As a schoolgirl in Florida, Terri Bishop would often bring other students home from school with her, those she was certain were not being properly nourished, and make a pot of soup for them with crackers or bread. Her parents, who had been the ones to instill within her a compassion for those less fortunate, one night had a talk with her and helped her understand the futility of trying to feed the hungry all at once.
In time she comprehended that reality, but it did not dull her sensitivity to the plight of those needing basic human necessities. Nor did it extinguish her idealism about doing whatever one can to make a difference. Small wonder that today she is executive director of what some regard as the largest homeless shelter in the United States, the Federal City Shelter, a facility with a capacity of 1,350 located in downtown Washington, D.C., near the U.S. Capitol Building.
When she assumed the directorship in 1997, the shelter had been crippled by mismanagement and rocked by scandal. An accounting firm found that about $400,000 had been embezzled. The shelter owed the Internal Revenue Service some $97,000 in employment taxes. It was in debt to various vendors for about $400,000 and owed a bank another $40,000.
"We had to clean things up," Sister Bishop said.
The IRS agreed to write off the debt if, over a five-year period, the shelter never missed another quarterly payment. She wrote letters to the vendors pledging to make good on the shelter's debts if they would verify from their own records what was owed. (The shelter's records had been removed for auditing purposes.)
"It took me about three years to clean up the debt and set the organization right," she said.
Beyond its financial difficulties, the shelter was plagued by bad publicity stemming from the embezzlement. Contributions had dried up. "We had to ensure donors that whatever they sent in we would not only acknowledge but verify exactly how it was spent," she said.
How are things going today? "We're back to normal almost," Sister Bishop said.
Indeed, the Washington Post reported last Nov. 29 that the shelter for its annual Thanksgiving Day dinner was inundated with more food than the volunteers could handle and more volunteers than organizers could manage. (Monte Reel and David Cho, "Holiday Generosity Amazes Charities," p. B1.)
The shelter's turnaround involved more than just resolving the financial difficulties, though. Under Sister Bishop's direction, the shelter established rules and contracts for residents aimed at helping them gain the wherewithal to help themselves.
In that regard, she was in Salt Lake City Feb. 7, where she toured the Church's Welfare Square and quizzed staff members there on how the operation assists the needy.
For Sister Bishop, a member of the Mount Pleasant 1st Branch, Washington D.C. Stake, her work amounts to implementing the gospel of Christ.
"I believe what the scripture says, that to God all things are spiritual, and that includes our work," she said. " I believe I am on a mission working with the homeless. I get a chance to witness to them, and it is rewarding to know I can speak about Christ and how having Him in your life can change not only homelessness but every other problem you have."
That is a conviction that came to her in the days after she encountered missionaries who were tracting door-to-door through her neighborhood in the late 1970s. She became an earnest and inquisitive investigator, keeping a note pad with a list of questions that seemed to grow longer with each missionary visit. Ultimately a missionary from Africa came to visit her. "He simply asked if it was OK that he pray for me. He said, 'After I have prayed for you, if, when you wake up tomorrow morning, your doubts have gone away and you feel comfortable, that should be an answer to you that God wants you to go ahead with your commitment [to be baptized].' I slept right through the night. I didn't think about it until the end of the next day, and then I called the missionaries to say I wanted to be baptized."
Sister Bishop lives and works full-time at the shelter, giving her work without pay as do the other staff members. "Our doors never close," she said. "We have a primary-care clinic in the shelter, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center and an employment center for the homeless. Our community kitchen feeds people in our shelter and also extends to 38 other soup kitchens and shelters throughout the city."
She supports herself with occasional part-time work from contacts established during her career of almost 20 years as a certified public manager working for the federal government as a policy analyst, human resource manager and environmental specialist.
During that time, she raised three children to adulthood as a single mother. "I remember asking God to help me raise those kids, promising that if He did, He would not have a problem with me deviating from what He wanted me to do," she said.
For Sister Bishop, that heaven-directed course seems to be to continue the charity she initiated all those years ago in Florida feeding her needy schoolmates.
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