Sunday, June 25, 1981. Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Anacostia is simmering with excitement. The big hats are coming. The big TV trucks and journalists are already there. A young black man sitting on the church steps guesses out loud that Mayor Marion Barry will be late.
"He's always late," he said. "That way he can make sure all the cameras will swing on him."
"He might have a little competition for the cameras today," said someone nearby.
"Nah," he grinned, "my man could take the cameras off of Jesus."
"Well," said someone else, "Jesus is coming, so we'll see who wins."
Anacostia is a shadow across the river. It draws no tourists, attracts no shoppers, keeps its own inhabitants isolated because few of them have either the reason or the carfare to cross the bridge.
Statistics tell a tale. More than 20 percent of Anacostia is on welfare. Ninety percent of its population is black. It has the District's highest number of youths, a natural resource threatened daily by drug pushers who deal openly on certain streets and scatter like roaches whenever the police show up.
But Anacostians tell another tale, of loyalty, pride and hope in a community whose history is as rich as its soil is poor. And last June, when Roman Catholic Archbishop James Hickey of Washington announced that he had invited India's Mother Teresa of Calcutta to open two new Missionaries of Charity houses in their midst, Anacostia's pride and hopes were simultaneously tweaked.
"Anacostians are accustomed to having things done to and for them," said Louise Hutchinson, a Smithsonian historian who lives in Anacostia. "People perceive of it as a rather high-handed statement of 'we know what you need.'"
"The archbishop," said the Rev. Msgr. Geno Baroni, former assistant secretary of HUD who now serves on Hickey's staff, "felt that Anacostia was neglected and ignored and that was why he invited Mother Teresa to come. But it's not the church style," Baroni admitted, "to have a meeting and consult."
"There's a whole lot of bad stuff going on here," admitted Sister Julia McMurrough, a Holy Cross nun who has worked in Anacostia for eight years and was glad Mother Teresa was coming. "But there's a whole lot of good stuff, too. And when the press announces that 'The Saint of the Gutters' is coming here, it's a little debilitating for people to see themselves portrayed that way."
But for Doloris Jordan, a day-care organizer who lives off wheeler Road, the whys and hows of Mother Teresa's arrival were inconsequential. "When I heard she was coming," said Jordan, "I got so excited I had to ask the Lord to please calm myself down."
The object of all this attention is a small, 70-year-old Albanian-born nun whose sharp, peasant features have adorned the cover of Time Magazine and whose many awards include the Nobel Prize for Peace. Widely regarded as a "saint," even by her critics, Mother Teresa Bojaxhiu has never deviated from her purpose in life -- to serve "the poorest of the poor" -- except to expand it. And like Dorothy Day, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, she is about something so simple that it is easy to miss. When she walks by a human being lying in the gutter she does something about it. She stops.
In 1948 she decided to exchange her life as a cloistered sister teaching in an Indian Catholics girls' school for that of running a slum school for poor children in Calcutta. Today Mother Teresa is the overseer of more than 200 Missionaries of Charity homes in India and 35 other countries. The Missionaries arrived in the United States in December 1971, and since have established houses in South Bronx, Detroit, Miami, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Newark and now Washington.
There is now a brotherhood of Missionaries of Charity as well. a contemplative branch of the more active sisterhood has been formed. A large supportive lay group of "coworkers" paves her way with time, money and elbow grease wherever she goes, which is always the same -- where nobody else wants to go.
Her sisters and brothers operate soup kitchens, shelters for women and children, orphanages, leper clinics and homes for the dying. "The worst disease," she has often said, "is the disease of being unwanted." Her instruments of healing were, and continue to be, two: prayer and dependency upon Divine Providence. Mother Teresa is a powerful figure. And confusing.
When she condemns abortion, she pleases conservative thinkers both inside and outside the church. When she condemns the arms race and military solutions to world problems, she discomfits some of those same allies, although the antiwar edge to her philosophy is rarely mentioned in the press.
Sympathizers worry that Mother Teresa has been, or will be, used by rightwingers for their own purposes. But Mother Teresa does not seem to care, considering that their problem, not hers. As for the human beings she cares for, she does not chalk up converts for Jesus at the last minute. Dying Hindus are given Hindu ceremonies if they request them. Buddhists are accorded Buddhist rites. Labels are less important than love, which in Mother Teresa's case is legendary, and she swings a powerful lamp whose arc has illuminated many other minds and hearts to support her work.
Pope Paul VI spontaneously gave her his white Cadillac limousine when he visited her in India. (She raffled it off.) Malcolm Muggaridge, the brilliant jouster of British journalism, capitulated to her vision in the course of a BBC interview. He followed her back to India and wrote a widely read book called Something Beautiful for God . Sargent and Eunice Shriver established a home for retarded children in Calcutta in her name. And the staff of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) takes up an annual collection at Christimas time for the senator to give her for her work.
Hatfield, a Baptist, first heard about Mother Teresa through reading Muggeridge's book. On a trip to Thailand he decided to fly over to Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa for himself.
"If you've never been to Calcutta," he said, "you can't know what a hellhole it is. The poverty is absolutely unbelievable and yet there she was, moving with such grace and compassion among the lepers and the dying.
"After following her around for the day I asked her, 'Mother, don't you get awfully discouraged when you see the magnitude of the poverty and realize how little you can really do?'
"She turned to me and replied, 'God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.'"
That answer shook Hatfield. "We live in such a success-oriented culture that it's easy to forget that. In my own life I often come home from work some days so tired and frustrated. My wife has to remind me of Mother Teresa's words."
Hatfield tells another story about Mother Teresa. "She once sent me a note that said, 'Pray for me that I do not loosen my grip on the hand of Jesus, even under the guise of ministering to the poor.'"
"It's so subtle," said Hatfield, "the way the ego can come in, and the fact that Mother Teresa recognizes this says a lot about her. Christianity is so often preached on a contingency basis -- you do this for me and I'll do that for you. But if a Hindu were to say to Mother Teresa, 'I'm born Hindu and want to die a Hindu,' that would be fine with her. She would say. 'Hey, that's not the issue. The issue is that Christ has called me to love you .'"
Hatfield is asked what he would say to critics of Mother Teresa who claim that she dodges the issues of social and economic reform in the countries where she works. Isn't she simply mopping up behind governments and people whose greed or evil produces the suffering she seeks to relieve?
"From where she comes," replied Hatfield, "I think I can understand her. The Scripture talks about different kinds of ministries. If you take on more than one, you're not effective.
"My own ministry," he added, "is focused upon institutional or corporate sin, to ask why it is that so much of our resources are given over to destroying life instead of supporting it."
Hatfield, who did not mention his lone vote against 99 fellow senators who approved the latest defense budget, said, "Perhaps I can be criticized as being less effective in my ministry than Mother Teresa is in hers."
"The general perception of her," admitted Kathy Sreedhar, who is Mother Teresa's adoption placement worker in the United States and who has adopted two Indian orphans, "is that she is very status quo, that she wants to keep the poor in their place so we can love them. that's not true. Mother doesn't talk about political or economic development. what she does say, over and over again, is that we are all brothers and sisters. That's not developmental--that's revolutionary! The press never talks about that."
In Anacostia, just before her public press conference, Sreedhar was conferring privately with Mother Teresa when the door burst open and she was surrounded by a group of black men. "They were very upset," said Sreedhar. "They told Mother that Anacostia needed decent jobs, housing, and services -- not charity. Mother didn't argue with them; she just listened. Finally one of them asked her what she was going to do here. Mother said, 'First we must learn to love one another.'"
"They didn't know what to say to that," continued Sreedhar, who followed them out into the hall after their meeting to try to explain. "But when I returned, Mother saw I was upset. She wasn't. She never is. But she said to me 'Don't worry. After we have been here awhile, they will understand.'"
Understanding. If few people know about Anacostia, fewer still have any understanding of how it came to pass that Mother Teresa should be needed there in the first place. But in the first place, Anacosita was beautiful.
High bluffs formed a natural boundary to the southeast.Wooded hills were full of deer. Fertile flatlands abounded with wild turkey. And the Eastern Branch -- a deep, fish-filled tributary of the Potomac -- cooled the area's first inhabitants, a small band of Nacotchtank Indians who lived along its banks.
In 1608, when Capt. John Smith landed on the shores of Anacostia, there was much to please the eye. Smith wrote hyperbolic reports back to England. Eager colonists, with tobacco on their minds, sailed across the Atlantic to take possession. Many others have possessed Anacostia since.
The British overplanted the flatlands with tobacco, which badly eroded the soil and silted up the river. When the new federal city was being carved out, President John Adams took Jefferson's advice and annexed Anacostia from Maryland as a buffer zone against invasion. Adams also took advantage of the cheap black labor provided by the District's two largest slaveholders, who lived in Anacostia. Guided tours do not usually mention it, but the nation's Capitol was constructed by black men who were ferried back and forth from Anacostia every day.
At the onset of the Civil War, Lincoln took Anacostia's bluffs for Union forts, which often hid runaway slaves during the war. And after Emancipation, thousands of newly-freed blacks hastily migrated toward the protective shadow of the Capitol, "afraid," as John Kinard, current director of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, said dryly, "that the government might change its damn mind."
The government did not backtrack, but to avoid an influx of blacks downtown, it secretly purchased a 375-acre tract in Anacostia from the white heirs of James D. Barry and established a Freemen's Bureau, which sold lots to exslaves. Today, that tract is "Barry Farms."
"Men with families and also women -- both with children and single -- purchased the land eagerly," wrote Louise Hutchinson, author of The Anacostia Story . "In order to purchase property, entire families worked in the city all day and walked at night to Barry's Farm to develop their land and construct their homes by lantern and candlelight . . . some dug out the rocks and roots with their hands . . . Many whites did not want to see a community of black landholders established some blacks lost their jobs, while others were attacked en route to their new homes."
Today's Barry Farms is a dilapidated housing project on the beat of Anacostia's Councilwoman Wilhelmina Rolark. Rolark knows its people, its problems, and its "mayor," a black woman called Mrs. Goldsmith who lives in a tiny apartment at the end of one buff-colored chunk of housing.
"Hey, Mrs. goldsmith," she calls out, parking her car. The two women stand on front steps and talk. The door to the apartment is open. A large, black velvet canvas with the white face of Jesus hangs on the wall. He is looking upward with an expression of anguish. A fluorescent tear hangs permanently in the corner of one eye.
At one time or another Anacostia has been almost everything to everybody: a series of plantations, a working class neigborhood for whites, a middle-class black area, a patchwork of slums and affluence--which, surprisingly, it still is. But historically, as Washington began to prosper toward the northwest, the city put its hard problems behind it.
Anacostia, still more than 60 percent federally owned, has always been the receiving home for the city's least receivable brethren: the old, the orphaned, the physically and mentally ill. And the river, now called the Anacostia, is not a bridge.
"There's something got to overcome that river," sighed Alice Finlayson, past president of the Anacostia Historical Society, "and it's going to be this--the whites will take it over."
Alice Finlayson was the principal of Bernie High School from 1941 to 1959. During her tenure, Bernie was the only school in the nation to win two prestigious Freedom Foundation awards. Thousands of black Anacostia children have passed under her sharp, corrective eye.
She remembers finding youngsters who ate mud pies. She remembers sitting up all night with the children in the hospital to allay the terrors of parents who were afraid of "night doctors," white physicians who allegedly snatched black children from hospital beds for experiments. "No child could pass from one grade to another until I knew that all physical defects were corrected or in a state of being corrected," she said.
"Anacostia is where our first outstanding blacks came from," she said. "Arrington Dixon was in my class." But while Finlayson keeps records on the achievers, the ones who have slipped through the cracks are not lost to her either.
"Sometimes I'll be walking along and I'll hear someone call out, 'Hey, Miss Finlayson,' and I'll turn around to find one of my children . . . packed with drugs.!"
She turned her head and looked out her apartment window. "If I had the energy," she said, "I could get those children off the streets. I know how to do it, but I don't have the capability at this time.
"I there could be just one person," she said quietly, "who could take just five children . . ." She stopped speaking. "It does something to you," she whispered, "to see your people go to pieces." She stopped go to pieces." She stopped abruptly again. Her eyes were full of tears.
That's a telling picture, isn't it," agreed Rolark, of the Jesus portrait. But Rolark is a politician, not a preacher, and when she drives through Anacostia her own tearless eye is on the high grass that breeds rats beneath the cornflowers, the broken swing in a vestpocket park, the senior citizens who don't have enough programs, and the chilren--one of whom is blocking her car.
"Come on, darlin'," she urges a jaywalking little boy. "He's just strolling," she explains.
the little boy reaches the curb and waves thank you.
"Now that was nice," she exclaimed. "Don't tell me our children aren't polite."
The Rev. Thomas kelley is pastor of Assumption Church, a largely black parish on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A lean, self-deprecating man whose face is a pull toward Sweden halted by his half-Irish heritage, he is one of two pastors in Anacostia whose parishes play host to the nine sisters that Mother Teresa has given to the community.
"This is a very proud and wholesome community," Kelley said, "and the door to the church is always open so I think we get a pretty realistic view of who lives here. People work hard but they still manage to reach down into their pockets and find spare time to extend themselves toward each other."
Kelley requested his assignment in Anacostia, a difference from the old days when priests were assigned without consultation to whatever parishes the bishop decided needed them. Kelley has no desire to leave.
"Let me tell you something," said Theresa Jones, a social worker for the United Planning Organization. "You can be set down on the street with your children in Anacostia and I don't care what color you are, somebody will take you in. I dare say that if you lived in Ward 3 that wouldn't happen."
"What Anacostia needs," said John Kinard in his office at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, "are some people who have know-how and skills and can see the virtue and value of long-range commitment."
Kinard is one of those people. A street-smart, educated, reflective man, he is an African Methodist Episcopal minister who has worked for the poverty program, the State Department and now the Smithsonian, which, until he was hired, had a lot of curators but few if any who knew anything about black history.Kinard's book-filled office looks down over the notorious corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and Talbert Street, where winos doze on curbs until the late afternoon when the drug pushers appear to slap palms in an intricate, three-way ballett between dealer, middle-man and junkie.
The winos are harmless," said Kinard. "Talk to 'em. They won't hurt you.The drug pushers aren't Anacostians. They come from out of town."
Farther down Martin Luther King Avenue is massive St. Elizabeths Hospital, founded in 1852, once used as a hospital for Union soldiers. The patients shuffle down the street on passes and Thorazine, some of them drifting into High's for coffee or cigarettes. Their faces are passive as they stand in front of the counter. The cashier, a young, plump black woman, waits patiently while someone struggles, with much clumsiness and spilling, to put a top on her coffee cup.
"Honey," she smiled, "as hard as you've worked for that cup of coffee, you deserve to enjoy it."
The line between the haves and have-nots is not very wide in Anacostia, but there is a warm mantle of tolerance that slips off like a sweater from one's shoulders when you leave Anacostia for "beeter" parts of town. Of course, even tolerance has its limits.
Deputy Police Chief James Kelly, in charge of the Seventh District station, remembers May Day 1980 when some Communist Workers Party members came to Ballou High School. "They tried to stir up the kids. We went out there to make sure nothing got out of hand. It was all right until one of the Workers Party members started to burn the American flag in the school yard. The kids went crazy and started to attack them. We had to go in and rescue the Communists.
"Your black student working to get a job," he said dryly, "was not yet ready to join forces with young, educated, unemployed or severly underemployed whites."
Anacostians do not go so far as to say that their community is all sunshine and patriotism beneath the statistics. But there is a strong spirit of family life, simple values and commitment to each other that goes beyond. Americanism and touches upon a spiritual awareness that is unusually strong.
"I did have someone ask me what Mother Teresa can really do in Anacostia to change things," admitted Doloris Jordan, "and I know she can't give people jobs or money, but she can give people someone to listen to, someone who has a hold on faith.
"I'm poor," she grinned, "but I think I'm a classy lady and my thing is that even if your faith is only the size of a mustard seed . . ." -- she leaned forward and pinched her thumb and index finger together -- "hey," she chucles, "you can grow from that."
The press, not primarily known for its faith in mustard seeds, was waiting for Mother Teresa in Assumption's auditorium. She arrived, preceded by a clutch of smiling priests, and walked dutifully onto the stage and sat down, like a piano student who must endure recitals -- while Archbishop Hickey made an introduction.
The press lights were as hot as New Delhi at noon. Every detail was sharp although Mother Teresa seemed less like a personality than an instrument, as serviceable and well-worked as a piece of hemp. Her hands and feet are large and swollen. The rest of her, bound in a simple white, blue-bordered sari, seems too small. Every once in awhile she reaised her eyes, artificially starred by the klieg lights, and smiled. Then she rose for interrogation.
"Mother Teresa, what do you hope to accomplish here?"
"The joy of loving and being loved." "That takes a lot of money doesn't it?"
"It takes a lot of sacrifice."
"Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?"
"I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think te world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
The press, seeing the way the an!answers were going, did not detain her very long. No one liked to be the heavy. Rising, she left for a reunion in the church basement. Hundreds of Indian children whose adoptive American parents ahd brought them to see her were assembled there.
It was a scene reminiscent of what Jesus might have experienced, minus the calbes, cameras and microphones -- a lot of grownups squashing a lot of children who were trying to get up close. But Mother Teresa managed to touch most of them, embrace a few and look into dozens of dark, wondering eyes. This woman, whose sisters had salvaged them from the streets from alleys of various cities in India, had dramatically improved the odds in their lives.
Then most of the media representatives scattered and Assumption's parish gatehred for mass. The room was full with one exception. By accident or design, Mayor Barry was late.
Then he was there, filling the church with his lambent smile as he walked with a not-very humble stumble down the aisle. They key to Washington for Mother Teresa was in his well-tailored breast pocket, to be presented later on. The procession could begin.
It was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The procession itself was a study in how large the church's heart had become: an Irish archbishop, a black bishop, nine Indian, Canadian and American sisters, a phalanx of ushers in blue satin ribbons, a flow of crosses, miters, saris and smiles surging toward the altar on a rich, syncopated wave of gospel music from the organ, while the choir sang "Where Would I Be?" Where indeed!
It was not so long ago (1911) that the black parishioners of St. Theresa's Church in Uniontown were given the choice of worshipping on the dirt floor of the basement or leaving, which they did, to establish Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. But if gospel music landed sideways on the archbishop's Irish eardrums it was not reflected on his face. If the clapping to "Amazing Grace" and "We shall Overcome" was unusual, nobody's hands betrayed their minds.
The gospel reading was from St. Matthew: "Come unto me all ye who labor." But the reading of the epistle, which seemed to sum up the spirit of the parishoners inside the church, was from St. John.
A tall, middle-aged black man in a pew kept his gaze solemnly fixed upon the face of a young white nun as she earnestly signed each word with her hands. "Beloved," begins the first letter of John, "let us love one another." The deaf man, a patient at St. Elizabeths, watched the words fly from her fingers. "No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God abides in us."
It should be remembered, or pointed out to those who never knew, that many Catholic women of a certain generation either became nuns or continue to fight off the view that they are failed nuns who did not heed the call to grace. Thus, when I sought out the nine Missionaries of Charity whom Mother Teresa left behind in Anacostia, there were certain encurmbrances on my basic will to believe they were real. Perceptions had to travel over prejudices. Reality had to penetrate doubt. In other words, between the encounters and the assessment there was a certain lag-time. The sisters shone, but slowly.
The sisters do not live in squalor; they live in simplicity. Five reside in a brick house on V Street SE, a stone's throw from St. Theresa's Catholic Church. Four others live several mils away in a house on Wheeler Road. The first group is contemplative in purpose; prayer is their chief activity. The other nuns are more involved in the outside world, although they reserve four hours each day for prayer.
The sisters' first act was to strip their houses of all unnecessary conveniences. Washers and dryers, appliances, heavy curtains, rugs. What remained after the nuns and the co-workers had blitzed both houses with soap and water were convent-plain interiors painted white, with kitchens that have three luxuries: running water, a stove and a refrigerator.
The nuns are all young. Bound in the same white, blue-bordered saris (each is allowed two saris and a tin washbucket to launder them in), they move swiftly, like schoolgirls. Luggins boxes full of paving rock for a garden, stamping out a kitchen, running barefoot over a back lawn to retrieve a kick-ball, they seem defenseless in all ways but one -- their faith. Other than that, as they say, they're normal.
"The vocation," said Sister Nirmila, daughter of a Hindu family in Patma, "is not a human affair. I wanted to become a nun and work with the poor and I spoke to a Jesuit priest at the Catholic college I was attending and he told me about Mother Teresa. So that was the beginning. The call is already there and you begin to search for it."
Sister Leonard, also Indian, wanted to be a missionary, but the local priest told her it was too difficult a life for a middle-class girl. "He told me there was one order but it would be too hard for me," she explained. That order was Mother Teresa's. Sister Leonard visited a branch of Missionaries of Charity outside of Calcutta. "That next day," she said, "Mother Teresa came. Somebody told her that there was a girl here who wanted to join. Mother Teresa just said, 'Come with me," and I went with her back to the city." And that, after undergoing a rigorous seven-year postulancy required of all of Mother Teresas's sisters, was that.
The Anacostia community is just becoming used to seeing the sisters, who travel in pairs, in such unlikely places as Valley Green housing project. It takes time to accustom the eye. But adults see things differently than do children, for whom all adults are strange and acceptable in equal parts. And it is the children of Anacostia who have spread the word. According to Sister Leonard, who is overseer of the Wheeler Road house (actually two houses, one a residence and the other a center), the sisters trip over small human beings as early as 7 a.m., when they are leaving for mass.
"They say, 'Why you don't open up now?'" laughed Sister Leonard. The sisters officially start their day-care operation at 9 a.m. and end after serving lunch. "At first we kept them until 4, but it was too long," she admitted. "We go out into the community after that." But at 9 a.m., 45 to 50 children between the ages of 4 and 12 are seated on folding chairs in the grassy back yard singing at the top of their voices a song to greet the day. The adjective "sweet" should be used advisedly, but sweet is what it is.
"Oh rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory,
"This is the end of my story, story
"Everything is (clap) hunky-dory,
"Children of the Lord."
Or something like that.
There was so much going on, including apprehension in the heart of this observer that one of the 45 children was bound to rise up and hurl some epithet into the air, that it was difficult to catch all the lyrics. But nobody misbehaved. Even the 12-year-old boys at large for the summer seemed more interested in songs about "wigly worms" than wiggling. And pre-adolescent girls, ordinarily known for intense interest in their fingernails and moods, were oblivious to the narcissism that usually befalls preteens. The game was kick-ball and everybody played, with -- what can I say? -- joy.
"Sis-tah," yelled one very thin, very avuncular older boy. "He's not supposed to sit down [on the folding chair on second base.]"
"That's okay," said the nun in charge, a young Texan. "If he wants to be slow getting to home plate, that's okay."
A ball lands on her head.
"Oh, sis-tah," giggled the kicker. "Oh, sorry."
Meanwhile, the little ones gathered at a table on a screened porch, which had been kicked out in one selection the day before.
"Oh," laughed one sister."They are so naughty. Every day they break something else." But punishment seemd to be meted out in the form of firm grips on arms, gently pulling away children before fights took place between them.
The sisters do not proselytize, except in the form of songs about being a child of God. There is nothing specifically Catholic about the day-care center, although there is a children's chapel in a back room, with a small altar and blackboard covered wtih the words of the "Our Father," the "Hail Mary" and a few small, familiar prayers. It was not used while I was there, but perhaps it is before the day ends.
The children do not seem to be curious about the sisters at all, except to know when they can come back the next day. And the main languange is lemonade in plastic cups, although what the sisters are pouring out is mainly love. Without strings.
"That girl," said one bright-eyed 6-year-old, "called me a bald head." I replied that she had a very pretty face, which was true.
She accepted this as being a valid statement. "My name is LaWanda Michelle King," she said. I told her she had a pretty and famous last name. Did she know why? She nodded yes.
"'Cuz of Martin Luther King. He got shot." Did she know anything else about him?
"Just a song, 'Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream, about love and brotherhood always being good' . . . that's all I remember."
What, I asked, did she want to be when she grew up.
"A nurse, but I got to go to doctor school first." And did she wanted to take care of kids or grownups?
"Any kind," said LaWanda Michelle King, as if that were a silly question. "Anybody that hurts."
Small talk ensued, but in the meantime she had solved the bald head insult. "I don't care about not having lots of hair. Anyway, when God wants to grow it, he will."
God's will is a silent, complex business. But the sisters, ostensibly pliant, are firm about one thing -- that they be told where the worst places in Anacostia are, so they can go there. They have begun to go to D.C. Village to care for the elderly. They will become familiar with the people who live in the same housing projects staked out by the police. They will visit shut-ins, go to jails, and -- as the months go by -- get their footing. But in this they are being helped by Anacostians themselves.
"The people here," said the Rev. George Stallings, "have responded to them overwhelmingly. We have been praying for this and the people are overjoyed."
Father Stallings, the black pastor of St. Teresa's, is asked what, specifically, the people had been praying for before the Missionaries of charity arrived.
"For someone to draw us out of an attachment to what's wrong in the world and give us a sense of hope," he replied.
Hope is the middle virtue -- a bridge between the other two, faith and love. Odd that nine sisters with no bank account and nothing more than trust in Divine Providence to guide them are providing this.
Sister Nirmila told a long, interesting story about Divine Providence, involding a subway with no tokens, a chance encounter in Greenwich Village with a priest, panhandler and various other givers and takers who were part of the plot that ended back at the convent.
Money came, money went, money came again, and finally, with no more in sight and the subway still to be paid for, Sister Nirmila decided to beg. "I'm horrible at begging," she confessed. "Sister Fatima tells me I don't beg, I demand," which made her laugh and cover her face with her hands.
But if Anacostia was, at the outset, disturbed over being considered beggar's territory, that ghost has been chased away, by the nuns themselves.
"We love this place," said Sister Fatima, who looked all of 16 in a long, faded-blue denim apron over her sari. "And we love the people. We have received so much more than we have given."
Her point was proven in the small backyard that had recently been a driveway before some neighbors had dumped a truckload of dirt on top of the asphalt. Boxes of petunias and impatiens were waiting to be planted. Some tomato plants were already in the ground. All of it had been given by the neighborhood or friends.
"People tell us nothing will grow here," said Sister Nirmila, "but I tell them that this is not so."
It has been a long time since anybody planted dreams in Anacostia, and the sisters are taking it one driveway at a time. But despite the asphalt jungle aspects of Anacostia, which the media report, in one important sense the Missionaries of Charity have found their own level.
The sisters are "aristrocrats" of poverty, and a secondary definition of "aristocratic" is "magnanimous, or possessing a courageous spirit." The counter girl at High's shares in that definition. So does Doloris Jordan.
"You know," laughed Jordan, "when you get down to it, there's only one God, one church and one people. I mean, when Jesus comes down, He's not going to say, 'Okay, Catholics over here, Jews down front, Chinese to the rear.' No," she said softly, "He's going to say the same thing to everybody: 'Children, coem forth to be judged.'"