A visit with Sister Margaret Farrell at the Covenant House in Los Angeles.
On a bright sunny afternoon at two o'clock, a half-naked young man breaks through the electronically secured doors of the Covenant House in North Hollywood. Blood gushes from wounds on his shaved head and neck. Sister Margaret Farrell dashes off to her office. She returns with a stack of fresh towels that she presses against his neck to stop the bleeding until the firemen respond to the emergency call.
Only minutes earlier, the streets had seemed clean, calm and deserted, but suddenly a guy had jumped out of a car to stab Margaret Farrell's client, seemingly out of nowhere. Later she will visit her client in the emergency room and learn that he suffered a bad concussion and a brain trauma. "Gangs," she says knowingly, "Maybe he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is possible that this was an initiation ritual for a newcomer in a gang, or a gang conflict."
Margaret Farrell never knows what the day will bring, but she is prepared for almost anything. Since a visitor once tried to attack her, she has positioned her desk so that she can jump to the door faster than a client. The word "Hope" is nailed to the entrance, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" to the wall. Her tiny office must be the most crowded 60 square feet on the planet: It is filled to the brim with diapers, teddy bears, sneakers, clothes, makeup, cream, band aids, thank you cards, city forms, latex gloves -- anything a client might need. Especially now, before the holidays when the nights get cold, any and every donation is welcome at the Covenant House and will be used to help the homeless. A photo shows her with a baby girl who was fished out of a trash can in Mexico. Next to the entrance a miniature Rottweiler statue serves as a piggy bank for donations, a bright pink plastic Jesus blesses her desk from above. Visitors may grab from the hodgepodge whatever they need -- except for the Jesus and the Rottweiler. These she won't part with.
Margaret Farrell at the Covenant House. (Photo: Amy Gaskin)
Little gives away her Catholic denomination: Everybody is familiar with the black and white habit of Catholic nuns, but Margaret Farrell usually shows up for work in a flowery summer blouse and beige pants -- a typical business uniform. "If I wore my nuns' habit, people might be intimidated," she says, "As a community, we wear simple dress." For the last 12 years, the petite sister with the thick Irish accent has helped homeless youngsters in the Covenant House, which was founded by a Franciscan priest. In a way, Margaret Farrell is one of these "suspicious nuns" the Vatican has warned against. In April, the Vatican chastised the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), in which 80 percent of the American Catholic sisters are organized. Margaret Farrell's order, the Sisters of Charity, is also part of the LCWR. The Vatican criticized the sisters for not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination and for spending too much time with the poor, the gay and the unfortunate. Rome even chided the nuns for featuring "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" and punished the organization by subjecting it to the administration of three conservative bishops. Oh, Lord! Radical feminists in a group of ordained whose age averages 73?
Margaret Farrell prefers not to comment on the Vatican's actions, she rather focuses on getting teenagers off the street, but she knows some of the prejudices only too well. "Some say, how can I, as a nun, surround myself with such people -- gays, transsexuals, HIV-positive clients?" she says. "I usually respond: Read the Bible. Look which people Jesus surrounded himself with."
After growing up in Southern Ireland with Catholic parents, Margaret decided to join the nuns at age 22. A novice friend later convinced her to travel to California with her. The friend took one of the first flights back home, and today is married with three kids, but Margaret stayed, because she discovered her cause of heart: helping the needy. The Sisters of Charity that she is part of commit themselves to an extra vow to take care of the poorest, and thus the Covenant House in Hollywood is the perfect place for her: It offers a second chance for young people who ended up on the streets. Every night a van makes the rounds, offering food, water and blankets. Margaret has helped hundreds of people, clients like Octavio Del Castillo, who got kicked out of his house at age 13, when he came out to his parents. He took to the streets, to crack, and then to Sister Margaret. "Without Sister Margaret I wouldn't be alive today," says Octavio who is now, at 25, a successful manager at a sandwich chain. "She is my mother, my godmother, my angel!" he raves. It is ironic that a large percentage of Sister Margaret's clients come from Christian families and were disowned by their parents, when the children's sexuality no longer fit their parents' understanding of the Bible.
Many of her clients, including Octavio, therefore wanted nothing to do with her when they first met the Sister at Covenant House. "But Sister Margaret is different, because she is always there for you. Always," says Octavio who has rediscovered his Christian faith through her and usually joins her on Sunday for church. A whole shelf in Sister Margaret's cramped office is devoted to her clients who weren't as lucky. There's a picture of Ilea who died while riding his bike in Beverly Hills; Michael, who was shot on the street-walkers' patch; and Jesse, who succumbed to HIV at age 20. Sister Margaret collected his ashes from the crematorium because his mother wanted nothing to do with him, even after his death.
Sister Margaret does not say a single critical word about the church. "Jesus does not judge," she says, and therefore she, too, feels she has no right to judge. She is an extremely rare caliber of person, tirelessly devoted to watching out for others. When I ask her what she likes to do in her spare time, she lights up and tells me that her favorite thing is to visit youngsters in prison. She has learned not to wear wire bras, because the metal won't pass the security screenings at juvenile state prisons.
Even the young woman who wanted to physically assault her at their first meeting because she wanted nothing to do with a Catholic nun, has since succumbed to Sister Margaret's kindness. Now the chapel in the Covenant House features that same young woman's testament of gratitude to Sister Margaret: A colorful painting of two hands joining, with the words from Isaiah 41:13, "Do not be afraid, I will help you." If Sister Margaret is a radical, we need more radicals.
Margaret Farrell at her crowded desk. (Photo: Amy Gaskin)
Follow Michaela Haas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MichaelaHaas