By Victoria St. Martin, Published: January 17
There’s no electricity or heat in the house.
But when the bags of groceries are delivered to her doorstep, Tomashawn Lewis-Johnson spreads out their contents on her kitchen counter like a child with her favorite toys. She daydreams about the beans and crushed tomatoes she’ll use to make a dish for her family.
“I’m so grateful,” said Lewis-Johnson, a wife and mother of four, as she received bags of donated groceries last week. “You don’t know what’s going to be in your bag. But knowing that I can create something different and new and stretch a meal, it’s just exciting.”
The Kensington mother is one of dozens of families in the lower Montgomery County town who, thanks to a new effort by St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, has received emergency supplies of groceries.
Three times, Lewis-Johnson has called a hotline to request a three-day emergency supply of groceries from the church, which in October began partnering with the nonprofit group Bethesda Help to increase the number of food deliveries within the 20895 Zip code that includes Kensington. Bethesda Help for decades has provided food delivery and financial assistance in the Zip code and county as a whole.
“When this started — it was like, ‘[There are] hungry people here in Kensington?’ But there are hidden pockets of poverty all over the Zip code,” said Brian Ruberry, a church volunteer. “And it really opens your eyes to the need there is within a mile of this church.”
Church volunteers said they want to create a “hunger-free zone” in their Zip code. Residents who calls the telephone hotline — (301) 365-2022 — receive a food delivery within 24 hours, no questions asked.
About 8 percent of Montgomery County’s roughly 1 million residents — or 77,970 people — are food insecure, according to the 2013 Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report.
The number includes people who are enrolled in the Food Supplement Program as well as those who aren’t. Fifty-one percent of county residents earn too much to qualify for federal assistance programs, according to the report, and have nowhere to turn but local charities.
An estimated 6.2 percent of residents ages 18 to 64 live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.
“The thing about hunger is it’s not visible,” said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. “You can live in a nice house with a nice car in the yard, and have nothing in your refrigerator.”
Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said 71 percent of those living in poverty in the D.C. metro area live in the suburbs, not including Arlington and Alexandria. She said suburban communities and organizations in recent years are increasing efforts to meet the growing demand.
“Getting the word out about how the need has grown, and where it is today and who it affects, that’s the first step in effectively addressing it and making sure people are connected to the support they need,” Kneebone said.
The thought that people were hungry in their own back yards left members of the church’s hunger ministry unsettled. Two years ago, they had started a monthly food collection program, where families in need shopped for fresh vegetables and canned goods. But they soon realized it wasn’t enough.
“I was surprised how many people don’t have cars,” Ruberry said. “Just the fact that they can’t come to our church shouldn’t preclude them from having groceries.”
Ruberry and Kim Longsworth, a church volunteer who helps coordinate the effort, wanted to start a delivery service and then realized that Bethesda Help already provides one.
“We decided, why reinvent the wheel,” Longsworth said.
Bethesda Help has its own pantry, and the 45-year-old organization is funded by a grant from the county as well as by donations from local churches, synagogues and individual donors. The church has contributed $5,000 so far and continues to donate food to help defray costs.
Whenever a call comes in from the 20895 Zip code to Bethesda Help, Longsworth calls one of her seven volunteer drivers. Church members also posted lawn signs and handed out cards all over town in schools, local libraries and apartment buildings to get the word out.
“We don’t want any person to go to sleep and say, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to get my next meal,’ Longsworth said as she packed a delivery one rainy evening. “Our goal is to reach those people so that they know there’s this resource.”
Julie Black, a food pantry manager for Bethesda Help, said there’s no income requirement to get a delivery. “We just want to help people,” she said. “We don’t want any restrictions.”
The bags are filled with pasta, tomato sauce, bread, tuna, rice, beans, peanut butter and canned fruit, vegetables and soups. But for the families, there’s so much more inside.
“It means the difference between being hungry and having some food to cheer up my spirit,” said Micky, a single mother who asked to be identified by her nickname only.
Donya Paul, who is raising 10 children alone while going to school to pursue a second master’s degree and a doctorate in educational psychology, said she appreciates the six bags of food — and the gift card for more tucked inside — that she receives each month from the church program.
She said she uses the donations to teach her children a lesson.
“We do need people sometimes holding our hands and taking us along the way,” she said she told her son. “It’s not just the Zip code that you live in or the area, it’s about giving and making sure families are taken care of.”
And for Lewis-Johnson, whose home is in foreclosure, they are the extra leverage she needs to provide wholesome meals.
“It’s concealed blessings that people receive when the bags come through the door,” she said. “I believe we’re on the brink of a miracle.”
By Michael Laris, Published: December 26
A few years after Gertrude Troyer’s family gave up its horse and buggy, she hopped in her brother’s 1960 Pontiac Bonneville headed for Kenilworth. They didn’t know how to get there, so they just drove to the White House and eventually found a pay phone.
She was a 21-year-old country girl from Plain City, Ohio, on her way to a short stint volunteering for her Mennonite church in an impoverished Washington neighborhood.
Forty-six years later, she’s still here, standing on her tippytoes at 5:20 a.m., using a butter knife to help slide a plastic bucket of sugar from the shelf above her counter to begin work on a rush of cake orders for Christmas.
Gertie, as everyone calls her, has made it here as a missionary, a summer camp organizer and a construction office custodian. She has taken abuse from surly teens, has prayed with relatives of the murdered and now helps support herself running a makeshift cake-baking business in the brick home she shares with one of the girls she first mentored decades ago.
Wearing a black veil over pulled-back gray hair, a red cotton cape dress that covers her from neck to ankles, and Asics running shoes, Troyer tackles her morning’s baking agenda — one strawberry supreme, three red velvet, a poundcake — with the same buoyant relentlessness she has brought to the rest of her life in the city.
“Most people know that’s not the norm. Most people don’t just leave their home towns and go someplace else almost completely opposite, and stay,” said her housemate, Cynthia Sharpe, 58, who was just 11 and living in the Kenilworth Courts housing project when Troyer arrived.
At first, Sharpe said she didn’t see Troyer “as an individual,” just as one of the friendly missionaries who came to help out. Another quizzical neighborhood kid was Vincent Wright Jr., now an officer with the D.C. police.
“I was like, ‘These are some homely-looking folks,’ ” Wright recalls. “That dress makes them look like, what’s that the girl on ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ Melissa Gilbert or something?”
But that faceless distance didn’t last.
“Some people kind of take to you,” Wright said. “I just got to know her.”
In the kitchen, Gertie is a machine.
She grabs eggs in her right hand and cracks them with a sharp knock against the egg in her left. Like some just-in-time manufacturing guru, she moves fast: batter in, rotate pan, cakes out, repeat. Flour gets measured to the hundredth of a pound on her digital scale.
“It’s the way I’ve been doing it for years, and it comes out right,” said Troyer, 68.
She grew up Amish and learned to bake without electricity in her mother’s kitchen. By age 15, her father reluctantly followed local church leaders as they shifted toward a less conservative religious tradition as Mennonites. Although they still aspired to live as Jesus would, they did so with cars and electric lights.
Troyer’s frugal roots remain. She uses an empty 25-pound Domino sugar sack as a trash bag, and scrapes the paddle of her stand mixer with her fingers to get off every bit of batter, then scrapes her fingers with the spatula to get the last few drops.
She’s still smarting over the time, years ago, when a pair of red velvets went bad. She used cake flour, not self-rising.
They were dry and flat, and went to the birds.
“I was so beat out I did that,” she said, before translating the German-influenced holdover phrase for the uninitiated. “I was disgusted with myself. That’s exactly what it means.”
Then she burst out in the playful, wholehearted laugh that has melted tough kids, skeptical adults and longtime customers alike.
“Who likes to mess up a cake?” she said.
Winning them over
A year after she arrived, Washington descended into riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Troyer and the others in the small Fellowship Haven church told visiting Mennonites to leave.
“The city was in an uproar,” she said. “We didn’t want to have more people of our color than we needed.”
A grocery store down the road was looted, and some in the predominantly black neighborhood offered her protection. But she didn’t fear.
Race has been a presence over the years, but not a defining one. One uncle worried Troyer might marry a black man. And some in Kenilworth recoiled at the white outsider.
Patricia Roy grew up in the Kenilworth projects, and Troyer soon began to win her over. Troyer took her and Sharpe to Ohio. The dark nights terrified Roy, but she found peace in the hayloft. “We would be sitting on it with our feet hanging, just up there in the barn,” Roy said.
But years later in the District, Roy slid into a state of deep insecurity and negativity, she said, and she lashed out at Troyer, the closest authority figure around. “I could be mean when I wanted to be,” she said. “I wished she would go back home to Ohio.”
The Kenilworth area, tucked between the Anacostia Freeway to the east and the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens to the west, has a rough history. Poverty rates have soared, the number of teenage pregnancies is high and birth weights remain low.
Troyer witnessed terrible choices and tragic circumstances. One boy who often came around the church killed himself, apparently after a bad drug trip. A young woman who studied the Bible with them was killed by “her supposed boyfriend,” Troyer said. Yet another was missing for days before she was found dead on a staircase.
When it came to Roy, Troyer wouldn’t budge.
“Nope, she’s got some spunk to her,” Roy said. She kept reaching out, trying to connect. “She didn’t retaliate back. She just kept loving me until I couldn’t resist it anymore.”
‘Don’t want to go big’
Troyer wants her neighbors to be able to afford her creations, just like her mother, who sewed and sold Amish men’s suits for $4 apiece.
She charges $22 for the chocolate butter and $24 for the coconut pineapple. A two-pound fruitcake, sort of a cross between walnut bread and pecan pie, goes for $21. White potato pie sells for $12. More than 90 cakes were stacked up in the basement for Christmas.
“This is an operation and a half, believe you me, and the cakes are the bomb,” said Patricia Ferguson, who stopped in to pick up a poundcake for her son’s 36th birthday. “This is a blessing.”
Also sort of a mixed blessing. Troyer loves communing with customers. But she doesn’t want an employee, and she can do only so much.
“I don’t want to go big,” she said. “I don’t want to become a millionaire. I like living.”
Over the decades, missionaries wed and left, and the Mennonite elders eventually decided to pull out. Troyer had suitors within the church, but she never married. “Gertie, she’s the last of the Mohicans,” said Wright, the D.C. police officer.
There are only a handful of members now, including the three now-grown children — Sharpe, Wright and Roy — who became Troyer’s friends.
They talked with a Pennsylvania bishop about bringing in new blood, maybe a pastor and more missionaries, but there were too many strings. The church preaches pacifism and wanted Wright to leave the police force. The bishop also wanted Sharpe, a fervent Redskins fan, to lose her television, which some view as an intrusion into God’s kingdom.
Troyer agrees with the bishop’s stance on church teachings. But when there’s a disconnect between purity and the people who have become her family, she’s chosen to live by example rather than being doctrinaire.
“I’ve watched her over the years just give it her all,” said Sharpe, who does the same.
She and Roy became public school teachers. Wright mentors kids and counsels offenders on the difference between jailhouse conversions and lasting ones. And they all run a Mennonite summer camp in Pennsylvania where needy Washington area youths can taste old-school values.
Troyer moved in with Sharpe in the 1990s to help her care for her dying mother, who suffered from diabetes. She stayed on, and rented out her own home at low rates to families who needed a break. Troyer would quietly save some of each month’s rent to return to departing families as down payments on homes of their own.
“God, Mom, and then Gertie — that’s where a lot of my strength came from,” Sharpe said.
Concerned for children
Troyer’s family, including 12 brothers and sisters, was touched with tragedy before she left Ohio. Her 8-year-old brother, Joseph, was driving a tractor out to water the calves when he was thrown off and killed.
Years later, a church newsletter describing terrible living conditions for some District children brought Troyer to tears.
“I said to the Lord: ‘What then? What do you want from me?’ ” Troyer recalled. “Just like that, it wasn’t audible, but it was very, very clear to me — D.C. This place where the children were came into my thinking and my mind and my spirit.”
Just before 7 a.m., before the sun is up, Troyer taps red velvet layers out of their pans and places them on cooling racks, then gets in her beat-up Toyota Camry and heads for a neighborhood track for her daily three-mile walk.
She’s always busy, with another lap, another cake, another person to help along his or her path.
As she walked, a glorious, magenta-saturated sunrise rose over her waking city.
“That’s what people miss when they get up late. They miss the beautiful morning,” she said. “You’ve got to capture it when it’s pretty. They don’t last long.”
For 28 years I have saved this article, and just yesterday I was reading it and noticed for the first time, perhaps, the beautiful influence religion had in what this family did for their son and brother.
Yesterday was Sunday, and I have been thinking why a person of faith might be a better American this week than he or she otherwise would be, because of it....
Americans are having an extremely difficult time getting married and staying married right now. One of the effects of divorce is extreme emotional trauma, for the adults involved but most especially for the children. The distress can be large enough in magnitude and duration that it begins to inhibit the development of the child into a happy and contributing member of society.
The above picture captures one reason this young man of faith might be a better American because he attends church than he otherwise would be - if his father (or mother, or both) have fled his life, a sweet duo of love and assistance is shown: his loving grandmother and God, both found in the chapel of this church.
The healing power of our churches, temples, synagogues and mosques helps America better endure the tidal wave of failed marriages until we can figure out how to free ourselves from this plague on our nation.
Yesterday was Sunday, and I have been thinking why a person of faith might be a better American this week than he or she otherwise would be, because of it....
Magen Morse, Purcellville, VA
April 14, 2013
One hot July, when I was nearly fourteen, I volunteered to pay my way to work for a few weeks for the U.S. Forest Service. Along with the other high school students, we would work in northern Utah clearing brush from trails, picking up trash along the highway, and doing various other projects. I had answered an ad in the local newspaper, but I soon found out that those of us who volunteered for an adventure were in the minority to those whose parents or parole officers were sending them off as a way to build character and citizenship. The cheap “Outward Bound” version. What did I know about character and citizenship at almost 14? What might have made me want to work hard for no pay during my summer vacation?
Looking back, I think, I had been trained in equal parts idealism and service. I was an active member of my religious faith, and I had very clear ideas of my moral obligations to myself and others around me. In my religion community, I had energetic youth leaders who found opportunities for us to serve in a variety of ways: we cleaned, babysat, did yard work, prepared food, and visited nursing homes. These leaders found opportunities for us to do lots of other things besides serving others – we were signed up for contests in 4-H, sent to outdoor, sleep-away girl’s camps, asked to be leaders of the other girls, to speak in front of the congregation during worship services, and to sing (off-key) in small groups for those same gatherings.
What had already happened for me before I even turned 14 can be boiled down to two ideas: confidence and opportunity. All this experience in an accepting environment led to confidence in my abilities. All this experience and opportunity in a variety of activities showed me that it was possible to participate in the wider world. Additionally, there was the imperative of serving God through serving our fellow men – and with God nothing was impossible, we were taught. Therefore, I could volunteer to go with a bunch of strangers hundreds of miles away from home, with autonomy, and trust, and faith.
On the radio last month, I heard a man talking about how hard it was for an atheist to organize humanitarian work with other atheists. He explained that he wasn’t dispassionate or uncaring about the needs of others in the world; but the simple fact was that their organization was necessarily lacking. I see this as a daunting problem: how do you teach confidence and opportunity without an organized group? It is important to me that a vital offshoot of religious faith is in constructing a place to teach the nitty gritty of community organization in addition to teaching the moral imperative of building a strong community. Today one of the most effective tools I have is my faith community because it helps me teach my children those increasingly hard concepts of character and citizenship.
Last Saturday, I stood beside my 12 year old son, in front of a bright yellow funnel and big boxes of rice, soy, and dried vegetables. We were assembling into plastic bags, meals for 150,000 people to be sent to another country. He had, of his own volition, signed up to help and I was his enthusiastic ride to the elementary school where the assembly was taking place. He is a part of a faith community with leaders interested in assisting him in finding opportunities to serve and ways to build his confidence; it was those leaders who had passed around the sign-up sheet during their meeting. I asked him why he signed up, he said, “I thought it would be good to help people.” Building confidence by providing opportunities to help others also means that we all look more often outside ourselves to the greater needs around us. We want to help because we know it is good and makes our world a better world.
When I was a kid, my organized religious community saw to it that I was given the opportunity and confidence to be a self-sufficient and contributing member of my community. Today, my moral imperative as a Christian demands that I serve others; but, my effectiveness in doing so comes from my training in my faith community.
Yesterday was Sunday, and I have been thinking why a person of faith might be a better American this week because of it....
Something simple - I saw in my church bulletin an invitation to join others of my faith and travel by bus to New York this coming Saturday to help with the Superstorm Sandy cleanup. I am supposed to bring my own food, boots, and gloves and help an organization continue to serve those whose lives were turned upside down by this disaster, for four months and counting. My children 16 and older may also participate.
I would hope there are always numerous and healthy faith communities available to help those in need of support after force majeure such as last October's Sandy.
The Cleric Behind 'Les Mis' Author Victor Hugo was anticlerical, yet his tale's hero is set on course by a Catholic bishop.
By DORIS DONNELLY
Fans of "Les Misérables" on film or stage may be surprised to know that not everyone in France was of good cheer when Victor Hugo published the book in 1862. The anticlerical set was especially offended by the pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne, who helped determine the course of the novel by resuscitating the soul of Jean Valjean.
As Hugo worked on the novel, his son Charles, then in his 20s, objected to the reverential treatment of the bishop. He argued to his father that the portrayal gave undeserved respect to a corrupt clergy, bestowing credibility on a Roman Catholic Church opposed to the democratic ideals that he and his father held. Charles instead proposed that the catalyst for Jean Valjean's transformation be a lawyer or doctor or anyone else from a secular profession.
The pushback didn't work. Not only did Hugo hold his ground, but he amplified the importance of Charles-François Bienvenue Myriel, affectionately known in the novel as Monseigneur Bienvenue (Bishop Welcome). The book's first hundred pages or so are a detailed chronicle of Myriel's exemplary life, showing that his intervention on behalf of Jean Valjean was part of a long track record and not a singular aberration. Apparently Hugo recognized no contradiction between his anticlericalism and the possibility—or certainty—that grace could be mediated by a just priest who was transparent to the divine and never betrayed the human.
Thirty years earlier, Hugo had solidified his anticlerical credentials by crafting the repulsive, licentious Archdeacon Claude Frollo in "Notre Dame de Paris." It was time to try a new approach in "Les Misérables," so he rendered an ideal priest against whom clergy could measure their fidelity to tenderness and mercy. His expectation—as we know from the contemporaneous diary of his wife, Adele—was that corrupt priests would be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good one.
With Bienvenue, Hugo created a no-frills bishop who lived in a modest cottage, having surrendered his episcopal palace to the hospital next door. There were no locks on the doors; a simple push of the latch allowed entry.
The bishop subsisted on less than one-tenth of his state entitlements, with the remaining funds dispensed to provide for the release of fathers in debtors' prisons, meat for the soup of people in the hospital, and other unpopular charities. He had a sliding scale to officiate at marriages and preside at funerals. From the rich he exacted more, from the poor nothing at all.
Fearless, Bienvenue rode into territories overrun by bandits to visit his people. Without complaint, he assumed responsibilities that lazy curates chose not to. He agonized over the guillotine, and having accompanied a prisoner to his execution he was certain—as was Hugo himself—that anyone witnessing the death penalty would declare it a barbaric act unworthy of a civilized society.
The cleric in Hugo's novel was without the entourage nurtured by other bishops. There were no opportunistic seminarians eager to latch onto his coattails and ride into the corridors of power. It was clear to everyone that his star wasn't in ascendance. Bienvenue mused about seminaries that bred sycophants, where ambition was mistaken for vocation and upward mobility—from a modest biretta to a bishop's mitre to a pope's tiara—was the prized trajectory.
The greatest fear of young priest recruits, Hugo explains, was that merely associating with the virtuous Bienvenue could unwittingly cause one to convert to his lifestyle. It was widely known that virtue was contagious and no inoculation against it existed.
The trade-off for Bienvenue was that he was loved by his people. They had a bishop whose center of gravity was a compassionate God attuned to the sound of suffering, never repelled by deformities of body or soul, who occupied himself by dispensing balm and dressing wounds wherever he found them.
He found them in a town called Digne, a name conveniently derived from the Latin dignus, the root of the word we know in English as "dignity." Bishop Bienvenue conferred dignity with abandon on those whose dignity was robbed by others. He had an endless supply of his own to share and a lot of practice when Jean Valjean knocked on his door.
During the night he spent at the bishop's home, mere days after his release from serving 19 years as galley prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean stole six silver place settings, was apprehended, and returned the next morning under police guard to face the consequences of his crime. Unruffled, the bishop brushed off the police, added valuable silver candlesticks to the bundle, "bought" Jean Valjean's soul from evil and claimed it for God. He redirected the life of a man chained to hatred, mistrust and anger, and he enabled Jean Valjean to emerge as one of the noblest characters in literature.
Ms. Donnelly is professor of theology and director of the Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
A version of this article appeared January 4, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Cleric Behind 'Les Mis'.
Chris Stevenson investigates the indispensability of faith to the American experiment in self-governance.