I arrived at St. Ambrose Church in Park Heights for the Saturday evening mass last July, and a few of the congregants were standing on the steps and looking across the street. I asked them what was going on, and they indicated an elderly woman. She was too old to be out in the sun dressed in all black like that, they told me, and asked me to go see if she was all right.
I was glad they pointed her out. I like to be of help, but I live inside my head and tend to miss minor emergencies like this. I ran across the street and introduced myself, asking if I could give her a hand. She told me her name was "Ms. Hines," and she was going to the funeral home to settle affairs after her husband's recent burial. That explained the black dress, but her story seemed remarkable. They couldn't send someone to her house? She didn't ask a neighbor or a family member to accompany her? She told me not to mind, that she's known this undertaker for decades. But we arrived at the funeral home, and all doors were locked and no reply came to our rings and knocks. I called the number she had, but nobody picked up.
I shrugged and told her it looked like there was nothing for me to do but get her home, and if she could wait, I'd run across the street and get my car. She said that was OK, she lived just around the corner and could use the walk. (She was 90 if she was a day, but apparently she thought she needed a constitutional.)
So, that was that. I realized I was going to walk her home, and I wouldn't be going to mass that day. Of course, "just around the corner" was more like three blocks away, and three blocks meant at least 45 minutes in her little baby bird steps. But sometimes, somebody comes into your life to slow you down. And as we walked, we talked about her 40 years in the Park Heights community after coming up from North Carolina. About her wonderful neighbors who all look out for each other. About her long career as a nurse, and her husband's longtime union job. She had this large, green square of grass and trees across from her house, and she told me what a great neighborhood that square made it for children. How all the churches used it for their picnics, and they worked side-by-side to improve the community and looked out for each other's congregants.
I looked around and saw a neighborhood crumbling to its foundation, and she saw light and hope and life — this coming the very week she had buried her husband and had gone alone to settle affairs with the funeral home. She even asked me to stop in and visit with a neighbor on the way home — whether she was showing me, her new friend, off to them, or them off to me as a testimony to the good neighborhood she believed in, I'm not sure. Maybe both.
We reached her home, and she invited me in. I sat her down and got her some water, and gave her a hug and told her I had to get back to my wife, as mass was almost over, but I hoped to see her again. And I did hope.
I sadly did not. Ms. Hines — Mary Helen Dickson-Hines — died last week after being sexually assaulted, bound, gagged and left for dead during a brutal home invasion. Her (indeed) good neighbors noticed her door left ajar, and quickly called the police, who found her in time to get her to the hospital alive. She hung on for a few weeks before passing, her killer or killers still at large. No sign of forced entry. Perhaps she let somebody in like she did me. She seemed like that kind of lady. I guess her dying under a physician's care allowed her more dignity than she would have had struggling on the floor of her home. But my God.
Baltimore is a jewel of a city, everything she thought it was, but with broken strips of neighborhoods that have descended into something approaching anarchy. But even in that condition, this crime has left people stunned. Someday, perhaps quite soon, we will look at ourselves and say that we weren't meant for this. We were meant for something much, much greater. I pray that it's soon. Ms. Hines deserved so much more.
Edward Hoyt is a writer, editor and web producer for Catholic Relief Services. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.