The subject was the Biblical book of Joshua, but the Rev. Mary Fowler sounded like she was doling out dating advice.
She was referring, of course, to God. But for many of the women of her congregation, who know all too well that boyfriends and husbands and lovers are liable to leave unexpectedly, that steadfast help also comes from Mary Fowler.
A ready babysitter, some diapers or formula, help paying the rent, a listening ear — Fowler knows the many needs of single mothers. For the past 20 years, she has considered it her calling as a pastor to minister specifically to unwed women raising children alone.
Her 150-member congregation now has a new home: a gleaming renovated church building in Northeast Washington. It’s the rare religious space that has all the grandeur of a church and is also built to be female-oriented, from the moment you step in the foyer and see the rhinestone-handled silver table with its massive vase of plastic flowers. The carpet, the pews and the altar are intensely red; bold pink flowers dot the social hall. And presiding over it all, from a portrait on the foyer wall and from the pulpit in person, is the 83-year-old Fowler, whom some churchgoers affectionately call “Mother Mary.”
Fowler really is a mother, to three daughters, and a grandmother and even a great-grandmother five times over. Her role as a pastor to struggling young moms might seem incongruous: She raised her own children during a happy marriage, and spent most of her career working in stock market regulation, not ministry. Then her husband died, and Fowler decided, at age 60, to go to divinity school.
When she graduated from Howard University, she thought about working in a large Baptist church like the one where she was a member. But she realized she was seeing pregnant teenagers hanging out near her church, but never going inside.
“I’d see a lot of babies having babies, babies having babies. They were having them so young,” she said. She decided her place was outside too.
First, at 63, Fowler started dropping by teen hangout spots, asking the girls in the park what their babies’ names were and helping them out here and there. Then she started hosting church services in her house for the young moms she befriended, and then in a park pavilion that she rented where the babies could run around during the service. Then her ministry moved to Brookland, where her fledgling congregation bought the small building that it slowly paid off, and then rebuilt, finishing the renovation in time to celebrate Fowler’s 20-year anniversary as a pastor this summer.
Over those years, she’s counseled many women who suddenly become single parents when their boyfriends or husbands go to prison — and she’s counseled the men when they come back. She’s ministered to many fathers addicted to drugs, trying to help them get clean and get back to supporting their children. She’s learned to always have cookies and juice at church for the children who don’t have anything to eat at home before Sunday services.
“It’s good to always tell people about spirituality, spirituality. But sometimes, spirituality without help is not helping,” she said. “If I’m reading the Bible to you, and you’re hungry, you’re not going to think about the Bible.”
Fowler tries to help materially when she can. Many times, so often that her own children chide her about it, she’s given a mom the rent money she needs to avoid eviction. Once, when a mother showed up with her young daughter, having been kicked out of her father’s apartment, Fowler went to Home Depot to buy them a refrigerator for their new place.
Many of these women have felt ostracized in other churches because they had children out of wedlock, Fowler said. In her church, she believes in the same sexual ethics, but it’s never the first topic of conversation.
“When you push people, you push them away from you…. I don’t push religion on them when they first come in. I don’t even talk about religion,” she said. Her first topic is often the Redskins, she says with a giggle. “I’ll have a little fun with them and then, you know what? I’ll invite them to a meeting. Little by little, I’ll start telling them about the Bible. I learn to like them, and they learn to like me.”
That’s how she first approached her neighbor, whose four young nieces from Malawi came to live with her in America. The immigrant woman, whose husband was murdered in her home country, was suddenly responsible for four children, and Fowler wanted to help.
Khadija Mtewa, the youngest of those nieces, was 10 years old at the time. She remembers her aunt explaining that the family was Muslim, but Fowler didn’t seem to care whether they were churchgoers. “She was always nice, and always around, and always willing to answer questions,” Mtewa, now 30, said. “That’s how genuine she was with us. It wasn’t pushing us into one thing. It was always just welcoming us, the doors open regardless of what you believe in.”
She grew up attending mosque faithfully and also spent much of her youth hanging around Fowler, asking her questions about the origins of humanity. Only when she went away to Ball State University in Indiana did she decide she wanted to convert to Christianity. Fowler baptized her on Christmas when she came home for winter break.
Her three older sisters have all been baptized now as well — and all three became single mothers, and benefited from Fowler’s particular expertise. Fowler gave all of them tips on feeding and watching babies; when one sister needed a place to stay with her young son, she stayed at Fowler’s house for three months, Mtewa said.
“If she sees somebody else struggling, she’s always there,” Mtewa said.
The way Fowler sees it, she practices Christian charity by loving her congregants. “If they feel you are judging them, they will run away from you,” she said. “When you cast them out, sometimes they go out and they feel unloved. They feel unwanted. They feel people don’t care about them.”
The congregation is called Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, but that’s a misnomer on a few levels. First, the “Mary’s” part. When Fowler originally founded a church with the intention of focusing on the needs of single mothers, she wanted to name it St. Mary’s, for the most revered mother in Christianity. But a D.C. regulator told her the name was taken; now, she worries that people think the name “Mary’s” refers to the pastor. Second, the “Baptist” part — while originally a Baptist church, Mary’s Missionary went nondenominational years ago as the congregation grew more diverse; it’s just too expensive to replace the sign out front.
When you build your church for people who are struggling, you sometimes don’t end up with much in the collection plate. Fowler said that when the congregation decided to renovate the building, at a cost several times more than the $75,000 they originally bought the small church for, the single mothers chipped in a dollar or two each Sunday that they could. A small group of more financially stable congregants, just 25 people, financed most of the project, she said.
But whenever she worried it would never get done, she told herself something that she often tells the mothers she counsels, the verse now written in stained glass above her bold red altar: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Standing below that window, Fowler says, “We as women must feel that if God calls you and gives you a job to do, he’s going to equip you to do the job. This is what I strongly believe,” she said. That’s true of being a mother, and of being a pastor. “He called me into ministry late in life. He equipped me to do the job.”