Photo: Annette Baudelouque
Meet Momma, This Woman Who Radiates Christ
By Kellie Ross (Mar 17, 2007)
It was a year ago this month when our Divine Mercy group, the Missionaries of Our Lady of Divine Mercy, began our monthly trips into Washington, D.C., to feed, clothe and give spiritual aide to the homeless. It was our wish to take the message of Divine Mercy and put it into action. After all, we are all called to do works of mercy.
Jesus told St. Faustina, "I demand from you deeds of mercy which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse yourself from it" (Diary of St. Faustina, 742).
Preparing for that first trip into the city, we thought, "Let's take some sandwiches in there and hand them out and see what happens."
Well, I'd like to share with you what happened.
About a dozen of us went that first time. We made about 50 sandwiches. We put them in a bag with some chips and stapled a holy card to them. We also had a few coats to give out. So, after Mass on a Sunday in early March, our caravan of three cars headed into the city.
I remember it was cold out. I remember the nervous anticipation we all felt. Many of us hadn't done this sort of thing before. We wondered, "Are they going to hurt us?" "Are we going to get ripped off?" "Will they accept us?" "What if they don't want our sandwiches?" We were trying to prepare ourselves for rejection.
We crossed the bridge and entered the city. We drove and drove and drove, but we couldn't find a homeless person anywhere. So I did the only thing I could do: I prayed to God for a sign. "Dear Lord, please give me a sign of where the homeless people are. I know You don't want these sandwiches to go to waste."
When we turned a corner, there was a sign! It must have been 15x25-feet long, hanging up on a high-rise building. It was a quote from Isaiah 61 about the deliverance of the captives, about setting people free who are in bondage and about bringing the Good News to people. I knew that was the sign, so I told the woman who was driving, "Stop the car. We found our sign!"
We parked right there. We got out. We turned the corner, and there were 300 people in the park — most of whom I could safely assume were homeless.
Let me explain my mindset at the time. I had already judged my mercy before I got to D.C. By that, I mean I had already measured how much I was willing to give. I had a pair of socks that I loved and a pair of gloves, and I decided I would give them to the person who seemed the most deserving.
But all that gauging and calculating, all my preconceived, selfish ideas went out the window when I saw the reality of their situation. I was soon blown away when I saw the poverty of these people out in the cold. By comparison, I couldn't help thinking about how I would soon be going back into a warm car, back to my home.
We walked to them. We passed out the sandwiches. They went quickly. Then, one woman came up to me. She said, "My name is Alicia, but you can call me 'Momma.' They call me Momma because I take care of everybody."
We had already run out of sandwiches, but Momma just wanted to tag along with me. I can remember shivering and her taking my hands and trying to warm me up. I was a little intimidated by her at first. I was amazed at the roughness of her face. I didn't know how old she was, but she looked very weather-beaten. I found out later that day that she had been beaten up earlier that day for a pair of shoes.
She stands at only five-feet tall. I think she has throat cancer. We started talking. I told her I would pray for her. She responded: "Please pray for me." I suddenly felt a tremendous need to let go of the things I had. So I gave her the pair of socks. I insisted she take my coat. Momma reveled in the attention. She wanted friendship so badly.
Then, I said to her, "Let's do something outrageous. Let's take everyone to McDonald's." My husband's jaw dropped. I said, "Get out your debit card." There were probably 25 homeless people with us. We gathered them all.
I had my children with me. As I was getting ready to cross the street to McDonald's, Momma said, "No, no, no. The babies cross the street with me." My children were seven and eight at the time, but they were babies to her. She held each of them by their hands, keeping their hands close to her heart.
We went into McDonald's. They all started ordering food. There was one homeless man with us who was clearly terribly lonely. I went up to Momma. I said, "Momma, you're very generous. Can you please befriend this man? He's very lonely. He has no friends out on the street, and he's eating by himself."
"Absolutely," she said. She went over to him and said, "My name is Momma. I'll take care of you. I'll show you where to get food and where to get clothes. Stay with me, and I'll take care of you."
While she's taking care of him, I was trying to organize the crowd because, of course, word got out on the street that McDonald's was serving "free food." This gentleman came up to me and said, "I need your help," he said. He lifted up his leg, and I gasped. He had a burn that went all the way to the bone.
He said it happened three years before. It had never healed. He had been outside in the elements all that time. Momma had overheard our conversation. She came to me and said, "You must help him."
I went out and we got some dressing and Vaseline. My husband, a doctor, dressed his leg. It was obviously very painful to the man. But as we dressed his wound, all I could notice was how Momma was telling the homeless people who came into McDonald's about mercy. She had probably never even heard about the message of Divine Mercy. Still, she was saying, "It's important to be merciful. It's important to know God."
She was so evangelical and so fearless, and yet so alone. I was immediately amazed by her courage trying to spread the message of Jesus Christ with pure strangers.
I told her I would be coming back in another month. So, the next month we went in the city. We were more organized. In addition to the food and clothing, we took medical supplies, sacramentals and foot-washing kits. Jesus washed feet as an example of mercy, but the real reason I wanted to wash feet was because I wanted to provide a means by which we could engage the homeless people in conversation about God's mercy.
Momma came up. I said, "I'd really like to wash your feet."
She said, "My feet are so dirty. You shouldn't have to wash my feet." I said, "I want to wash your feet."
So she sat down on the cement steps of the statue, and I knelt down. We started to pray the Rosary. There was a scuffle behind us. Some men were fighting over a baseball hat.
Momma said really nicely to me, "Excuse me, please." Then, she got up and started yelling at them to not interrupt her Rosary. She came back, and we continued to pray, and I washed her feet.
I was wearing a long, white lace mantilla on my head. It meant a lot to me. I wore it to church as a way to keep me more focused at Mass. And I decided I would wear it to the city because I wanted the homeless people to recognize our group and know who we are.
As I leaned over the water to wash Momma's feet, the end of the mantilla fell into the water. She said, "No, no, this is too pure to touch the water. I know what this is." So I proceeded to take an end of the mantilla and dunk it in the water and wash her feet with it. Tears came to her eyes. She said, "I always wanted a mantilla." I said, "Momma, this was mine, but now it's yours."
She got up, and she wrapped the mantilla around herself, almost as if she were embracing herself. She was so happy, she danced with joy. Then, with tears in her eyes, she bent down and kissed my feet and said, "Remember me when you get to heaven." I was so blown away by that that I bent over, kissed her feet and said, "Remember me when you get to heaven."
That was really the beginning of our close relationship. I knew there was something about her that was so apostolic and so holy. As our spiritual advisor, Fr. Jack Fullen, later said about Momma: "She will have one of the highest places in heaven, I guarantee it."
Then, three months went by — three visits to the city — and I hadn't seen Momma. She was always on my mind each time, but she was nowhere to be found.
So one day, before we went to the park, our caravan went on a search to find Momma. I knew she was living under a bridge near the Watergate. I was looking and looking. I had no idea what we were doing. As I walked up this hill, I saw this man. As I drew near to him, he raised his head to look at me. I didn't know if he was going to attack us or what. I said I was looking for Momma. He just kind of nodded his head to the right.
We were under a highway overpass. There was graffiti all over the wall. But it wasn't the graffiti of swear words and blasphemy. It had "Mary, Mother of God" written on it. It had "Pope Benedict." It was a Catholic graffiti wall!
As I rounded a corner, there was a two-foot narrow path bordered with tall holly bushes on one side and the freeway wall on the other side. It was so dark because of the density of the bushes. My legs were trembling.
I started whispering, "Momma, Momma." And from out of a cardboard box, this little cherub crawled. It was Momma. She was absolutely filthy. I could see she had an ulcerated hole in her scull that I later learned was an infected spider bite. She just looked terrible. But she had a rosary dangling from around her neck. She looked up at me and she said, "I have your mantilla!" And the way she said it, she was so proud. She crawled out of the box and she gave me a hug.
I said, "I have been looking for you for three months!" And she said, "I was so lonely for you. I would go sit in the park waiting for you to come back, and I knew you would come back." Immediately, I was filled with guilt because I wasn't clear to her about which days we were coming back.
I invited her back to the car where we had food and other supplies for her. Father Jack stepped out of the van. When Momma saw him and his priestly collar, she grabbed him and started to cry. Father Jack hugged her and told her that Jesus loves her. She said to him, "Please pray for me."
She never asked us for any money, ever. She never asked us for anything but prayers.
Momma became our parish's cause. We all wanted to help her out. We bought her a three-person tent and a little barbecue. We bought her food. She was still living under the bridge. She had made an altar and placed upon it little statues and prayercards. She always welcomed people into this place. It wasn't just her place, it was a place for people who needed shelter.
One day, when we went to visit her, she was standing on the side of the road. She had just been discharged from the hospital. We brought her some basic houseware items. Momma told us how she had to move to another location. The city kicked her out of her little "home" beneath the bridge.
We all started carrying her belongings to her new "home" when this man walked up to us and said, "It's do-gooders like you who are perpetuating the homeless population." He started to rant and rave. He said, "Momma is mentally ill. She's an alcoholic. She's a habitual homeless person, and there is no help for her." I just gestured to the others to keep moving.
He continued, "How would you like it if she lived in your backyard?" I said to him, "I don't want her living in my backyard, but I can't go home to my house knowing that she is out on the street." I told him that for the rest of my days, she will be my project. She is dying, and everyone has a right to die with dignity. Everyone has a right to have a relationship with God before they die. And that is why we are here for her. It's to ease her pain. It's not about solving her problems. It is about entering into a relationship so she knows that she's not alone.
A few weeks later, the man got a hold of me and said, "There are two life moments that are worth dignity. One is being born, and the other is dying." He said he wanted to help us set up a hospice center for the dying. Who knows what fruits it will bear. But the point is that he showed a twinge of compassion for her.
Back to the topic of Momma. She would ask us for scapulars and rosaries because she likes to give them away. You would never know by looking at her the holiness that dwells within.
She truly radiates Christ. She's the kind of person you would avoid looking at out on the street because of her dirtiness. Yet, there is an inner beauty in her that I have not yet seen from the richest person.
You could tell by just looking at her home underneath the bridge. She had literally transformed this little underpass into a home. She picked flowers. She had a group photo of us all that she had placed next to her flowers. I think she was remembering us in prayer.
She made an altar out of a six-foot long plywood table. And I saw my mantilla hanging upon a picture of the Holy Family that I had given her on a subsequent visit. Every sacramental, every picture that we had ever given her had touched her heart. We had given her a statue of the Infant of Prague, and when we gave it to her, she cradled it like a baby, and she understood who it was and she kissed it and thanked us for it. It sat in the center of her altar.
My relationship with Momma has taught me this: What more could you want than to bring people to God? If we have no other purpose in life, let us win souls for Christ. Do we arrive to heaven all alone, or are we bringing someone with us?
I just saw Momma's humility and simplicity radiating to the people around her. One day her "roommate" asked us to baptize him. It was amazing.
So now, every time we go in to Washington we always bring her things and visit her. In order to understand her plight, you have to be willing to walk where she walks and go where she goes.
I'm happy to report that she recently moved into an apartment, thanks to a non-profit organization.
We see her every month at the park. One of the things she's told us is that our visits bring her hope. They help her to realize she is not alone. We try to bring her comfort.
Each month, when we hand out coats, it gets a little crazy. Sometimes people start pushing their way towards us. Though Momma's only a small woman, she will stand there and kind of serve as a guard protecting me. She doesn't think, "What coats do they have for me" or "What's in it for me?" She's only trying to protect me. She's constantly willing to put herself in danger for the sake of someone else's safety.
She's takes strangers in. They may be people who rob her. She still takes them in. She's merciful without calculating the cost. She understands that mercy is sacrifice. Mercy is love overflowing into deeds and that it's done without recompense.
The difference between a charitable act and Divine Mercy working through you is that with Divine Mercy in our hearts, we become so involved in the other person's suffering. Your love for that person overflows through deeds of mercy because you love God and you love your neighbor, and you see Christ in that suffering.
All the volunteers in our group agree that, through the work we do, we are fed more than we feed. When we take our eyes off of ourselves and our own needs and focus instead on others, we gain peace. That's what Momma has: peace. That's why she can live outside and that's how she survives in the elements. It's because she knows that this isn't her home. She knows this is only a temporary dwelling place, and she's only here for a short term — that her final home is in heaven. So she shares what she has because she knows it is not hers. She gives away freely because she knows God will provide for her.
Kellie Ross is director of operations of the House of Mercy, in Manassas, Va. The store can be reached at 1-877-BE-MERCY.