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Creating a life: Sister Judy’s life at Alexandria House

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Sister Judy Vaughn

“It’s starting. We’re starting,” calls out Sister Judy Vaughn, walking out of the kitchen at Alexandria House, a transitional home for homeless women and children.

Her thin-framed rectangular glasses are way up on her snowy white short hair, bangs hanging over a handsome seasoned face. In her violet short-sleeve, button-up jersey and faded jeans, the 70-year-old looks more like a with-it college prof leading an urban field trip than a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet directing a three-ring community circus on this Saturday morning in early April. 

Others standing around the dining room table finish loading up their paper plates from warm-smelling platters of eggs with spinach and cheese, turkey and pork sausages, hash browns, donuts and croissants. Then they amble into the semi-dark front living room of the three-story, turn-of-the-century, pale green-shingled house on a once stately street lined with 50-foot-tall skinny palms and now an eclectic mix of apartments. 

On billowing cloths hanging from the wood-trimmed ceiling are words like “determined,” “patience,” “trust,” “happiness,” “love” and “home.” The wood-plank floor is covered by a sprawling worn-patterned throw rug. Late morning sunshine doesn’t make it inside, blocked out by the covered porch with stubby grey stone columns.

Fifteen women sit on all kinds of chairs and a comfy couch arranged in a racetrack oval. Most are Latinas or African-American, and young. After a muscle-relaxing, deep-breathing centering exercise led by a staff member, they introduce themselves by first name.

Sister Judy says, “This is my favorite meeting in all the world because it demonstrates life after Alexandria House.”

Because there’s a reporter here doing a profile of the director, the women — mostly former residents but a few current ones, too, along with a couple Alexandria staff members — are asked to describe the nun in one word. Which they do: “persistent,” “selfless,” “TLC” [tender loving care], “kind,” “faith-filled,” “brilliant,” “encouraging,” “enabling” and “relatable-to-everyone.”

But a few just can’t keep it to a single word. “I’ve never known Judy to say ‘no,’” reports one alum. Another quips, “She spoils all of us.” And another: “The only time I’ve ever seen her get mad is when somebody messes with her women.”

When it comes back around to Sister Judy, she makes a face like she’d rather be talking about anything else. “I’m the woman I am because of the women I relate to and connect with,” she points out in an easy-going, cordial voice. “Those things I have experienced and understood more deeply by meeting and living with women who’ve come through this house. And I think personally what’s really important is who we choose to connect with in terms of who impacts our lives.”   

 

Change and conversion

Three months after graduating from St. Mary’s Academy in 1963, the upper-middle-class teenager with the tony Hancock Park background entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who founded and ran the all-girls’ high school in Inglewood. And the then-semi-cloistered religious experience just heightened the sheltered Catholic life she’d lived up until then, even with civil rights marches, anti-Vietnam war protests and feminist movements cropping up all over the nation.

“Can you believe, we didn’t even know who the Beatles were in the convent,” she admits, shaking her head and smiling. And two years later, the novices watched nearby Watts go up in flames, but from the protective lens of TV.

Vatican II, however, started shaking things up in her sedate Catholic world.

So did graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College with a major in sociology and minor in psychology in 1968, and later a master’s degree in sociology from San Diego State University plus a doctorate in religious social ethics from the University of Chicago. 

After teaching in parochial school and getting her master’s, she returned to the Mount to teach. But she also volunteered at the House of Ruth in East L.A., helping women and children traumatized by domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Sister Judy was also becoming more and more an activist against U.S. involvement in Central American conflicts. In 1980, the killing of four churchwomen, three of them women religious, in El Salvador affected her deeply. The evening of her 25th jubilee as a sister she spent in the war-racked country protecting supporters of “liberation theology” from right-wing forces.

Waves from her novitiate class were leaving the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. But she stayed, resigning from Mount St. Mary’s faculty and becoming director of the House of Ruth. A profound religious experience she’d had on the roof of the community’s Carondelet Center back in 1968 — her “conversion moment” — kept her from leaving.

The young Sister Judy had felt boxed in. Emotionally, intellectually and spiritually drained, she climbed outside to cry and decide what she was going to do. And when she looked out from the hills of Bel-Air to the Pacific Ocean, God’s unconditional love hit her like a bucket of ice water. This love and her response to it, she realized, could never be restrained by Church rules, no matter how controlling and chafing they were.

 

Three-fold vision

All this led to her starting up Alexandria House 20 years ago with the help of a dozen other women. Her vision was clear and three-fold. First, to be a transitional home for single women and women with children moving from emergency shelters to permanent housing. Second, to be a vibrant neighborhood center. And, third, to be a place for grassroots advocacy to change injustices keeping women and their families in lifelong poverty.

“When I moved into the 426 (green) house on May 1, 1996, I immediately felt at home, even though it reminded me of a college dorm at the end of the school year — tired and in need of some tender loving care,” she recalled in its 2013-2014 annual report. “The task of preparing the house for the families who soon would be living there seemed overwhelming. However, I made this commitment to the house — ‘We promise we will take good care of you, if you take good care of those of us who will be living here.’ By Sept. 21 we were ready to welcome our first guests into a warm home.”

Those first residents have become 182 women and families who’ve lived at Alexandria House from two weeks to two years.

When Sister Judy is asked if those long-ago goals got accomplished, there’s a moment of silence.

“Yes and no,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s definitely has become a house of hospitality. It has definitely become, if you ask people in the neighborhood, a safe place to come. It really is a neighborhood center.”

But then her voice drops. “The third piece we wanted, though, was to really work to address the issues that are keeping people living in poverty,” she says. “And, it’s not that I ever thought we were going to end issues of homelessness. But to have some impact.”

She points out how the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority recently showed how homelessness has risen in practically every target population, especially among the chronically homeless, many surviving in burgeoning street encampments across the city and county.

“So, the systemic change work we hoped for …” her words trailing off. “And with the tenor right now of the political scene and just some of the really horrendous things that are being said about people who are poor and struggling or coming here to just build a better life because of the U.S. policies in their country, you know, it’s sort of bizarre. We’re in a crisis situation.” And after a sigh, “So that goal is probably never ending.”

 

Community builder

On this SoCal sunny Saturday morning, Sister Judy is now out back of the green house, which has a matching carriage house-style garage. Three Hispanic women have set up rows of women’s shoes, cardboard boxes of glasses and cups, tables with kitchenware, bathroom items and toys, plus a dozen plastic tubs of women’s and children’s clothes for the monthly pre-sale for residents and neighbors. Everything is free. Next weekend the thrift sale will be for real, with a wider audience.

“What is my role here? Oh, that’s a great question,” she says to me with another chuckle. “Well, besides being the ‘director,’ whatever that all means, I think I’ve been very blessed to have some good experiences of community, you know, both in my family growing up, but then as a CSJ [Sister of St. Joseph of Carondalet]. So I think what I see my role is partly it’s to be a community builder. But interesting enough what I find, it’s not even my role that’s important. For me it’s how I live out my commitment, my vocation.

“And I’m challenged all the time by the women that I live with to understand what it means to live simply, what it means to be generous, what it means to live the Gospel message. And part of our charism as a Sister of St. Joseph is love of neighbor without distinction. And I think all of us who live here try hard to demonstrate that there are ways for people to come together against a lot of differences and create a strong network of support. So, I may have a role here. But for me, what is so much more important is what I get out of living here.”

Still, Sister Judy seems like she’s everywhere this morning, or at least able to bi-locate. She’s in the green house’s kitchen, talking to the cook and chatting with volunteer students from Mount St. Mary’s College. She’s keeping an eye on cars parked in the cement driveway, worried about who’s blocking who. She’s going back to her office on the second floor of the yellow house to check on emails and phone messages. And then she is coming outside again to answer more of my queries.

When I ask how she’s done this for two decades, she just laughs.

“I have to admit, I might get tired but I have not ever felt burned out,” she says. “I’m not saying there aren’t moments of struggle here. But we talk about conflict resolution — how to do it in ways that can remain respectable. But I tell the women, they’re the miracle. That here they’ve come together and understand that there’s so much more that connects us than divides us.

“And then, I think if you’re challenged by other people to rise to a level that all of us aspire to, then I think it works,” she adds. “It works. And it has worked.”

 

‘Learning how to play’

What’s really worked for Sister Judy Vaughn is a 17-year-old senior at Immaculate Heart High School named Raynisha. She and Theresa Simpson — a longtime staffer and the current financial empowerment coordinator of resident services at Alexandria House — have co-parented her since she was four days old. Raynisha and the nun live across from each other on the second floor of the yellow house.

“I thought I understood kids. I was a teacher all of my life,” she points out, standing on the front porch now. “But there’s something about being a mom that is just a totally unique experience. People say, ‘Well, Raynisha is so lucky to have …’ blah, blah, blah. But actually, she saved my life by helping me learn how to play. And really helping me understand unconditional love.

“People say, ‘You’re a nun?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ ‘But you have a kid?’ I say, ‘Look, yes, I’m a nun. Yes, I have a kid. So I guess nuns can have kids.’”

And she breaks up before adding, “Raynisha keeps me humble, especially now as a teenager. For me, it’s helped me clarify my own values. I don’t think parents ever share how hard it really is, because then maybe nobody would have kids.

“But the flip side of that is that she has saved my life in a million ways.”

Raynisha, who has dark hair almost to her waist, says she has no problem sharing her mom with others staying in the nine bedrooms at the two houses along with alums in a network of connected low-cost apartments and even families from the neighborhood. 

In fact, the teenager, who wants to go to Mount St. Mary’s College to study nursing, believes it’s all pretty cool.

“I think she just makes it feel like a home here for everybody,” she says. “So, like, everybody needs a second chance. And when they get it and get on their feet, that is her main goal. That makes her happy. So I feel like she really provides, like, motherly home vibes to everybody who lives here. I feel she’s doing a really good job. She always has for years.”

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