Carol Fennelly woke up one morning in her Delaware beach house a couple of
years ago to a divine commandment. "Go to Youngstown," the voice told her.
"I was really pissed off," Fennelly says. "You know, I'd spent 17 years
working in a homeless shelter. I figured I'd done my part. I had worked
really hard to buy a house, on the beach, and it was like, 'God, it's not
fair.' But I had learned, as Tina Turner would say, `You can do it the rough
way, or you can do it the easy way.' And I decided that rather than go out
kicking, I would do it myself. I visited Youngstown."
The city that inspired so much dread in Fennelly is hub to five prisons,
including one run by the Corrections Corporation of America. After Washington, D.C.'s one prison, which had been plagued with mismanagement problems for years, was ordered closed by the court order that federalized the district's public works, CCA's Youngstown facility absorbed some 1,300 of the district's inmates. Fennelly, a political commentator for the local National Public Radio in D.C., wrote about how being moved a six hours' drive from home had devastated the inmates' family relations.
From the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s, Fennelly had lived in and operated D.C.'s
federal homeless shelter. She had finally wanted to taste the comforts most of her middle-aged peers had enjoyed for much of their adult lives.
The voice, however, was clear. So she drove to the former steel town, with
its boarded up storefronts and ragged blocks with houses missing like a
boxer's teeth. "When I first drove through that town, I could not breathe,"
she recalled. "I knew it was economically depressed, but I was not prepared
for the visual desperation of this place."
That night, at a hotel dingier than any she had endured on her political
road trips, she prayed to the God who had sent her there: "Let me see this
place with new eyes." In the morning, she came across one sweet house in the
midst of the desolation. That beauty convinced her that the difficulties
could be endured, and inspired the name for her new project, Hope House.With a $20,000 grant from the D.C.-based Cafritz Foundation, Fennelly set
up programs directed at building and sustaining relationships between
imprisoned fathers and their children on the outside. All of the projects have won media accolades for innovation and compassion. Inmates' children are given
books-on-tape read by their fathers in lieu of bedtime reading. She links
the families through real-time Internet teleconferencing. Each summer, she
ferries almost a dozen kids to Youngstown for a one-week camp; in four-hour sessions each morning, the 8- to 14-year-olds play with their fathers and get the extract of affection they desperately need. She plans theater projects that tell the fathers' stories, support programs for the mothers, and on.
According to Fennelly, inmates who don't participate in visitation programs
violate parole 60% of the time. Figures like that make her programs appeal to both bleeding hearts and bottom-line incarceration specialists.
In most of the articles about her programs, Fennelly, who in person comes
across like a brunette version of her friend Tipper Gore, appears only fleetingly, offering whispered words of comfort, or a hug when children's
intense feelings for their fathers and longing for a real life together become too much. But until very recently, when she hired her first employee, Fennelly was Hope House's sole year-round volunteer. (Seven teachers help with the summer camp.) The driving alone--she treks on alternate weeks between D.C. and Ohio--is grueling.
Her undeterrable motivation is best depicted by what she says is her
favorite Bible passage--Matthew 25, which she jokingly paraphrases: "Where
Jesus says: Feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, or go to
Once upon a time, Fennelly was a fairly conventional mother of two young
children, living near Oakland, California. She had grown up playing organ in the church her family attended, Reorganized Latter-day Saints, but she abandoned that faith as soon as she left home. "The lives of the people in churches looked no different than the lives of the people outside the churches, and the people outside the churches were clearly having more fun, so I went for the fun," she says.
When she and her husband separated in 1976, she began reading the Bible
for comfort. "I realized the gospel I was reading had nothing to do with the
gospel I learned in church as a kid," she says. "That in fact this Jesus was
a pretty radical guy, a revolutionary. The Vietnam War was going on, and I
looked at the anti-war activists and I thought, wow, they've got nothing on
this guy. And I got very excited."
One day, when folding clothes in her kids' room, Fennelly experienced her
first vision. She saw a brilliant light and a voice told her, "I have
something very special for you and for your children, but not for your
husband, not for Jim."
The event hit her hard emotionally, but she tried to summon all her 20th-century cynicism. "I went, `Right, God. Sure,'" she recalls. "I immediately
reunited with my husband because I thought it was too weird."
The reunion did not take. She moved to D.C., joined a Christian community,
and eventually met a charismatic and outspoken activist named Mitch Snyder,
founder of the Community for Creative Nonviolence. It's reasonable to credit
America's awareness of the homeless crisis in the 1980s--when popular outcry
forced the federal government to address the issue--to the work, and rage, of Fennelly and Snyder. The couple fell in love as they fought the feds together and eventually won the right to operate a 1,400-bed shelter. "I was always aware I was living an alternative lifestyle," says Fennelly. "My children never failed to remind me of that because they so resented it. My children longed to be middle-class."
Fennelly and Snyder's relationship was passionate and volatile. In July
1990, soon after she had walked out, Snyder killed himself. "If I hadn't
left that day, he would probably still be alive," she says. "I don't spend
my life focusing on that. [But] when someone commits suicide like that, you never get over it. You never stop feeling guilty, no matter how many therapists you see."
"He inspired me more than anyone else in my life," she says later. "No one
shaped me or formed me in ways greater than he did. My life changed the day
I met him, and it changed forever the day he died. I am forever grateful for
it, despite how difficult he was to be with. Because I learned so much from
him. He was just a genius."
Fennelly went on to run the CCNV through 1994, when she was aggressively
voted out and replaced by Gregory Keith Mitchell, who eventually fled the
organization amid accusations that he had mishandled funds. (He later
admitted to absconding with HUD money.)
Fennelly embodies a liberal's daredevil streak with a moderate's pragmatism.
Though she doesn't dream of accepting federal funds herself, she thinks the
Bushian concept of underwriting faith-based programming is perfectly fine.
She desperately wanted Gore to get the White House, but she "learned in the
Reagan administration that not all Republicans are bad. Some of them do the
wrong things for the right reasons." She admires major Republicans like Jim
and Susan Baker and the elder Bushes. "George and Barbara Bush cared about
homelessness and visited our shelters," she recalls. "I liked them
personally. I didn't like all of their policies. It was important for me to
spend years in D.C. to learn that lesson."
Likewise, while she still decries private prisons, she has a good relationship with the prisons she deals with, which she feels have improved
through pressure and now offer real service to the inmates, without the
bureaucratic red tape. Ironically, now that she has learned to love the private prisons, she is forced to deal with a new reality: D.C. won't be using private contractors in 2002, and the inmates she works with will be scattered to federal prisons throughout the country.
Undaunted, she has already started holding meetings to ensure the programs follow her clients and is facing yet another move, this time to a prison town in North Carolina.
Beneath the surface are all the tolls taken by a life Fennelly modeled on a radical Jesus. She suffers chronic health problems from the hunger strikes of the 1980s. She feels real loneliness as a solitary 50-year-old, shuttling between Ohio and D.C. each week.
It sounds easy to say Fennelly's work is her payoff, but it's true. "We really liberate people when we let them give back to us, and we so seldom do that."
Besides, as Jesus so eloquently put it in Matthew 25, it's the only way not
to go to hell. "People think that they'll go in and save the poor for
Jesus," Fennelly says, "when in fact I think the poor save us for Jesus. Our
salvation depends on them."