Before Mother Teresa grabbed his hand, perhaps the most powerful thing Demetrius Ford ever held was a gun.
Ford ran a street gang out of the Henry Horner Homes, a cluster of high rise housing projects located in the shadow of what is now the United Center. Warring street gangs regularly shot at each other from adjacent buildings.
“We were shooting from building to building. Kids couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t even go out to the store without somebody going with me with two or three guns for protection,” Ford recalled last week.
“I had to tell two or three hundred guys a day what to do. It was just really, really dangerous and there was a lot of hits out to kill me and I was giving hits on the opposition,” he said.
A few feet from the violence plagued buildings was St. Malachy’s Church, where, as the gang wars played out next door, a parish priest wrote Mother Teresa a letter asking for help. In response, she sent four nuns to the church to establish a soup kitchen there in 1983.
A few months later, a priest from the church who’d come to know Ford gave him a job doing odd jobs, like cooking, cleaning and handy work around the rectory.
Ford was ready for a change. He was in his early 20s and a lot of people were dying around him.
“But in the gang thing, you can’t just walk away,” he said.
Through the church, he began to organize peaceful barbecues and dances for youth in the neighborhood. However, most attendees, at first at least, also came from the same gang.
Ford was at the church in 1985 when word spread that Mother Teresa was coming to Chicago to visit. Ford was 22 years old the day she arrived.
He, along with a priest, found a spot on the landing of a staircase Mother Teresa would be walking down.
“She saw us and she stopped,” Ford said. “She grabbed my hand, and I’m all nervous. People taking pictures. And she said ‘Let me pray for you.’ And so I was like ‘Wow, you know I need to be praying for you.’ And she said. ‘No. Let me pray for you.’ And she grabbed my hands in hers and everything got quiet. And that was like the changing point in my life. I was like really feeling down and low. I was running from the police at the time and there were a million awful things going on in my life. And at that moment I just felt relief.” he said.
“The funny thing was she had kneeled down, and her being older, I tried to help her up because I didn’t know what she was doing,” Ford recalled.
A couple of days later, Ford, while working in the rectory, encountered Mother Teresa again. This time she was alone in the kitchen area. Ford served her a cup of coffee before she was to meet with the pastor and the two chatted for a minute.
“She told me I was going to be a changed person. That God is calling me. He’s waiting on me. That a lot of people are going to follow me. That I got a good heart and God just wants me to do the right thing because I can bring a lot of people to Christ. I was sitting here crying and stuff and she got to crying and she kept saying it was okay and God has a hand on me. She was telling me something about a black cloud was following me, which was the enemy, which was the devil I guess, and that he’s pulling on me at the same time, but God is going to have his way and she told me just keep praying.
“And then even when the pastor came she kept looking back at me and I brought her another cup of coffee and she grabbed my hand again and said ‘Let me pray for you.'”
A few months later, with the help of a youth minister from the church, Ford signed on to a truce between the feuding gangs that helped end the shooting.
That was 31 years ago. Ford is now 53. He’s good with his hands and does construction jobs when he can find them, like dry-walling or installing windows. He never married or had kids. He stays with family members mostly.
He’s confident Mother Teresa would be proud of how he’s lived since their encounter.
“She’d be proud. I stayed alive. I did get out of the gang. I pray every night. I be myself now. She showed me that. And kindness motivates me now.”
“Before I was terrible. It was the card we was dealt being born and raised in the projects. My older brothers was gang-bangers and so I was trying to hold up a name, a legend that was going on for years and years, and it was the thing to do back then. If you weren’t a part of it, you were nothing.”
Ford said his life now is up and down.
“My life still has a lot of turmoil here and there. But I don’t really go to jail anymore, I don’t gang bang any more. I don’t be out on the street getting drunk all night messing with the girls all night any more. I try to live more of a stable life. But, once again, it’s off and on. Ain’t nothing perfect.
“I’m looking for a good job and just hoping things get better. I don’t have a house or a car or other things people strive for, but I’m happy with who I am. And I always think about Mother Teresa to know that she touched my hand and prayed for me and she showed that she really cared for me and there was no strings attached, that’s something that I’ll never forget, and I feel blessed, not more than anyone else, but I feel blessed, just to serve her a cup of coffee was a privilege. That was something to always feel good about.”
Ford’s life might have gone another direction had he not met Mother Teresa.
“I might be dead or locked up or doing some crazy s—,” he said.
“l really believe she’s a saint and I really believe she’s watching over me. I believe in spirits and they really watch you and try to lead you in the right direction. When you touch someone’s hand and they pray for you, it’s a connection that cannot be broken. Her spirit will always be with me.”