Dunbar in my neighborhood, but no. I get shipped out here!"

The four Murphy children are all remarkable in one way or another. That doesn't mean they're angels. "A couple of years ago my sister and I got in so much trouble during the summer we were like in permanent lockdown," says Katie of her early adolescent mischief. "We both decided we never wanted to have daughters because we put our mother through so much hell."

Mark, 21, is a volunteer fireman in Hyattsville, and has applied to both the D.C. fire and police departments. He recently joined the Coast Guard reserves. Also, he points out as his father listens, if he becomes either a cop or a firefighter he could be looking at two pensions.

All four children began to question their family's lifestyle when they got to the age of about 10, Sharon says. Meaghan, now 15 and a student at Good Counsel, did not want to be seen in the Mary House van. Mark quietly took all the phones off the hook during dinner one night, a sly but effective protest against the constant interruptions. Michael, currently studying architecture at Northeastern University near Boston, announced he wanted to go to Sidwell Friends School--one of the highest tuitions in town. He did.

Katie has had a job since eighth grade. "If you say 'Dad, I need $20,' he'll hand you a bunch of envelopes to stuff and say, 'Here, earn it.' So I realized that if I wanted money to buy clothes or whatever, I'd better get it myself."

She's already in the family business, though, with "my own little case"--the suicidal 8-year-old, with whom she'd struck up a friendship. Before the child's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was diagnosed and she was given Ritalin, she paced the floor until early morning, Katie says. Now she's up only until midnight. During the early days of her crisis, when she was threatening to kill herself or her baby sister or her mother, Katie was the one she'd talk to. Katie went with her to the emergency room to translate Spanish when the girl was admitted for observation, and she'll continue to help with tutoring and attention.

"I share my parents' ideals, especially about materialism. A lot of kids don't realize it's a luxury to choose what you want to eat for breakfast every day, or that you have your own room. Selfishness is not a right, it's a choice. You don't have to grow up the way I did to understand that."

The Chaos Theory

It can be hard to accept Sharon Murphy's contention that she is an ordinary person. Sometimes her responses to suffering seem anything but ordinary--the definition, in fact, of extraordinary.

In 1984, for example, Sharon was sexually assaulted by a therapist she'd been seeing. At great emotional cost to herself and her family, she pursued her attacker through publicity and the courts, and after four years the man lost his license. She settled her case against him for $5,000--which she gave to the National Organization for Victim Assistance.

Through NOVA, she became a counselor for victims of trauma, and four years ago she traveled to Bosnia with a NOVA team to help train people there. That's how she came to take in Bosnian refugees.

Sharon Murphy sees herself as ordinary because the facts of her deeds are modified by her internal hesitations, pain and mistakes. She gets angry, has bad days, takes off sometimes for a walk or "retail therapy" at Target. Her children should have had more of her time during the summer, she frets, and a vacation at the beach. Drawing attention to herself makes her feel a little guilty.

Jeffrey Jay, a psychologist with a specialty in post-traumatic stress syndrome, consults with her regularly (pro bono) on how to help the war-battered Europeans. "Sharon has an appreciation of the special satisfactions that come from being close to the soul of another person," he says. "She's also ordinary. She's a mom, she gets tired, she gets frustrated and sleepless."

Ed Guinan, who has seen many people fade away from hard-core social service, says the key is knowing your limits. "People get burned out because they think they can fix people, take someone off the street and turn them into a brain surgeon. She knows you can't fix people, but you can help them."

Back in Sharon's office, the cell phone buzzes. It's someone from a church-sponsored program for indigent mothers, wanting her advice on how to improve its service and measure its success. From other parts of the building, there's the sound of a baby crying, a mother calling, and the smell of stew and coffee.

Many balls are still in the air, and Sharon Murphy is still juggling as fast as she can.

The dying mother has been moved to the Washington Hospice; Mary House neighbors and the Murphys will help her husband get back and forth to see her. Sharon visits her every few days, holds her hand and brushes her hair. The couple from Cameroon are still troubled, and still refusing counseling. The 8-year-old is back at school and has a therapist. The teenagers made $30 in their first yard sale; Sharon thinks that next time they will understand American marketing better. And St. Anthony's has donated the use of its hall for the Christmas party.

"If your approach is to eliminate the chaos, you can't reach that goal," she says to the caller. "What you can do is create some order within the chaos.

"And above all, remember: Have fun!"