UnCommon Good Interviews Sr. Terry

Home for Good

It took Rebecca 79 years to finally find a loving home, but find it she did at Crossroads, the residential facility for women coming out of prison, and the site of two of Uncommon Good’s urban farm plots. Rebecca grew up in Bakersfield, the child of a single mom who’d left her husband, an abusive drunk. Unfortunately, she didn’t leave soon enough. Her older children had learned their father’s violent ways and regularly beat Rebecca up. The child took extra abuse for trying to shield her younger sister, whom she still calls “Baby” even today when “Baby” is 72 years old. To escape the physical and emotional pain, Rebecca started drinking at nine years of age. In adulthood, the alcohol led her into damaging relationships and hurt her ability to parent her own children. Eventually, she ended up in prison, along with one of her daughters, a drug addict. At age 79, when she was finally up for parole, it seemed that there was no one left in the world who cared. But that wasn’t exactly right. Sister Terry Dodge, the longtime Executive Director of Crossroads, attended her hearing and convinced the parole board to set her free. Rebecca returned with Sister Terry to one of the two homes operated by Crossroads in Claremont. She has settled in happily, cooking meals for the local homeless, helping with clothing and toy drives for children, and attending AA meetings. At last, at 79 years old, Rebecca can say:

“Crossroads has changed me 100%. I’ve learned new tools, how to have a better life. It’s so friendly here. It’s a new world for me, a new life that I never had before.”

Sister Terry radiates a grounded, loving, maternal energy. To be in her presence is to feel both accepted and inspired. We first got to know each other when she generously offered to let us use the Crossroads yards for our urban agriculture program. We’ve been growing vegetables there ever since, aided by a grant that Sister Terry obtained from her religious community, the Sisters of St. Louis.

On a recent blazing October afternoon, of a kind for which Southern California is infamous, we sat on the porch of one of the Crossroads houses and talked about how this work had become her life’s mission. Like Crossroads resident Rebecca, Sister Terry also had a beloved younger sibling, a brother nine years her junior. Before she entered the convent she had a motorcycle, and she would use it to pick him up from school, which instantly made him one of the coolest kids on campus. The two were exceptionally close. Tragically, however, while he was in high school he was introduced to heroin and became an addict. At times during his addiction, his sister was the only person who knew where he was. When she finally knew that he was ready to accept help, she looked into resources for him when he was paroled from prison and was extremely frustrated to come up empty-handed. By that time she had entered the convent and was a teacher. But her experience with her brother inspired her to want to change careers to do something for parolees. She offered her services to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles but was told that she couldn’t be employed in the detention ministry because she was a woman. So she moved to Oakland to volunteer in that archdiocese’s prison ministry. Ultimately the Archdiocese of Orange and Crossroads both offered her jobs and she chose Crossroads.

Under her leadership, Crossroads has grown dramatically, providing housing, education, support, counseling, and employment training in a homelike environment for 32 women each year. Sometimes the women have served decades in prison for a simple reason such as they happened to be in the car when their idiot boyfriend decided to pull over and rob a liquor store. In such cases, they need to be introduced to the trappings of the modern world, such as computers, which may not have been a part of the workplace when they entered prison. Beating all the odds, 86% of Crossroads women are self-sustaining after six years.

Initially, though, Crossroads met with some NIMBY opposition. At one meeting in which hostile neighbors showed up to protest the presence of a Crossroads house, Sister Terry was challenged, “How do you make these felons change their ways?” She responded simply, “I just love them.” That her love is powerful and effective is proven by the Crossroads graduates who have gone on to earn Masters and Doctorates and land impressive jobs. But she is just as proud of her elderly residents, such as Rebecca, who are experiencing themselves reborn and giving back by volunteering, and her graduates who have learned how to live simply, happily and productively on limited incomes. “My definition of success,” Sister Terry told me, “is that every woman who comes to Crossroads knows she is safe and loved.” And when it comes to the bigger picture, Sister Terry likes to quote the mission of her religious order, which is “to work toward a world healed, unified and transformed.”

That her work is doing just that has been proven by the change she has wrought in our city, from being a community that was afraid of her residents, to one that made her the Grand Marshal of our Fourth of July parade this year in honor of her transformative work with the Crossroads women.

At the end of our conversation, I spoke to Sister Terry in the vernacular of her faith, asking, “Do you believe we are ever going to create the kingdom of God on this earth?” To which she replied, “Aren’t we doing it already?

Uncommon Good’s farmer, Jose Garcia, with Sister Terry Dodge, the Executive Director of Crossroads, at our urban farm plot at the Crossroads home. Photo by Nancy Mintie