To love and to serve

“There’s a serial killer killing prostitutes,” my mom tells me on the phone.

It’s the end of July, and I’m calling to catch up, as I try to do most days. She tells me that she missed my call earlier because she was on the phone with the homeless shelter in Philly where she spends weeks at a time, living and working with the religious fathers, brothers, and sisters there.

One of the brothers had a stroke recently and a homeless woman was murdered, one of the women they served at the kitchen where my mom prepares meals and hands out necessities. She called a young member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, who now graduated the program and works full-time at the shelter. My mother lives, often, with people in dire situations and those doing the hard work of helping where help is needed.

Only the bravest, strongest people devote their lives to these desperate, necessary services, living alongside those most in need.

On the phone, I lamented the recent tragedies with her. The brother who had the stroke will be OK. He had a successful surgery and is going into rehab. The women who work the streets, they’re still in danger. I feel the pain and tragedy of the callousness with which the world treats the homeless and the poor, the brutal reality of the sex industry, and the devaluation of women.

If I could characterize my mom’s life work, it would not be just raising seven children and homeschooling my siblings and me to perfection, shaping us into strong, smart, and capable people. It would be her work in the realm of social justice.

People ask me often where I get my heart for the work of caring and helping, of social justice, and I reply, “My mother.” I wrote my law school admission essays about her. Before I knew that “social justice” and “human rights” were issues, my mother took my little sister, Alicia, and I, with our pigtails and hand-me-down dresses to parks and homeless shelters where she showed us how to serve others.

The big man with mental health issues, named “Tito,” who spoke in long-winded sentences and followed us around, asking for extra sandwiches, my mother loved particularly and gave hugs and extra gentleness. She taught me that severe mental illness was not to be feared. Then, there was the softness in faces of men who gently took cups of lemonade from my hand, and my mother would say, “They love it when you’re here.” She taught me that my presence, even as a child, had value. She made sure that I knew it was important to be there, at the table where people dined, when they didn’t have other meals or homes to go back to.

At the large men’s shelter in downtown Raleigh, with the vast rooms and clamoring tables, my mother told me, “Go sit with them.” I wanted to sit behind the volunteer table and give out ham sandwiches from a distance, but she pushed me out into the room, into the community. I felt scared and wide-eyed, but I ventured out by myself to the large tables, pulled myself up into large chairs at large tables, and talked to burly men while they ate their food. She taught me to love people and not to be afraid because people hadn’t had showers, had just gotten out of prison, or were bigger than me.

I was an easily intimidated seven-year-old, but they gently engaged me in conversation. I propped my small hands on the table and talked about their days and their food and their nights.

I asked her about race, about the color of homelessness and poverty, and my mother did not shy away. She told me about inequality and racism. She made sure I knew that the system we lived in was not right. She was teaching me to read the news and to know that we lived in a bigger world of injustice. Particularly because I was homeschooled, she had the opportunity to lift up justice advocates, feminists, ground-breakers, and social justice workers as role models. I learned everything about Elizabeth Blackwell and Nina Simone but hardly anything about George Washington. As a teenager, she dragged me to plays of “Nickled and Dimed” and “Dead Man Walking,” and we wrote letters to inmates at Christmas.

I was a little older when my mother found out about a network of churches, called WIHN, that provided shelter to homeless families in the region, and she convinced our parish to participate. My mother’s organization and leadership in the program meant that I was there, too, setting up tables, preparing meals, and changing baby diapers for weeks at a time. For years upon years, I was my mother’s helper, along with my younger sister. 

I ran out to the sidewalk to meet the van that deposited families on the doorstep of the church, played basketball with the kids in the church gym, helped the families find toothpaste, cleaned the counters around the sinks in the bathrooms, and slept overnight in the same strange cots that the families slept in. During the day, we traveled down to the WIHN drop-in center to help with stocking baby wipes and playing Scrabble while the parents looked for jobs.

I remember the many families that passed through. There was a boy close to my age, named Christopher, that my father talked about the whole way home one night. “He could go to Harvard,” my dad said. “He is so bright.” There was another girl my age, eleven, who I thought could be my best friend and when she left, I gave her all my Barbie dolls because I would miss her. I still think about Crystal.

Even though homelessness is not conducive to continuing friendships, my mother continued friendships when she could. She offered childcare for free to mothers who came through the program and were trying to get back on their feet. We got to know Chelove, a single mother with five children, and Q, who had a tiny baby, and Kim, a single mother with two kids.

When Chelove got her first apartment, my mother drove my sister and I there eagerly, and we spent the afternoon setting up cribs and playing. The adults talked while the kids ran around the soft carpet of the new apartment. In the afternoons, my mom would drive out to Durham to pick up Chelove’s kids from Head Start when Chelove had to be at work. My mother talked to the teachers, piled the toddlers and kids into her car, and drove them home. I sat between the car seats with the bouncing, happy children.

She advised Q, a first time mom, on feeding schedules and naps. I played with Q’s son to make him gurgle and laugh while Q tried to cornrow my fine, blonde hair because I asked her to. And, a few weeks later, when my mom sadly told me that Q had suddenly passed away, leaving her baby child alone, I wept for days on end, and I asked Q to be my guardian angel. I still pray to the universe for Q’s small child, who was five-months-old when I met him. I pray that he might be strong and successful, no matter what.

Kim, she became the truest of family members. She dropped her toddler daughter off at our house every day and went to work. Her son went to school and to basketball camps. Kim had a new apartment and was trying to make it, after homelessness, so my mother took care of her daughter. And I loved that adorable girl, her smile and her warmth. Alicia and I adopted her into our camp of childhood, snuggling her, dressing her up, bathing her, putting her to bed. We have endless baby pictures of her throughout family photo albums. Later, when Kim got back on her feet, she needed less childcare, but she would still bring her kids over to play and to catch up with my mom. The moms would sit in the kitchen and talk and laugh while we ran outside. In those days, Alicia and I felt the unbridled love and happiness of being united with a baby sister we had missed.

Recently, this past week, Kim’s daughter, now high school-aged, found me on Instagram. Messaging with me, she told me that she’s been thinking of us and “momma Beatrice,” my mother. She’s going to Baylor College, eventually, for athletic training, and she’s a cheerleader and a star. I told her endlessly, “I’m proud of you. I love you.”

These are the stories that shape me, the relationships that keep me endlessly united to the struggle for equality and social justice. My mother showed me that homeless families were just that: families. A part of us and a part of ours. She showed me that people who did not have as much as we did deserved all the endless good things we had. She showed me that I had to not just share possessions, but I had to share my time, energy, and heart. She reminded me endlessly that our blessings weren’t ours to keep, and we were not free to stand by and not help. She showed me every day that justice means you get out, sit at the table, and participate. You lend a hand so other people who’ve been shorted by life and downtrodden get a leg back up.

If you ask, I got my heart from mother, my education from her endless caring, and my sensibility from her passion for justice. While my mother operates in a world without LinkedIn, Facebook, and resumes, in a world without public accolades, she showed me endlessly what humanity and change look like. She is humble, persistent, and devoted. While homelessness and poverty are the issues she has devoted so much time and energy to, she has shaped me into a person who cares equally about the broader field of human rights.

It is no wonder that I care, in the small ways I can, about furthering change and creating a better place to live in. I have huge shoes to fill.

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