The Rev. Annie Woodridge doesn't need a choir.
She has a piano. She has a strong, emotional voice. She has a church, an assistant minister, a community center, a congregation, and plenty of hymnals (even if some other church's name is stampel in gold on the covers).
But, more than anything, the Rev. Annie Woodridge, mostly known as "Mother Dear," has love.
It might sound curious to a casual passerby to hear a 61-year-old man with a cane call a 49-year-old woman, "Mother," but there's no mistaking the tender mixture of love and gratitude in his greeting.
Before last year. Early Charles struggled along by tending gardens in Silver Spring and Georgetown. Then, he was beaten in the street. When he had recovered sufficiently, friends took him to Woodridge.
"She fixed me up," he said, balancing himself on his cane to draw a checkerboard cut of a crinkled brown bag. "She called the people and filled out the forms."
Now, Charles receives food stamps, medical assistance and enough financial help to case himself up and down 14th Street, much less worried about his ability to survive long enough for his cracked ribs and damaged kidneys to recover.
"If Mothr Dear had $1 from all the persons she's helped around the world, she could build herself a new church," said Ruby Warren, 52, a friend of 10 years.
Apparently, such expressions of appreciation are not new to Woodridge.
In 1953, when she lived in a little house at 1413 Half Street, she turned her basement into a community center "because the kids didn't have a place to play."
As her circumstances forced her to move to various parts of the city, she always found space to open a community center, and time to help anyone referred to her.
Now, she has a separate community center, two large rooms behind a giant plant-filled storefornt window at 3506 14th St. NW. And every Sunday, she sings and preaches near the altar of her own church, St. Ann's Cathedral at 1125 Spring St. NW, once the private synagogue of a Jewish psychiatric home.
She was called "Mother Dear" ever since the oldest of her now-grown 11 children was reprimanded by an aunt for calling his mama "Melina" (her middle name). The name stuck because most of the people she is close to got to know her when she helped them through some time of trouble.
"It was the shock. I just couldn't get over the shock," said Mary Stribling, 49. Four years ago, a friend, Mary Newman, 56, Took her to Del. Walter E. Fauntroy's office for help in getting financial assistance in the aftermath of a horrifying auto accident.
In the outer office they met Woodridge, whose job it was to help community people who turn to the D.C. delegate. She worked there for five years, using part of her salary for rent on the community center, part for herself and her children, and finally, part for a church. She left Fauntroy to work on the Carter-Mondale transition team, but wasn't taken on. How, unemployment compensation pays the rent.
"Believe me," said Stribling in her deep, serious voice. "I called her day and night. Day and night. And with her help, and God's help, I was (emotionally) well again."
Now, both "Sister" Stribling and "sister" Newman are daily visitors to the community center, sewing for community people for donations that get them by the tight end-of-the month squeeze.
Woodridge sees the church as a necessary supplement to her community center. "Most of the people who needed help, had no way to meet her personal budget to include church rental came after an incident about eight years ago.
"There was a woman so sick she was layin' in her bed and no one could do a thing with her. One day I was talking to her about her problems and I said. 'Honey, have you tried God?' 'No,' she said, 'I haven't.'
"So I began to pray over the woman. And she looked like she was getting stronger, so I kept on praying. And just like you're looking out of that door (motioning to the storm door of the community center from the inside toward the street) a small figurine appeared.
"Then it went away. When it reappeared it looked like a toddler. Then it came back again, lifesize. It said, 'St. Ann.' I knew from my aunt that the mother of Jesus' mother was named Ann. And that's my name.
"So, I knew I was supposed to open a church and call in St. Ann's. And six years ago I did."
Last Sunday morning, much of her congregation was late or didn't show up because of the rain. By the time Woodridge finished singing "When on the Cross of Calvary," punctuated by the "Amens," and "Yes, Jesus" of her assistant minister. The Rev. Lee Calhoun, 34, the congregation had grown from one to 16, and the sun was beginning to shine.
Most of the congregation are women, many of them raising small children who go to Woodridge's Sunday School. "I don't think many men are ready for a woman preacher," said Essie Bellamy, 54.
The liturgy is an amalgam of Woodridge's church exposure (Baptist and Catholic), matched with whatever Woodridge feels is appropriate at the moment, be it hand-holding, or coming forward to be blessed with water from an aspirin bottle.
Much of the congregation are members of some other church in the area, but find they like the intimacy of vorshiping with their friend.
"Here, everybody is somebody," said Sister Stribling.