In Irene Mabry's line of work, miracles are a regular occurrence, normally falling on the end of the month when her clients find themselves at the settlement table.
As far as Mabry is concerned, there's no other way to explain that her thriving real estate business is built on one impossible case at a time. It's something she never loses sight of, especially when she finds herself with customers who can't afford cars, who have given up paying their bills, who have a houseful of children, but who are desperately seeking a better way of life.
It's then that she will clasp hands with her buyer, bow her head and offer up a prayer.
"Lord," she'll say, "we need you to touch the hearts of the people who can approve our loan, the hearts of the people who can accept our contract. Lord, we're in a lot of controversy with these bills. "
Mabry specializes in finding homes that most real estate agents don't bother with, for poor people who usually are not seen as customers - even by themselves.
Yet, for the last five years, Mabry has been a member of the Real Estate Million Dollar Association Ltd., an honorary organization of agents who surpass $1 million in sales volume. In today's market - with many homes selling in the hundreds of thousands, reaching $1 million isn't too tall a mountain to climb. But remember, Mabry has gotten there in small steps, with a $40,000 sale here, a $28,000 sale there.
To make those sales, going to great lengths is routine. It's not unusual for Mabry to transport customers who don't have cars, to arrange payment agreements with their frustrated creditors and to wade knee-deep into other people's personal problems.
Mabry doesn't depend on faith. She puts it to work.
Irene Mabry's compassion isn't that of an objective observer, a do-gooder who steps out of her secure world to help others. She's been there. She grew up in the projects in Norfolk, Va. She's been a single mother. She's been homeless. "I learned you can have it all and you can lose it all, and I found myself in the same situation that a lot of people go through," she said.
In an industry driven by economic incentive - commissions to be exact - Irene Mabry of Allen Realty in Pimlico runs on a volatile mixture of financial and spiritual fulfillment. Mabry has turned the sometimes ruthless side of real estate into none other than God's work.
"I really believe in my heart that God places me in these situations with these people, because it's always the worst cases," said the 48-year-old mother of four. "I never get good stuff. I always get the complicated ones. But the complicated ones are more exciting to me because you're doing something to help somebody."
Mabry can't be pigeonholed as a Bible-thumper. Although she may have religious literature stuffed into the console of her car and Bibles in the back seat, she has an artful way of cursing and has a street-savvy eye.
While she's not looking to save souls, she never forgets who truly makes the deal and has no qualms about offering up an itemized request - "We're just doing the footwork. It's the prayer that matters."
It's something she never forgets. It's something she's thinking about right now as she gazes at the dirty outside wall of the Maryland Penitentiary, the overwhelming neighbor of the Latrobe Homes housing project. Confronted with such a view, Mabry wondered out loud how many people from this neighborhood are going to be living one day on the other side of the wall.
Then she glanced toward the project's courtyard, calculating the danger.
Even with the coast clear, Mabry didn't venture out of her car. The last time she did that, a stranger followed her to the door of her buyer, Denise Reives. This time she used her cellular phone.
For more than two years, Mabry has been showing Reives homes in the $40,000 range. Together, they have looked at hundreds of what the low-income housing market offers - flagrant holes in the roof, rooms full of abandoned memories, walls covered with layers of wallpaper, paint and glue.
Yet as Mabry watched Reives make her way to the car, Mabry knew what counts. She had five houses and all it takes is one to turn into a home.
Selling the mean streets
Irene Mabry has transformed her real estate business into a social program. Except here, hardball negotiations and sales have replaced policy and theory.
It works on a premise that buying a home is a form of empowerment, a stable force in deteriorating communities. Her clients are renters, overwhelmed single mothers with children, trapped between corner drug markets and gunbattles. Mabry finds them homes, sometimes stable enclaves in the same embattled community, sometimes homes in neighborhoods that they've seen only from bus windows on the way to work.