Fond farewell for Bea Gaddy

Church overflows with mourners for homeless advocate

October 10, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

They went by the hundreds yesterday to New Shiloh Baptist Church, from the halls of power and the streets of Baltimore, to say farewell to City Councilwoman Bea Gaddy, the one-time homeless woman whose life touched thousands as she became one of the city's chief advocates for the poor.

At least 1,500 people filled the sanctuary of the West Baltimore church that is in a neighborhood not too different from Mrs. Gaddy's across town.

They sang and prayed, listened as politicians and friends extolled her virtues, searched their hearts during the Rev. Lynwood H. Leverette Sr.'s sermon.

"We're here to consider the story of Bea Gaddy, advocate, preacher, mother. We're here to consider the story of someone just like you," said Mr. Leverette, who preaches at Mount Pisgah Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where Mrs. Gaddy had been a member. "But what good is it to consider her story and not evaluate our own?"

Beatrice Frankie Fowler Brooks Gaddy, who died last week of breast cancer, was remembered yesterday as "a people's person." Her recent career as a member of the City Council from the 2nd District was the crowning touch to a life that began 68 years ago in Wake Forest, N.C.

One speaker at yesterday's funeral said there are two great moments in everyone's life: when you are born and when you realize why you were born. For Mrs. Gaddy, that moment came in 1981 when, using the $290 she won from a 50-cent lottery ticket, she gave 39 people a Thanksgiving dinner.

Over the years, those simple dinners, first held outside her home at 140 Collington Ave., grew into media events at which hundreds, then thousands, were fed.

In recent years, more than 20,000 people would show up at Dunbar High School, where Mrs. Gaddy had moved her Thanksgiving celebration. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was among the many volunteers who came to her aid. Yesterday, the Rev. Harold A. Carter called Mr. Cummings to the pulpit.

"She understood that we are all the walking wounded," said Mr. Cummings, whose remarks brought the crowd to its feet. "Everyone of us has been through some difficulty, and she understood that."

People began gathering outside New Shiloh long before the noon service. The church was already filled at 11:30 a.m. as long lines of mourners waited to view Mrs. Gaddy's body. Cars were double-parked for the length of Clifton Avenue that borders the church.

Desha Vodopia, a longtime friend, didn't have the luxury of driving a car to the funeral. She rode a transit bus.

"I'm going to miss her. I'm going to miss her terribly. ... She would have loved to have seen this, how everybody turned out to give tribute to her," said Ms. Vodopia. "My God, I think she got more people than the president."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was there and said she knew there were people alive today because of Mrs. Gaddy. Gov. Parris N. Glendening received a standing ovation when he said he would stay for the entire service.

"She represented the best of the human spirit," said Mr. Glendening, who equated Mrs. Gaddy's Thanksgiving dinners with the biblical story in which Jesus feeds the multitude with a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish. "She embodied the twin values of compassion and hard work."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley spoke of how his city became a better place because Mrs. Gaddy had lived and done her best to serve others.

"She sought political power so she could share it and give it away," said Mr. O'Malley. "Bea showed us that a candle loses not its power by lighting another candle."

`Stood by her principles'

City Council President Sheila Dixon spoke of Mrs. Gaddy's brief career on the council. Elected in 1999, she grew into the job and never lost sight of the reason she sought political office, Ms. Dixon said.

"She voted against the mayor's budget because it meant layoffs. It meant somebody could be homeless," said Ms. Dixon. "She stood by her principles in the midst of all that went on."

Yesterday's three-hour service moved along steadily as Mr. Carter, New Shiloh's pastor, presided like an experienced director. He called the congregation to its feet to sing hymns such as "Blessed Assurance" and "Praise Him." At other times, he asked people to reach out to the person standing beside them, take their hand and pray together. Two hours into the service, he brought them to their feet again to sing "Amazing Grace" in preparation for the eulogy.

Mr. Leverette started slowly, joking that so many sermons had already been given there was little need for him to speak. He promised not to take long because the hour was late. But he launched into his sermon, taking inspiration from the 90th Psalm in which the psalmist asks to know how long he will live.

`She never gave up'

Mrs. Gaddy's life exemplified good works done against all odds, said Mr. Leverette. The story of her life should serve as inspiration, he said.

"Let the works she's done speak for her. Let the life she lived speak for her. ... Bea has already told her story," he said. "But what will they say about you? What is your story?"

Tynika Stith and Derone Johnson, both 17, have yet to complete their stories. Already their lives have been touched by Gaddy. They volunteered for her, ate with her, talked about ways to get young people involved in helping the homeless and the poor.

"She always kept a smile," said Ms. Stith, after the service. "She never gave up."

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