She always stood tall, even when sitting in a wheelchair, and when they rolled her through her soup kitchen, everyone looked up. That’s how you felt when you spoke to her, like you were looking up.
And that’s how she lived her life.
Maude Batie is gone. She died last Sunday, just after church. Her heart failed. But I prefer to think it gave out from exertion, because few hearts ever worked longer or harder than hers.
She lived 82 years on this earth, the last few were spent on dialysis, yet pretty much her entire adult life was about giving to others, helping elderly people, helping poor people, helping hungry people. She had eight children of her own, but her nickname with everyone was Mother. It fit. She had a mother’s eye for nurturing and a disarming mother’s smile that made you trust in her wisdom.
She spoke in the down-home cadence of her Mississippi childhood. “I didn’t have not a penny to get it,” she might say. Or she’d erupt with a “Hey!” or a “Hallelujah!” as if suddenly injected with the Holy Spirit. And who knows? Several times in her life, she said, the Lord spoke to her. Twice, she was told to acquire a building.
The first time was 40 years ago, a yellow brick structure on 12th Street in Detroit. It looked nice enough from the outside, but when she went in, she discovered “they had been fixing cars in there. It was dirty and picked apart. Even one of my sisters said to me, ÃÂYou don’t want to get this building. It’s too much work.'”
Mother Batie was undeterred.
“The voice said this building,” she insisted.
And that building it was.
When money doesn’t matter
She talked the owner into selling it to her – for $19,500, nearly $10,000 less than he wanted – and after he agreed, she said, “Now I really got something to tell you. I ain’t got no job.”
It didn’t stop her. They went to a bank, drew up a private contract, and with money she collected from renting space in her home, she began to pay it back. Meanwhile, inside that building, she opened a soup kitchen and fed people who were hungry. It was what God wanted her to do, she said.
Soon thereafter, calamity struck. A fire. Mother Batie ran toward the flames, but before she could get there, she said she felt an invisible arm around her, and a voice once again said, “This is a blessing in disguise.”
Within hours, with the fire extinguished, she was inside, wiping down the tables. She wanted the kitchen to stay open no matter how much it had been knocked to its knees. When the original owner saw her determination, he gave her $10,000 toward repairing the place and making it even better.
A blessing in disguise.
Years later, she said she heard the Lord’s voice again, telling her to secure a building in Highland Park that had been vandalized. Over time, she was again able to acquire that building for a fraction of its asking price. This time she – and others – started a church, the Holy Temple of Faith Church of God in Christ.
It is where her wake was held Friday night.
When money does matter
You probably didn’t know Mother Batie. She wasn’t at high-profile events. She held no office. She wasn’t a regular on TV.
Yet our city – like most challenged cities – would collapse without people like her. The people she fed every day are largely off the radar, but if they starved and turned to crime to feed themselves, we would feel it. If they grew ill, filled out emergency rooms, we would feel it. If they died, we would feel it.
How many citizens are out there, every day, getting by because of the meals people like Maude Batie served, or wearing the clothes she helped collect, or using the furniture she got donated and gave away?
We measure the city in budgets and deficits and tax revenues, but there is an entire ecosystem that supports thousands of the poorest citizens. And nobody truly charts or analyzes this world.
This was where Maude Batie lived. And where she died. She is as much a hero of this city as anyone with a wall full of plaques, and we will miss her stories, her energy and her unshakable belief.
Last year, government budget cuts nearly closed her soup kitchen, and only a rush of private donations kept the doors open. In her honor, we should do the same now, and make sure they never close.
She used to lead grace before meals and would end by saying, “The things that we have, the Lord has provided. And we are thankful.”
We had Mother Batie for 82 years.
And we are thankful.
Donations to the soup kitchen can be made at www.saydetroit.org; S.A.Y. Detroit, 150 Stimson, Detroit 48201, or 313-993-4700.