Mother Dear pats her feet as she works out on the keyboard of a donated typewriter, listening to gospel music on a radio while helping a man recently released from Lorton Reformatory fill out a job application.
"What kind of work are you looking for," she asks the man, who sits with fists pressed anxiously in his lap.
"Cook," he says shyly.
"When was the last time you worked?"
"Can you leave that one blank?"
"How much did you make?"
"Can you leave that one blank, too.?"
"Now wait a minute," says Mother Dear. "You can't leave all these things blank. Now if you were a cook, you know if you can't stand the heat, you have to get out of the kitchen."
The man smiles and his hands begin to unfold. "Nineteen seventy-eight. Four dollars an hour," he says.
When Mother Dear finishes typing, she hands the application to the man to take to the city employment office. He studies it. There are no blanks. He shakes his head like a boss to a personal secretary.
"Mother Dear, you are so sweet," he says, and kisses her on the cheek.
Mother Dear may be sweet but she is also tough. You have to be to do what she does. Her real name is the Rev. Annie Woodridge and for the past 20 years she has been doing good in Washington, operating her Mother Dear's Community Center where people who have problems that must be solved now come for solutions.
Enter the community center at 1707 14th St. NW, and there are lines of people waiting to see her who say they need food now, clothes now, help with the oil bill. Now.
In the backroom of her two room center, three volunteer women work out on sewing machines, altering clothes for oversized mental patients whom she will visit later in the day. Out front, where the lines are, needy people are picking up government issue butter that Mother Dear has agreed to distribute.
After the ex-convict leaves, a woman who has no place to live takes a seat next to Mother Dear, who whips out a black book of telephone numbers of places for homeless women and starts dialing away. No luck, every place is already overcrowded. Mother Dear tells the woman not to worry. If all else fails, the woman can stay with her.
Here is a woman of substance. Her personality is magnetic, her character compelling. A storefront preacher in a town where there are many imitators, she is the real McCoy. In a town filled with political hipsters, educated and elected to solve the social problems of the day, Mother Dear stands out as a doer. While other talk about their ideas and legislative packages which if implemented may do some good somewhere down the line, Mother Dear deals with the here and the now. The people she deals with can't always wait for the law to pass. They need help now.
Her telephone rings night and day. Sometimes she looks so tired the people who have come to her for help ask if they can come back. Nonsense, says Mother Dear. She sees about 200 people a week. She preaches a church service twice a week, conducts funerals and weddings. She visits with the mentally ill and counsels the unemployed and ex-offenders.
"Sometimes you can help people, sometimes you can't," says Mother Dear, who is 54. "But you can always say something to help people cope. What I'm seeing out here is a lot of people who have tremendous stress on them. Stress causes strain and strain causes mental problems. Once you lose your good mind, then it becomes real tough to get yourself together."
Mother Dear, who was born
in New Orleans, came to
Washington in 1957 and
helped start a program
called Jobs for Teens, which was run out of her house then located on Bates Street NW. When the youth arrived for counseling, they would hear Woodridge's children refer to her as "mother dear." The name stuck.
On the wall of her community center is a certificate of appreciation that Mayor Marion Barry awarded to her in September. In 1979, she was honored by Howard University's Black Women's symposium and nominated from Washington for the National Mother of the Year award.
During a recent meeting here with ambassadors from black Africa, she was told that her work as a community servant would distinguish her back home as a "chief mama," and entitled her to sit next to the chief himself.
Whe she was in the Soviet Union in 1968 as part of a religious goodwill mission, the Russians bestowed on her the honor of "Twice Hero Mother." In that sprawling but sparsely populated country, women with five children are known as "hero mothers." Woodridge has 13.
With honorifics like those, she must be good.
"I try to remind everybody that destiny makes us brothers," said Mother Dear. "Nobody goes his way alone. If you have yours, don't stand back and laugh at the other fellow who hasn't got his. I say, Reach out and touch people's lives. The Lord says, Blessed is he who gives a drink of water in my name. It doesn't take much. I say, if you lift somebody up as you go up, we'll all rise together."
There was a raucous bustle inside Mother Dear's Community Center, as the front door opened and closed nonstop. The sign out front says Foundation Baptist Church, but the people who live in this area of 14th Street NW know that Mother Dear rents two small rooms inside and now they are almost beating down the door to get in.
A gruff old man in a dusty knit hat and shoes worn like cardboard shuffled up to a table where three of Mother Dear's volunteers were seated with notebooks in front of them. Huge boxes of government-issue butter wrapped in two-pound packs were stacked on both sides of them.
The gruff old man signed for his share, then broke out in a snaggle- tooth grin when he was handed two two-pound packs.
"Where is the bread?" he asked. One of the women behind the table cut her eye at him and replied, "We gave out bread yesterday."
"He ought to know -- he was one of the first in line," added another of the three.
The old man grinned delightedly. "Jus' jokin'," he said.
Mother Dear was looking out
from the small adjoining room where she keeps inventory on the goods,
types letters to government officials, sews clothes and reads the Bible.
Today she was firing a letter off to President Reagan. The children's club that she has organized had been turned down in its request to sing Christmas carols at the White House this year. "And I'm not taking no for an answer," she said with pen in hand, ready to sign.
It has been a long day for Mother Dear. There was a pageant, two weddings, a funeral, her daily rounds with mental health patients, a trips to the D.C. employment office to check on her "constitutents."
The phone rang. Mother Dear answered. "Like I said before," she told the caller, "we only had 10 baskets this time. But your name is on the list --" There are hundreds of names on the list. It is made up of people who live around the 14th Street area who need food and clothes. Mother Dear massaged her temples.
"Don't worry -- we'll let you know something soon. By the way, have you got your butter yet. Well, come on down and get some," she said.
In the other room, the traffic continued as lines formed for people to get their butter. "Have you tried to buy any of this stuff lately," said one man who said he had five children to feed.
"It's hard out there," replied Mother Dear. "Just keep the faith."
Later in the day, after the traffic had subsided a little,
Mother Dear eased herself into her chair and laid her cane against the file cabinet where she keeps the name of her constituents. Her eyes had darkened and bags were beginning to form under them. On the radio a singer, with female background vocals, piano and tambourine, filled the room with the refrain, "Work it on out, Lord. Work it on out."
"I've been working like -- a son of a gun," she said. Pause. "I bet you thought I was going to say something else." She laughed heartily. The laughter seemed restorative.
She told a story. During the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication week, she was driving home from the community center when she spotted two veterans seated on the curb, police cars and ambulances surrounding them. "Whenever I see something that looks like chaos I stop," she said.
It turned out that one of them was disabled with a spine ailment and the other was in a state of mental collapse, unable to move. Because the men weren't in emergency situations, the ambulance couldn't take them anywhere. Because they weren't drunk, there was nothing the police department could do.
Mother Dear took them to the community center and stayed on the telephone until she found them a place to stay.
"They were so happy," Mother Dear recalled. "Even the ambulance driver and the police were happy. They had been standing around wondering what to do. When I came along, they told me, 'This is a blessing in disguise.'