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This is a helping hand that needs your help

She says it was God. Who are we to argue? Forty years ago, Maude Batie was walking down 12th Street, a street that would one day be renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard, when a voice spoke to her as if it were coming from her chest.

“It told me to inquire about this building,” she says from her wheelchair, pointing to a one-story structure that gleamed in the autumn sun.

Back then, the building was new and nondescript. A warehouse-type thing, maybe a garage. She never bothered to look inside. Instead, she found the owner, asked him how much he would take for it, and when he said $28,000, she shook her head.

“The Lord told me $19,500, and not a penny more!” she declared.

The man seemed to melt. He agreed instantly. More divine intervention? Perhaps. Then she sprung one last piece of news on him:

“I don’t have a job.”

How does a woman on public assistance manage to buy a building and open a soup kitchen when she has never done either before? Well, a voice from above is a powerful motivator.

So are 50 poor and hungry neighbors, the average crowd Maude Batie – they call her “Mother” – has been feeding with free lunches for decades, because a voice told her to do it.

She is 82 now, in a wheelchair and on dialysis. Her place is called the United Sisters of Charity, although you could just as easily call it the Little Soup Kitchen That Could.

But it’s gasping for help.

The hard slap of economic reality

You’ve read about cuts in government programs. You’ve read about the upcoming slash in deductions for charitable giving. Maybe when you read those stories, it’s all too abstract.

Well, here is a real place and a real face, a loving but weary face that says, “We are down to our last meals.” Without new funding, Mother Batie’s doors will close this week, a tragedy considering how widely they have always been open.

Chicken. Greens. Potatoes. Corn bread. Always a full meal, she insisted, for her clients. She cut and served the food herself, along with family and co-workers. The only thing they rarely served was soup (“I don’t really like soup,” she says).

Maude Batie came to Detroit from Mississippi. She was only 13, a precocious kid who sat outside in the rain and wondered where the drops came from. She raised her own large family and worked with elderly people in convalescent homes until the voice came and changed her life. She has heard it several times since, telling her how to live.

She is counting on it again.

“I believe the Lord is going to keep this place open,” she says. “I have done everything He told me to do. I’ve fed the people like he told me. I’ve clothed them like he told me.”

She leans back, purses her lips.

“Sometimes they say to me, ‘‘You’re like a blessing.’ But I say, ‘‘The Lord did it. He just used me.'”

A way to help the poor

If you’ve never been hungry or out on the street, you might not miss a place like Mother Batie’s if it closed. But those who have would miss it terribly, and we cannot let it happen. We have all taken major hits in this economy. But cutting off the poorest in tough times seems like pulling in a life preserver when your boat starts to rock.

“I say to the government and the governor, ‘Be careful when you close the door on poor people,'” Batie warns, “because they bleed just like he bleed, they love just like he love…. These people don’t want big cars and fancy houses, they just want to live.”

And eat. That shouldn’t be too much, right? Mother Batie says she needs between $1,000 and $1,500 a week to operate her program. Having seen the kitchen, the refrigerators, the sinks, storage and dining room in action, it doesn’t seem like too much.

And having spent some time with this remarkable woman, “too much” doesn’t apply. She is one of those unsung citizens who holds up invisible walls in the city, whose daily acts of kindness keep our most desolate from turning desperate.

If you would like to help, you can donate at the Web site www.theheartofdetroit.org or via mail to United Sisters of Charity, P.O. Box 03739, Highland Park 48203.

She says it was God. Who are we to argue? Mother Maude Batie is counting on the voice.

In the meantime, she could use a hand.

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