After years of preaching racial reconciliation, a conservative black pastor tries practicing it. But seeking custody of a troubled white girl is only the latest chapter in their story of abuse, drugs, racism, greed and hope. 

The Godfather

It took eight days to bury Ruth Dixon, and when pouring rain threatened to collapse the graveside tent that finally covered her donated casket, the few people who turned out for her belated funeral last week just broke down and cried.

Cried for Ruth, and cried for Donna, her 12-year-old granddaughter, who haltingly read a poem to the woman she called "Mom." At least Ruth no longer had to suffer. But it was she who had taken care of Donna since her own daughter lost custody of the girl and disappeared into the underworld of addiction four years ago. Now Donna was alone again, and it seemed her anguish would only deepen.

She held the page uncertainly between two small fists and began to speak over the tempest. When Donna seemed in danger of floundering, Rev. Joe Ellison Jr.'s large, heavy arms steadied, even steered her through the treacherous syllables. Finally the brief ceremony was over, and with some relief Ellison said, "Amen." The others replied: "Amen."

When the last flower was laid atop the awful casket he led Donna slowly from the tent, wielding an umbrella against the downpour to the last car in their poignantly small procession. They made a striking pair against the gray sky: his giant form shielding hers while a current of dark rainwater licked at the white socks above her patent leather shoes.

Joe Ellison couldn't believe it. Three years ago, as he turned up Delmont Street in North Side near the community church he had founded in 1994, there was a white girl of 8 or 9 years fighting two black boys. Actually, she was beating them up.

"Wearing them out pretty good," he recalls. When he got out and hollered, the boys instantly recognized the pastor of Essex Village Community Church and scattered. Nine-year-old Donna didn't.

He asked her what the hell was going on; she wouldn't say. Finally she relented and let him take her home. Simple as that, their friendship had begun. "She's a strong-willed child, but I felt really drawn to her," Ellison says. "There was something there."

Soon Donna and sometimes her grandmother were attending Friday night services at Essex Village. They were living in the projects nearby, like most of the other congregants, but Donna and Ruth were more tolerated than welcomed. "The children will welcome anybody, but it's more the adults who have a little hesitation," says Ellison's wife, Kendra, who manages the church and its community center.

Still, the new members couldn't have been much of a surprise. The congregation knew Ellison was a conservative Republican and an admirer of white political and religious leaders from Gov. George Allen to Jerry Falwell. He was an early member of Promise Keepers, the cross-racial, fathers-be-true bunch. And Essex Village Church and Community Center was based on self-sufficiency, offering tutoring, job-placement and computer-training programs to help members avoid welfare. "I grew up in a Republican home," Ellison says. "My father didn't believe in no welfare, no affirmative action."

None of it endeared him to many of Richmond's other black church leaders, and it alienated some of the Ellisons' original parishioners, a small group of whom refused to worship with the increasing number of more affluent, suburban whites they were attracting. (At one point the Ellisons were the only blacks on the church's eight-member board.) Ellison also made no secret about working with the police to help clean up Essex Village. But despite the internal friction and the harassment from neighborhood drug dealers, who threatened him at gunpoint and put sugar in his gas tank, he kept doing things his way.

When Donna was baptized at age 10, there wasn't any question about who her godfather would be. The Ellisons knew from Ruth that Donna's father had committed suicide in 1990 after allegations of sexual abuse and that her mother had disappeared shortly thereafter. The Ellisons made sure the girl got birthday and Christmas presents. And as Donna's grandmother struggled with the diabetes and heart disease that finally claimed her, Donna was a frequent guest in the Ellisons' otherwise childless home. This summer, when Ruth was hospitalized several times and then admitted for surgery to amputate a gangrenous leg, Donna, who by then had been taking care of her grandmother more often than the other way around, essentially moved in with the Ellisons.

A few days before she died, Ruth called Ellison from the hospital. Her voice was strange: "'Pastor, if anything happens to me, could you please take care of Donna? I want her to stay with you and Sister Kendra.' That's still haunting me," he says.

Ruth died Sept. 13; the funeral, such as it was, came Sept. 21. "We would have had it earlier but I had to go out and raise money for this thing," Ellison says. "I couldn't get a single black funeral home to help out." Instead, his white Republican connections came through: The funeral home that bears Congressman Tom Bliley's family name donated all but 10 percent of the $4,000 in expenses it incurred. Black and white church members, family, neighbors and others pitched in for the $1,200 plot at Mount Calvary Cemetery, Ellison adds.

He, Kendra and Donna returned to Ruth's grave on the sun-scrubbed, wind-swept day after the funeral. The sagging tent, the artificial turf carpet and the folding chairs were gone. Only a scar in the earth showed them where she lay. They stood a few moments and hugged one another on the marshy sod alongside the mud-and rain-filled ditch that held the coffin. Before they got back in the car and left, Kendra helped Donna wipe the muck from her new white Reeboks.

Donna is a special education student in Henrico County. She is often depressed and occasionally very angry and takes Prozac, Ellison says. The second day of school this year, she got into a fight with a girl who teased her for acting black and was suspended. She has not returned to class and the Ellisons hope to get her into another county middle school — eventually a private school "where she can get more one-on-one attention," Ellison says.

That all depends on what say the Ellisons will have over Donna. When Ruth died, her long-time boyfriend and his sister took Donna to the sister's home in Louisa County. Ellison found out where she was and got her back that night, but he says Donna told him they talked to her about how they all would spend the Social Security money, about $400 a month, she had received since her father's death, and guessed at what her grandmother's death might bring in.

Ruth's boyfriend and sister were unavailable for comment. Donna says she gets along with them, although Ellison notes she spent two weeks in a Charter Westbrook center after pulling a knife on the boyfriend when he says Donna alleges the boyfriend hit her grandmother.

Ellison says Donna's blood relatives also are "starting to come out of the woodwork." He says they seem to justify their greed by their racism — they don't want Donna "raised by a couple of n----rs," Ellison says he has been told.

Until Donna's custody is resolved, Social Security has stopped the payments. (The Ellisons say they would deposit the money into a trust account for Donna's education.) The Ellisons obtained temporary, 90-day custody of Donna from the Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court the day after the funeral last week. While they want Donna, and Donna says she wants them ("'Cause they treat me good," she murmurs), the Ellisons still are willing to cooperate with her family. "I'm the only daddy she knows," Ellison says. "But of course I want her to be proud of her culture, to see her family. I want them to have visitation rights."

But he adds Donna has no local relatives capable of caring for her, and the only couple he would feel comfortable taking Donna is an aunt and uncle, Christine and Dale Murray, who live with their four children in rural western Maryland. "They seem to be very pleasant people, very interested in Donna," he says. "I think they're sincere."

Christine Murray says she's torn over what to do. She's going to meet Ellison this week in Fredericksburg to talk about it. For now, she alternates. The temporary custody order "upsets me because we are her family."

"I am thankful for [the Ellisons] because if it weren't for them I don't know where she'd be," she adds. "I'm glad they are taking care of her now, but we'd like to have her here, with us."

She says the Ellisons' race "doesn't really bother me ... we've been raised around that, too." She just wants what's best for Donna.

"I don't know. I feel bad. She only knows [Richmond], but I really would like her to come up here," she says. "I just feel bad for her. I just want to do what makes her happy, 'cause she has had a rough life."

If the Murrays or any other relatives contest the Ellisons' custody and desired adoption of Donna, it could take months to more than a year to settle the matter. "It's going to be very lengthy because they're not related," says Lynne Edwards, director of Coordinators/2, Inc., a local adoption agency. "The courts do tend to look at blood relatives first."

Edwards adds that in order for the Ellisons to adopt Donna, a judge will have to terminate her mother's rights. That means the judge could first decide attempts should be made to find the mother, which could add at least 90 days to the process for legal notices to be published in newspapers near Baltimore, where she was last known to live.

Ellison says he thinks he can work with the Murrays. "I think once they sit down and meet us, come down and have dinner, they'll see.

"I'm Donna's godfather. I'm just trying to fulfill her grandmother's dying wish," he adds. "'Take care of my baby.' That thing is haunting me and I have to do

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