A Glimpse of Life and Hope in Southeast DC

Being Led by the Blind
A Personal Witness

Rev. Vincent J. De Rosa

“Dramatic contrasts can evoke dramatic responses,” I think as a single tear wells up rolling down my face.  “I’m in the shower for goodness sake.  I’m at home… at rest after a morning of visits around the neighborhood.  Why the tear?”  I ask, almost rhetorically, because I think I know the answer.  My bathroom in the rectory was cleaned this morning.  The air is crisp with bleach and fabric softener.  Black and white tiles are cool and smooth to the touch.  A newly opened bar of soap is fresh as only a brand new bar can be.  At the sink, steam rises from my shaving bowl.  It’s scented with eucalyptus from the shaving soap.  With every stroke of the blade my skin feels cleansed but my heart is heavy.  Dramatic contrast evokes dramatic responses.

As I mentioned, I spent the morning visiting some of our neediest neighbors.  They’re lovely people I’ve met through a group of young Catholic missionaries here in the parish.  Normally I get home feeling tired, but renewed by the process; today renewal is taking longer.  I’ve been amazed by the warm, hospitable response from these good folks when I – a total stranger – arrive at their homes.  Taking my cues from the missionaries who’ve been at this for years, I help carry simple groceries or other sundries.  Usually, I carry holy water for house blessings, a small New Testament in my pocket for Scripture reading.  Other than that all we bring is good will and prayer.  Today we visited a woman I’ve met a few times.  I omit her name as a matter of discretion.  She lives in what can only be described as squalor.

Tenement Neighborhoods in DC before WWII

Approaching her semi-basement apartment, we never enter through the front door/hallway.  Whenever I ask why, the missionaries just tell me, “Trust us, it’s better this way.”  We go around back to the sliding door.  You have to climb over a safety rail and down into the submerged patio, the descent eased with the help of a broken down aluminum folding chair standing in for a ladder.  “Sliding glass” door is somewhat of a misnomer, so jammed are its tracks, its window so obscured by neglect.  Vertical blinds, once pearl white, are stained an acrid yellow.  What furniture there is doesn’t so much “sit” in the apartment as it “remains…” the couch veritably collapsed on itself.  Generations of stereo speakers pile high in the corner behind mysterious bags of clothing and household goods long since ruined by flooding and vermin infestation.  With a smile… a genuine smile… our hostess welcomes us to her home.

She’s happy for the company and looks forward to us reading the Bible to her.  We have to read it to her because she’s blind.  Born with sight, she lost her vision after multiple drug-involved abusive relationships with men from the area.  It’s been a long road for this lady so simple and pleasant.  Over time I discover that things have settled down for her.  She pays her own rent, supports her grandchildren as best she can and, “trusts all to Jesus” (her words).

A vista from Southeast DC today

From the back of the apartment I hear something stir.  A young woman emerges.  Dressed in hip-hop apparel, she never glances up from her phone.  Our hostess tells her that we’ve come to visit and read the Bible.  The young woman isn’t a niece, or grandchild.  She’s a city-sponsored in-home aide.  Excusing herself the aide slips out the sliding glass door, up the chair to the parking lot and her car.  There she sits in the passenger seat, heavily reclined, phone-in-hand, spending the next twenty minutes smoking weed; a sinuous yellow cloud carries on the breeze into the apartment where we read the Gospel.

After the reading and some prayers, we find out that our hostess’ mom is in the hospital.  We offer to drive her there for a visit.  Our hostess is happy for the opportunity.  Shuffling into her room, she sits on the floor… a carpet that was once – I think – blue, now charcoal grey with stains… There she digs through piles of boxes and bags for her shoes.  She doesn’t want help.  There’s nothing unusual about this for her, why would she need assistance?  With surprising ease, she ascends the folding chair and climbs over the safety rail to reach our car waiting for her in the lot.  Calling to the aide, several cars over, she tells her where she’s going.  The aide is still occupied, a burning cigarette in one hand, a young man now in the other.  They are not to be disturbed.

On the way to the hospital I prodded a little to find out what our hostess’ care arrangements look like.  She began a long catalog of in-home-aides who have abused her verbally, or simply by neglect.  Likewise her landlord.  Over the last several months a macabre menagerie has been discovered: mice behind the oven, birds in the HVAC, roaches under the carpet… and all of them dead.  It has been – I discover – six months since a pro-bono lawyer began legal proceedings against the landlord…. and longer than that, I’m confident, since the situation reached so sad a depth.

Even the alleys on Capitol Hill (2 miles from SE DC) are treated better than people’s homes here.

Entering the United Medical Center in SE DC is like walking into most other hospitals with one marked exception.  Instead of kindly volunteers greeting you at the desk, you find armed …and armored… police checking your ID.  On the way in, I’m greeted by several local Catholics who see my collar. One grabbed my hand.  She resisted my initially frightened recoil.  A split second later I was glad for her grip.  She hugged my hand close to her cheek and put it on her head. “Pray over me.  Bless me,” she begged.  She wasn’t crazy, she truly wanted Jesus’ blessing.  Catching up with my friends, we found our hostess’ mother.  I’d met this kind old woman several times in her own home.  We prayed together. I recited some verses of comfort from the Scriptures and blessed her.  I asked both women how they were feeling.  Their response surprised me, “Blessed.  We know Jesus is with us.”  When I asked them how they knew that, the answer almost knocked me over, “because y’all ‘always visitin’ us.”  We left the two women to themselves, and departed: my missionary friend to his work, me to the Rectory, where a pile of emails waits for me even as I recount this story.

I had to clean up when I got home…to rinse the smell of marijuana from myself… but as I stared in the mirror, a stainless steel razor gleaming in my hand, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the contrast.  Dramatic contrasts can evoke dramatic responses.  Our parish survives on very little.  I’ve sliced the budget every way I can to make ends meet supported by our tiny community (150 people / Sunday), but even amidst that simplicity, everything here is clean.  People are respectful of each other and of strangers.  They greet each other with a smile, an embrace.  Here, as the Psalmist says, the Lord has strengthened the bars of our gates and blessed the children within us, established peace on our borders and fed us with finest wheat (Cf Ps 147).  Most of the people I meet on these Friday visits will never escape poverty.  The more I see here in Southeast, the more I am convinced that you could give everyone in Wards 7 and 8 a pile of money and within a short time they’d be back where they started.  What I’ve also seen is that whether or not they join us sacramentally (I’m currently working with a few people who’ve expressed real interest in conversion), they know by our missionary work that God has not abandoned them, and so they are not afraid.  Having received that hope, whether they know it or not, they pass it back to me with each visit…  To me, that exchange is what St. John Paul II was all about when he said, “Be not afraid!”  It’s what Pope Benedict had in mind when he penned, Spe Salvi, and certainly what Pope Francis has in mind as he directs us to the margins of our all too disposable society.  So, for as much as I helped lead a blind woman today, I find myself led by her as well.