Mother Teresa's nuns are coming to Congress Heights, a Southeast Washington community nearly bankrupt of food, jobs and housing. They will come, arms laden with a currency of faith, offering hope and solace. But no jobs, no homes, no food or security for worried mothers like Sheila Johnson of Yuma Street SE. They will bring a currency whose value has been severly debased in Johnson's neighborhood by a grim reality that seldom seems to change.
Johnson, who lives in the Washington Highlands public housing project, won't let her five children play outdoors. She's afraid of the crime, the drugs and the violence that fill the streets. Those same streets already snatched her oldest son, now spending time at Cedar Knoll, the city's facility for juvenile offenders.
And even inside her home, there is no haven. Johnson worries, she says, that her babies will eat the plaster that drops from holes in walls she's asked her landlord -- the D.C. government -- to repair. When the sun goes down, Johnson's neighbors lock their doors and paranoia reigns in fearful filence borken by screaming police car sirens and helicopters with searchlights whirring overhead.
"Police sirens keep me up at night," said Dawn Crowe, 31, Johnson's neighbor and a mother of three. As she spoke, teen-agers across the street cheered on two boys who were fighting, punching each other in the face. "Down here, you feel paranoid, you have a negative outlook. I didn't want to come here to live. But I had no choice," she said.
News that the nuns will set up missionary homes here in the next few weeks was met with puzzlement by those interviewed on the streets, outside their houses and at their jobs on a muggy afternoon last week.
Johnson says she never heard of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
"Does she have resources where we can go to get people jobs, or food and housing?" asked Gloria Thomas, a social worker at Neighborhood Development Center No. 3, a storefront antipoverty outpost on Martin Luther King Avenue SE.
"We need everything in this community . . . " Thomas said. "We need more than hope out here."
The hard life of Congress Heights will not be a new sight for Mother Teresa, the "Saint of the Gutters." She and her nuns have lived among the hopeless in the dehumanizing slums of Calcutta. They are familiar with the ever present dying, hunger and disease that make kife seem unbearable. The misery of Calcutta is worse than that of Congress Heights. But what these nuns still will find here is a poverty amidst plenty that shatters the spirit, just beyond eyesight of the gleaming white dome of the Capitol of the world's richest nation.
They will find in Congress Heights thousands of children, women, and old folks living in bunker-like brick and concrete boxes with broken windows, no hot water and mice and roaches that scamper uncontrolled.
Some children grow like the weeds that fill their rented yards: undisciplined, uncared for, unwanted -- yet rarely abandoned. Young boys sell drugs to earn spending money. And at nearly every busy intersection, the older youths and the men who have sidestepped jail, founder, disillusioned and unemployed.
It is a community where three generations struggle for survival in two-bedroom apartments on Condon Terrace, Valley Avenue and Wheeler Road. Across the street or a block or so away, boarded-up apartments and new homes for sale stand tauntingly out of poor people's grasps. Tempers flare in these conditions, and people may use kitchen knives and illegal handguns to kill each other over trifling arguments born of frustration and despair.
"It gets depresing around here when there is so much you need and don't have," said Larry Lewis, 28, who lives in Congress Heights and worked on construction jobs until he was laid off three weeks ago. "That's why you have so much violence, drinking, and drugs -- that type of stuff. People get depressed."
Not everyone in Congress Heights is poor or lives in decrepit housing projects. Yet the depth of the poverty, overcrowding, unemployment and crime overshadows the tidy little pockets of working-class neighborhoods found throughout the area.
Now comes Mother Teresa and eight Catholic nuns of the order of Missionaries of Calcutta who depend on charity, and will live among the needy, distributing faith. They will minister to the elderly at nearby D.C. Village, the mentally ill at St. Elizabeths down here and the prisoners at D.C. Jail, on another side of town. And they will pray and meditate for 12 to 13 hours a day, all things they have done in several other American cities.
They will not bring with them an array of social service or community action programs. Mother Teresa's philosophy, according to Catholic officials, is to help people accept their condition in the world.
"The sisters are not coming here with new-fangled promises," said the Rev. Thomas Kelley of Assumption Roman Catholic Church, whose parish includes most of Congress Heights and parts of Anacostia.
"I don't think that the sisters are going to be able to change a thing. The problems are going to be here long after we're gone," he said. "But people are going to be able to come to the sisters for hope. Their homes here will be a presence. These women are offering nothing other than themselves."
Sheila Johnson says she could use that -- and a lot more. "People need hope, they need help," she said, "and anything else they can get."