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She Feeds More Than Just Their Souls

THE WASHINGTON POST

Outside, the sunlight is fading across a field of uneven rooftops; inside, lounging on tasteful beige couches, are 25 people, each with AIDS, cancer or an equally deadly illness, or intimately involved with someone who is. Ganga Stone is passing newspaper clippings around her class, and soon the room is filled with laughter.

Here’s a clipping about a California woman swept to her death by a giant wave while scattering her mother’s ashes in the ocean. The class cackles. There’s another about the tenor who had a fatal heart attack onstage atop a ladder after singing an aria bemoaning the brevity of life.

“And here’s one of my favorites,” the 54-year-old Stone says merrily, waving a clipping on the untimely end of two evangelists squashed in a parking lot by a crashing plane. “Get this--the husband was in the extermination business!” The class bursts into raucous laughter.

Grief should be shadowing the walls of this SoHo loft where the dying and their loved ones come for solace, but Stone has banished it at the door. For the most part the class complies, succumbing to the notion that this casually dressed woman in chinos and a green oxford shirt is an authority on a matter most consider unknowable. Stone is convinced that she knows what happens when you die.

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“If you come to me and say, ‘Ganga, I’m dying,’ and I say, ‘I’m sorry,’ there’s two lies there,” she tells her class. “One is that you have a condition we don’t all have. The other is that it’s a drag to be dying.”

She has been leading these classes for seven years, soon after founding an organization to deliver hot meals to people with AIDS. God’s Love We Deliver, now has a $5.3-million budget, 63 full-time staffers and more than 2,000 volunteers to deliver about a thousand meals a day.

Stone has known hundreds of people now dead from AIDS. Each death only deepened her certainty that dying is nothing to fear. Death is “the mere fork in the road” at which the spirit parts company with the body and continues on, she says. She has laid out what she calls “the facts” like a mathematical proof in a book released this month called “Start the Conversation: The Book About Death You Were Hoping to Find” (Warner Books).

Yet this woman who so confidently preaches serenity in the face of death was devastated for more than a decade by her own mother’s tortured end. This feminist married a husband who hit her, and worshiped a guru who slapped her. This saint who built a charity that feeds thousands of suffering souls abandoned her own son to an alcoholic father. But Stone seems to have taken all these paradoxes and forged them into a rock-like faith that is consoling to some, infuriating to others and confounding to many.

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“If you can know that death is not annihilation, like I know that, then you have no reason to fear death,” she says, her words coming out in a torrent.

“How do you know that?” asks a young student.

She begins to describe what led to her epiphany about death. It was 1965, she was 23 and her mother, Winifred Stone--"the only person who could stand me in the family"--was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She had held her mother’s hand in the hospital as her breathing slowed and her body slowly turned blue.

For the next 11 years, Stone said, she was nearly paralyzed by grief. She married, had a son, divorced, found a guru--but found no joy in anything. Until one day when she was leaving a stint in an ashram in upstate New York and was trading addresses with a new friend. The friend went to write her name on a piece of paper but put down “Winifred Stone” in a handwriting not at all hers.

Stone stared at the paper, perplexed. Her friend hadn’t even known her mother’s name. “My mom’s hand was a big, bold hand, and there it was,” Stone said. That slip of paper she saw as proof that her mother, wherever she was, in whatever form, still existed.

As Stone concludes, the man is raising his eyebrows. Later, he says that his name is Victor and he spent two years nursing his lover, who died of AIDS complications in January. “I would love to believe in a higher being, and in life after death,” Victor says, “but you got more people who die and don’t tell us there’s life after death. . . . That to me is proof that you don’t come back.”

He keeps coming to class, drawn to Stone. Yet he resents her for trying to rob him of his grief. From the very first class, she made dying seem so trivial, Victor says. “Honestly, I felt like punching her out.”

*

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In the Bronx home where Ganga Stone--then Ingrid--grew up, there was “an active contempt for faith, not any sense whatsoever that this was a viable option for rational people,” she says. Winifred was a lapsed but wistful Lutheran; her husband, Hedley, was a Jew and Marxist labor organizer.

Hedley was physically abusive, and Winifred suffered a psychological breakdown and was institutionalized for three of Ganga’s teen years. Stone’s parents sent her to the Fieldston School in New York, a private academy run by the Ethical Culture Society, a movement that teaches that a person can be moral without believing in God. One of Stone’s closest friends at that time, Suzanne Braun Levine, remembers her as insecure, mixed-up and angry.

“I think she was angry that she didn’t fit in. I think she felt she didn’t fit in anywhere,” says Levine, now editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

After Fieldston, Stone went to Carleton College, but dropped out. She was a young woman with “huge energy but no ability to follow through,” Braun says, a disappointment compared with her sister, who was making her way brilliantly through medical school. Her parents were furious, and Stone stayed far from them in the Midwest, where she eventually found work in an autopsy lab. Fresh corpses were brought up from the basement on a creaky hand-pulled elevator, and Stone learned to master her gag reflex as she prepared tissues cut from body parts.

In the late ‘60s, Stone returned to New York and worked as a waitress at the hip Manhattan eatery Max’s Kansas City, married a busboy and gave birth to a son, Clement. She says her husband was a drinker who began abusing her on their wedding night. She took Clement and walked out on her husband after 13 months of marriage.

Depressed and soured on men, Stone took up the cause of militant feminism. At one feminist retreat, a yoga instructor handed her a small card printed with a mantra and a picture of Swami Muktananda, an Indian guru. On a lark, she accompanied a group of the guru’s devotees to greet him at Kennedy Airport in 1976. As he stepped off the plane, she says, she saw the embodiment of love.

“When I first laid eyes on him, I was gone,” she says. “I knew I was perfect in that love. I was part of that love. There was nothing wrong with me on any level.” In the receiving line, she fell on her knees before Muktananda and heard herself say, “May I serve you?” She tells this story without the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

It was then that she visited the ashram and saw what she is convinced was her mother’s signature on that piece of paper. Like an injection of anesthesia, she says the incident quieted the painful refrain that for more than a decade had run ceaselessly through her head: My mother died, my mother died, she’s gone.

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She left Clement behind, sold her possessions and in the summer of 1977 moved to Muktananda’s ashram in India. She meditated and allowed herself to be “dismantled, like an old Karmann Ghia,” she said. Still, she found herself intolerably sad. “I didn’t have just one problem,” she says. “I had a child I couldn’t connect with. I had a marijuana habit and a problem with cigarettes. . . .”

The guru renamed her Ganga--for the river Ganges. She called him Baba.

“I wept all day every day,” she says. “The job they gave me was laundry, and on the floor of the women’s bathhouse, a stone floor with cold water and harsh detergent and no gloves, and a scrub brush and greasy sheets and towels, I scrubbed for Baba. And I scrubbed and I wept, and I scrubbed and I wept.”

She went nine months without speaking. One morning as she was making her ritual bow before the guru, her heart wide open, he struck her hard across the back with his hand, she says. As she stood, reeling, she reflexively wound up to hit him back, but stopped herself. The next day as she bowed before him, the guru hit her again. Again she moved reflexively to swat him, but the impulse was weaker than the day before. The third day, he hit her again. This time, she had no impulse to strike back. “Somehow, with those three hits,” she says, “he took out of me the need to do the dance, to hit back.”

Stone doesn’t consider the slaps abuse, but says the guru helped clear a path to enlightenment.

She eventually returned to New York and worked odd jobs. When Muktananda died an old man in 1982, she says she “went crazy” over the loss and wore a red bindi--a small spot--on her forehead for a year.

Stone says that she did not experience the “leaden numbness” she felt when her mother died, the kind of grief that she now counsels others to dismiss. The guru had told his devotees he would be so much more with them after he died than in life. “I was like a third rail, alive with the awareness that Baba was everywhere,” Stone says.

She volunteered at a hospice in Gramercy Park. As part of her work, Stone delivered a bag of groceries to a man named Richard who was dying of AIDS complications. But he was too weak to prepare a meal and dumped the whole lot on the floor in a rage. Stone realized that day that dying people needed meals before they needed to talk with a hospice volunteer. Finally, she had discovered her mission. She named it God’s Love We Deliver.

In the beginning, she coaxed free meals from restaurants and delivered the food by bicycle. To support herself, she sold coffee and rolls from a cart on Wall Street. After a one-night affair with a coffee-cart client in 1986, she became pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter and named her Hedley, after her father. Stone is intensely attached, boasting of Hedley’s soccer team’s success. Only in recent years has she begun a rapprochement with Clement, now 25.

Stone’s passionate appeals attracted hundreds of volunteers to God’s Love We Deliver, from out-of-work actors to the Fifth Avenue crowd. Blaine Trump, sister-in-law of The Donald, has delivered meals. Joan Rivers has held fund-raisers at her house. Anyone with AIDS who calls and says they’re hungry gets a meal the next day. The meals are prepared in a gleaming new facility called Ganga’s Kitchen.

The God that Stone had in mind in naming the operation was neither Rama nor Allah nor Jesus nor Yahweh, she says. It was all of those. It was the eternal-energy, consciousness, the Supreme Truth.

Stone attends Catholic Mass each morning she can at a church in Saratoga Springs, about 180 miles from New York, where she now lives, having passed on the administrative reins of God’s Love to a new director. She’s “at home in any place that there’s that real love of God.”

Every other week, when she comes to the city to teach her class, she spends her lunch hour in Harlem at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. In the chancel there, in robes of cranberry and gold--which happen to have been Baba’s colors--is a gospel choir of recovering addicts swaying, clapping, singing hallelujah. She roams the pews, her salt-and-pepper ponytail bobbing to the beat, eyes closed, clapping to the rhythm, singing praise to Jesus.


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