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.
"It just an uplift when you go into the house of the Lord," Ma Siss said. "It's just a blessing."
A new Christian church is planted in the United States every two hours, by one estimate.
In recent years, a handful of twentysomething missionaries has migrated to New England from the South, hoping to save a region that has traditionally been inhospitable to evangelism and therefore, in their eyes, ripe for mission work. The Emmanuel Gospel Center, which keeps track of such things, says there has been a "quiet revival" here, with the number of evangelical congregations growing, even as Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches close.
Some of the new churches are outgrowths of existing congregations so successful that members are sent off as missionaries. Others are driven by self-anointed preachers, men and women who feel a call from God and set up shop in a home or a storefront.
The church Ma Siss built is different.
The Quincy Street Missional Church, as it is now called, sprang up almost organically, as an outgrowth of a mother's group that had been meeting for years in Ma Siss's dining room, and then in her basement, to chat, and then to pray, about the challenges of raising children and getting by.
Like the tiny house churches frequented by Christians in the first centuries of the faith, it is made up of an extended family related by blood, marriage, and friendship, by geography and troubles.
At first, the pews were junkyard couches and chairs that would change each week as Ma Siss and her daughter, Dora, routinely gave away the church's furniture to people in need. For a while, the church had pews that a supporter found on Craigslist, but they were so uncomfortable, and in such bad shape, that they were pushed to the side and used as bookshelves.
The garage was marked as a church by a hand-lettered sign - "Please Come Pray Eat Worship" in red, yellow, blue, and green letters - propped up against a chain-link fence.
And for months the garage was patrolled by a stray cat, dubbed Church, who was employed as a mouser to keep rodents out of the kitchen. Church would wander through prayer services, hoping for a scratch from a worshiper, until one night, while the garage was being renovated, Church wandered off.
Also gone is the person the worshipers called "the man on the rock," who for years sat on a boulder on a vacant lot across Baker Avenue, selling drugs. As the garage began to fill with people, the man on the rock moved away.
Ma Siss is a woman of big gestures and small words. Her ample body has long since started to fail her. She is hobbled by blood clots that swell her legs, asthma that hinders her breathing, diabetes that restricts her diet. Arthritis and anxieties limit her mobility.
Like many of the women of the neighborhood, her hair is cut short and is rarely visible, her head generally wrapped in some kind of fabric. She dresses comfortably, often in sweats and sneakers, and smiles often. Her favorite greetings are "Hi, darling," and "OK, baby," and she refers to almost everything as "whatsit." Her favorite word of praise is to call something an "uplift," and she often falls back on "that's the main thing about it" to end a thought.
In the neighborhood, she is regarded as a saintly figure but also as an easy mark. One of the few people around with property, she is asked for money constantly by folks in need. In her dining room she proudly displays the china she never uses, a symbol, for her, of hard-won, and easily shattered, financial freedom.
She has risen. But her life has always been hard. Born into poverty in rural Alabama. Pulled out of school before she learned to read so she could help pick cotton. Pregnant with her first child at 17. A job as a maid in the racist South. A job as a maid in the racially charged North.
She looks back with considerable nostalgia to the role of church in her childhood, when everyone, unquestioningly, attended worship services and paid attention. Starting at age 10, she would sit on a "morning bench" at her childhood church, waiting to see if she would feel something - something that said she was ready to be baptized, a ritual that for Baptists takes place not at infancy, but only at the request of a believer. At 13, she said, she was sitting on the bench when she felt a sort of chill that she identified as the Holy Spirit, and sensed that she was being called. So she donned the white robe of her church and joined a procession down to a nearby creek to be immersed by her minister.
"We really served the Lord there," she said. "I remember, we went there, we couldn't play. We was 'ttention!' - it was like you was in the army, when we went to our church."
People routinely give her statuettes of angels that she lines up on the shelf behind her bed. She believes that faith, and the love of a lost child, have helped her survive.
"I have been in some tough, tough, spots - mental, physical, all of it - and God always bring me through," she said. "When I was in Alabama, I got hit by a car getting off the bus, and my girlfriend died. I had problems with my back. But when my son died, he come at the foot of my bed, and he stood up, and I saw him - I said, 'Brinnie,' and he just fade away. And I really believe that a lot of his strength went into my health."
Ma Siss was born Idene Wilkerson on August 3, 1937, or at least sometime around then - she's not quite sure what day, or what year. Nor does she know whether her first name (pronounced eye-deen) was an invention of her mother or a misspelling by a midwife. She was the youngest of eight children, born to a family of sharecroppers in Shorter, Ala., and raised in Madison Park, outside Montgomery. Her mother had a shack and raised cotton, corn, and potatoes on rented land. The shack was lit by kerosene lamps; there was no electricity, telephone, or running water. The only source of meat were hogs that the family raised, slaughtered, and smoked.
"I never thought that I would see the day I would be able to have more than one pair of shoes," she said.
Her nickname - Sis when she was young, Siss today - was bestowed on her as a child, reflecting her role as the family's baby sister. She uses her given name only when she's feeling angry. When she was a baby, her mother carried her into the fields; after sixth grade she missed so much school helping with the work that she was repeatedly held back until she dropped out.
At 17 she began working as a maid, cleaning barracks at Gunter Air Force Base. Then she worked her way up to cleaning the homes of officers. Soon she was getting work off base - but that was difficult, she said, because some people didn't want black people setting foot in white homes; she always had to enter by the back door.
"We couldn't sit by a white person," she said. "We couldn't speak to 'em, all of that, where I come from. It was just something we knowed."
So she returned to the Air Force base, where she felt safer, and worked her way up to earning $3 a day. Her fondest memory is of a man named Mr. Hicks.
"He wouldn't let me go, even when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on Mr. Hicks' lawn. They did it one day when I didn't go to work there, but I could see where he had a big cedar tree in his yard, and you could see where the smoke was. But he didn't care."
Her first child was 6 months old when Ma Siss's mother died of a blood clot. She then married and had three children with Willie L. Wilkerson. In 1963, Willie, hoping for a better life, decided they should move to Boston, where his sister lived; he moved first, and a few months later, Siss packed up the four children and boarded a Greyhound bus for the overnight trip north. The couple at first stayed on Drayton Avenue with Willie's sister, and that's the street where they've lived ever since.
"When we first come, we was the first blacks on the street," she recalled.
But that would swiftly change. "Everybody moved off. Everybody."
Before long, Ma Siss was working as a maid for 14 families, most of them in Newton and Brookline.
"I worked a lot serving bar mitzvahs, and especially during the holidays, Passover, Easter, the New Year - oh, my God, they had a feast at the New Years," she said. "I worked for the mother, the daughter, the daughter-in-laws; I just worked for the whole family."
The memory that has lingered with her longest is of the fine china owned by her employers.
"You had to wash all the dishes," she said. "That's the one thing I hated, that really stuck with me, cause I did so much china and silver and stuff . . . and I had to come home to a tin cup, or something like that."
But then one of her nieces bought her some long-stemmed glasses, and her own collection began. Decorated with a pattern of gray flowers, it is arrayed in a glass-front cabinet in her dining room.
For years, she would use the china on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. But her children, to her dismay, tired of washing up, and encouraged her to switch to paper plates. As for Ma Siss, by force of lifetime habit, she prefers to drink out of fruit jars.
"All water tastes the same," she said with a shrug.
Things got harder for the Wilkerson family in 1974, when the city began busing schoolchildren in a court-ordered effort to desegregate the schools.
"My kids, Willie and Brian, was in the buses going to South Boston, and I was petrified," Ma Siss recalled. "They spit on 'em, and Brinnie had to go to South Boston court for hitting a white kid, cause he spit on him, and called him a nigger, and Brinnie hit him. They just kept fighting and fighting, and Brinnie just dropped out."
And then, in 1977, Ma Siss fell on Glendale Street, just a few blocks from her house, and hurt her ankle and knee; around the same time, she started developing blood clots. She never worked as a housekeeper again.
For a time, she lived on welfare. Then, when she took in the four children of her drug-addicted next-door neighbor, Melissa Thompson, she began receiving state support for raising them. She sent her children to a variety of churches - Bethel Baptist Church in Roxbury, and even a Catholic church, St. Kevin's, in Uphams Corner.
She saved money carefully, spending nothing for entertainment, travel, or other indulgences. She said she hasn't gone out to a movie since "Philadelphia," which she saw when it was released, in 1993, because its story of discrimination against a man with AIDS resonated with the struggles of one of her foster sons, who was born infected with HIV.
Slowly, she began to buy real estate, using rental income from the upper floors of her house at 16 Drayton, which she and Willie had purchased in 1968 for $15,000.
In 1990, the couple - now living apart on separate floors, bought the house next door, at 22 Drayton, for $85,000, after it had been damaged by a fire. The house had been used for drug dealing, and Ma Siss hoped to clean it up. In 1996, she wound up purchasing another house, at 18 Laurel St. in Roxbury, for $120,000, most of it borrowed, and rented it out.
Her income, and her frugality, mean she is one of the few people in her circle with ready cash. She often seems to be supporting much of the neighborhood, as people stream in and out of her house, asking to borrow small sums. The women, she said, generally pay her back when they get their welfare checks; the men rarely do.
"You know one thing, I'm so glad that I was born poor," she said. "because I know how to live poor. . . . I don't buy nothing that isn't on sale, and when it's on sale I buy enough to last until another sale comes. A lot of things I just won't do. I won't go and pay $50 for a pair of shoes, I won't do it. . . . Before I goes and spend like $50 or $100 on a pair of shoes, I just gonna buy a lot of food to give to peoples. Ma Fann told me today, 'You got to stop doing that,' but I just rather help another person, because I'm just happy with what I got."
Ma Siss and her neighbors live in a world in which the slightest positive development - waking up in the morning, recovering from a cold, having the money to stave off a creditor - is credited to Jesus, and any need - food, shelter, sobriety - is a cause for prayer. Many of them grew up attending black Baptist churches in the South.
"We all from the South - that's all we had," explained Darnell Booker, a tough-talking, joke-cracking neighbor who has been friends with Ma Siss for decades. Jones lives next door to the garage and regularly cooks for the worshipers, but attends worship services only for funerals. Her main demonstration of faith now is the image of Jesus she sees in the wood stain of her bathroom cabinet.
"Every Sunday morning, chicken was frying on the stove, a pot o'grits, the radio was on, and the gospel music was coming out all through the yard. We grew up with such Scriptures . . . and we carried it on from there."
Ma Siss herself is not given to deep introspection. Asked to explain her faith, she responded as if the question was ridiculous.
"I always believed in the Lord," she said.
At another point, even more simply, she said, "I was born with it."
"The main thing about it, if you catch more southern peoples, they very religious, the older ones. And they, like, really cool with God, because we went through so much."
Ma Siss has plenty to complain about, and she often does. She is largely confined to her home and her church by fear and poor health. She is afraid of elevators, of flying, of most forms of travel. She has never driven, and doesn't like to ride in cars.
All four of her biological children struggled, and then some. Sonny, the eldest, is a recovering alcoholic. Brian, the next, was a cocaine dealer who died of a heart attack. Willie Jr. is now serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison for drug dealing. And Dora, the baby, is a recovering addict who has done several stints in prison, mostly for stealing to support her habit.
But as each child got into trouble, Ma Siss took on their children, and their children's children.
"I don't question what happens," she said. "I figure God causes these things. You look at it, and you think it's bad, but in the long run, it come out good. This is the way all of it happens to me. . . . My son died. I never blamed God because I know it was just the time."
Ma Siss's dining room and kitchen had long been a gathering spot; neighborhood women would drop by to help cook or to borrow some Saran wrap or some money, or just to talk.
Some of the women were regular participants at area churches; Ma Fann had for decades been an active member of New Hope Baptist in the South End. Others had long since given up on established congregations. Ma Siss, for example, had attended a variety of black Baptist churches in Boston, but left over frustration with what seemed to her an emphasis on fund-raising and fancy clothes.
"I went to service one day, and (the minister) really said something what really upset me," Ma Siss said. "He was taking up the offering, the money for the church, and he said he wears...Florsheim shoes, he don't wear no Payless shoes. And I'm sitting in church with a pair of Payless shoes on... And it hurt my feeling."
So Ma Siss stopped going, and turned for support to the fellowship of her neighbors.
"We started as mothers needing to talk to each other, right at this table," said Arlene Baldwin, a niece of Ma Siss who lives across the street. "It turned into a support group."
Several of the women had health issues - one had breast cancer - and others had children flirting with gang life.
By the late 90s, their casual chats had morphed into a weekly prayer gathering.
"We started off talking, the mothers talking," Ma Siss said. "Then thought we would be helped by the Bibles."
The group grew, and began to get too large for the dining room.
"It got so big that . . . she said, let's go to the basement," Ma Fann recalled. "Everybody just knew we were down there on the night, and they just come down and started being with us, praying and talking and, you know, enjoying the meeting."
As the prayer gathering turned into a Bible study, among the participants was Willie Jr., Ma Siss's youngest son. Willie had always been trouble - in high school, he had aspired to become a pimp; instead he became a drug addict and dealer. But now he was nearly 40, and sober, and he had met a local minister named Clarice Thousand, who suggested he start going to Bible study. Before long, he was helping lead the gathering in his mother's basement.
"My mom would cook - it was every Wednesday at 6 p.m. - and we would eat after Bible study," he recalled.
There were guest preachers, or just the neighbors, but always Ma Siss was at the center, modeling a kind of effortless, inveterate charity. She simply handed out whatever food and clothes she had to people in need who came by for company, for money, or for shelter. People called her house Ma Siss's place, and before long the name became a title.
"I never looked color, but just the individual person," she said. "Cause I can dislike a black person just like I can a white person if they not for the right thing. Most time I pray on it, and God show me the good peoples and the bad peoples. A lot of people, I just feed 'em out of a long-handled spoon, that's what I do."
Over time, the prayer group and the clothing and food giveaways outgrew the basement, and Ma Siss began looking for something bigger.
It was time to move.
W illie Jr., like his mother, is a dreamer, and when the garage on Quincy Street became available, he was the first to see an opportunity. His idea was that he would run a barber and beauty shop on the property, and that his mother could run a gift shop, selling the used clothes and knickknacks she had been distributing from her house for years. Willie Jr. had a knack for entrepreneurship in almost any flavor, including the flavor of cocaine.
That garage had been constant trouble for the neighborhood, and many of the neighbors said it was used for a variety of illicit activities, including drug sales as well as the dismantling of stolen cars. In 1988, the chief justice of the Boston House Court, E. George Daher, shut down the garage, saying it was violating zoning codes.
"I told my mom, we need to buy it," Willie Jr. said. Ma Siss mortgaged one of her houses, at 22 Drayton Ave., and bought the garage for $70,000 in 2000. Willie used the lot - 3,342 square feet - to park the bobcats and other vehicles of his paving business, while Ma Siss oversaw an effort to clean up the garage, which was filled with the oil and detritus of years of auto work.
"It was just a mess, and we was cleaning it out . . . and we turned it into a gift shop," she said. "All the nasty stuff was here, and we didn't have no heat in here, but we got to praying."
But then Willie got busted. "I was going to build a barber shop. But then, I got back in with the wrong people."
He had been in and out of trouble with the law for more than two decades, had fathered children with several women, and had been shot seven times.
"I relapsed," he said in an interview from the minimum-security prison camp at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Penn., where he now leads a Bible study group among inmates. "I fell away. I put drugs as my God. I put women as my God. I put material things as my God."
The barbershop idea was dead, and the prayer group stopped meeting. But Ma Siss persisted in cleaning up the garage and selling used clothes. And on Jan. 16, 2002, she formalized the operation, incorporating a nonprofit, titled Ma Siss's Place, that would not only run the food bank and thrift shop but also aim "to conduct counseling, outreach, ministerial support for teens, unwed mothers, families including but not limited to HIV counseling and awareness, media distribution, education groups, individual counseling referrals to therapy groups, fund-raising . . . and advocacy."
Ambition outran possibility, but at the start there was bread sold from a truck, five loaves for a dollar. Fair Foods, an area nonprofit, designated Ma Siss's Place a "dollar bag location," with bags of groceries for a dollar. Clothing. Shoes. Laundry detergent. Paper towels. Used furniture. Vegetables bought from Haymarket, sold at cost.
The prayer group restarted in the garage.
"We started from first Genesis, and we were going through, page by page, doing lessons like that, and we just kept doing that way," Ma Siss said.
Saturday mornings, they would gather in a circle, pray, and eat breakfasts with a Southern flavor - usually scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits. Ma Siss and Ma Fann began recruiting nearby ministers to help them pray.
"She said, 'What we gonna do, we gonna serve a meal on Saturday,' " Ma Fann recalled, "and I said, 'Oh, that's good,' and so we started serving the meal on Saturday, and so many people started coming, I said to her, I said, 'Next Saturday, we gonna have church.' "