Mother Teresa, Calcutta's renowned "Saint of the Gutters," made an unimposing entrance into one of Southeast Washington's most troubled and poverty-ridden neighborhoods yesterday -- a small humble figure draped in flowing white bringing a messge of hope and acceptance to a community with many burdens to bear.
She came to Congress Heights virtually alone, accompanied by Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey and a handful of nuns and priests. There were no crowds to greet her outside Assumption Church, only clumps of reporters and cameramen and a lone woman shepherding a small group of children for a closer look at the tiny nun with the tanned and wrinkled face.
Mother Teresa waved to the children and touched some of those nearest to her. She went inside Assumption Church to pray, talked with reporters, prayed again and then attended mass with about 200 persons gathered inside.
It was her characteristically understated way of launching in the nation's capital a version of the ministry that won her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work among the homeless and the dying in India.
"I'm sure Washington is not like Calcutta, but we have missions in 90 American cities and I'm sure Washington is no different than them. . . People committing suicide, people using drugs. . . There is much suffering in Washington," she said.
She is a soft-spoken woman of 70, a former geography teacher who in 1948 clothed herself in the uniform her order now wears -- a white sari with a blue border and a cross on the shoulder -- and surrendered herself to what she once called the "service of the poorest of the poor in the slums."
"I think the world is being helped by poor people who accept their suffering," she said yesterday during a press conference at the church at 3401 Martin Luther King Ave. SE. "In Calcutta, I knew a man who said he had lived like an animal in the street but he wanted to die like an angel, and through God he died with a smile on his face -- which is much better than to die cursing."
In all, nine sisters from the Missionaries of Charity of Calcutta, founded by Mother Teresa in 1950, will begin operating out of two homes here -- one home for prayer and another for active missionary work, she said.
The sisters have not moved in yet, and until then, church officials will not disclose the location of the houses. They will minister to the elderly, the poor, the sick and those imprisoned, and they will pray. Mother Teresa is scheduled to leave today and may return occasionally, Hickey said.
"This is not about sociology programs or money. She's not setting up an elaborate apparatus," Hickey said. "She's just come to know the people, to show people respect, because when people lose their dignity, that's when they go in for things like abortion."
Congress Heights is one of several communities east of the Anacostia River where welfare recipients are plentiful, crime is high, drug use is widespread and hope and city services often are low. Despite its pockets of economic stability, it is an area where some fear that those seekig most to help sometimes become easy prey.
"I'd say 30 years ago, she'd be welcome -- because people would have respect for what she's doing," said Henry Vine, owner of Vine and Sons Soul Food Carryout located down the street from the Assumption Church. "But now there are so many hoodlums in Southeast, they don't care whose mother she is. I just wish her hope."