First of four parts.
The one-story cinderblock garage never was much to look at.
Back in 1963, when 26-year-old Idene Wilkerson, with a sixth-grade education, four kids, and a few suitcases, left the cotton plantations and cross burnings of her Alabama youth for the three-decker apartment her husband was renting in Dorchester, the humble, gray, flat-roofed building at the corner of Baker Avenue and Quincy Street was a small foundry, belching black smoke into the railroad tracks that ran overhead, as workers fashioned manhole covers for use on the streets below.
Over the years, the foundry was replaced by a succession of shabby and sometimes shady auto repair businesses. It was an eyesore so glaring, even in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood, that it caught the attention of city officials, who, confronted with an unpaved street lined with two dozen junked cars, an abandoned motorboat, and a flour company delivery truck that had been sinking into a lawn, declared the garage an illegal chop shop and, in 1988, shut it down.
Wilkerson, known throughout the neighborhood by the nickname Siss, spent those years living around the corner, on Drayton Avenue. She worked as a housemaid in Newton and Brookline, then returned each evening to Uphams Corner to raise her children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and foster children, and nieces, and various abandoned or lost kids from the neighborhood. So much mothering that she became known to the entire neighborhood as Ma.
And, through it all, Ma Siss was praying.
Praying that God would help her survive a broken marriage; a neighborhood in which hope is a rare visitor and shots can be heard in the night; a family in which all four of her children did time for drug crimes, and one died at the age of 31.
Praying for the homeless and addicted and just plain poor folks who streamed through her house, week after week, asking for money or food or clothes or a place to stay.
And praying for a place to pray.
Today, the garage still vibrates as the MBTA commuter rail passes overhead, ferrying commuters from the fast-growing suburbs southwest of Boston to the high-rise office towers of the city’s financial district. And the yard is still a sight: often filled with castoff washing machines and refrigerators, piles of used clothing, an occasional walker, a beat-up tricycle.
But the garage’s main walls, inside and out, are now covered with murals depicting young black men and women walking toward Jesus. A plain wooden cross, fashioned from stained oak boards, is mounted to a white wall. And each Saturday at 1, as chicken fries in vats of oil or ham bakes in an oven, several dozen people, many of them African-American women of a certain age, come together for worship in the former auto bay.
Theirs is one small expression of evangelicalism in America, a fragile congregation whose aim is to spread a fervent Christian faith to their friends and neighbors. That much they have in common with the conspicuous world of megachurches and televangelists, but not much more. What they live by is something closer to the original optimism of faith, a seed planted in a chop shop lot.
Those who gather here have traveled many roads, none of them smooth. They bring their stories with them.
There is Fannie Hurst, Ma Siss’s longtime neighbor and friend, a frail septuagenarian who at age 30 left her children with her mother in South Carolina and headed north to work as a “sleep-in girl,” a nanny, in New York City. A deeply faithful Christian, Ma Fann, as neighbors started calling her as a parallel to Ma Siss, anticipates death confidently, as a promised reward.
In the meantime, she still dons the occasional pair of leather pants or gold boots and keeps up a steady patter of praise, alternately murmuring or shouting “Hallelujah” or “Praise Jesus!”
There is Tom Groeneman, a stout 51-year-old who carries liters of soda with him everywhere he goes, and who credits the church with helping him keep at bay the homelessness, addictions, and emotional problems that have dogged him throughout his adult life. He loves to memorize Bible verses; for years, in fact, he wondered if he might one day preach.
There is Dora Vaughan, Ma Siss’s only daughter, a fierce, funny, charismatic heroin addict who, when she is not in jail or strung out on drugs, can be found on the building’s front step, smoking a cigarette and chewing on ice. She is a natural leader, and also often lost.
And, holding it all together through some combination of suffering and charity, there is Ma Siss, who rarely stands or speaks but is the undisputed matriarch of the tiny, U-shaped neighborhood formed by two short one-way streets, Drayton and Baker avenues.Continued...