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Couple's Nuptials a Hiatus From Life on the Streets

She had heard all the lines, knew all the games. So when Dante White's first words to Nhiahni Chestnut were "I want you to be my wife," his chances did not seem strong.

"I said, 'You are really putting it out there,' " Nhiahni recalls. But her retort came with a smile. Something about Dante made his preposterous opening line seem not just plausible, but a downright heart-melter.

Such are the mysteries of love: Come Saturday, Dante and Nhiahni will marry. People will journey from every corner of Washington to see them exchange vows -- wealthy Georgetowners and people who live on the city's rough edges, all joining hands to celebrate the marriage of two gentle souls whose only address is the steam grates in the shadow of the U.S. Department of the Interior headquarters.

This is, says the Rev. John Graham, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in the heart of Georgetown, a story of love -- of two people who have survived for nine years by leaning on each other through their misfortunes, and of a congregation coming together to add joy to lives of enormous difficulty.

For some months now, Dante, 28, and Nhiahni, 38, have attended Grace's Table, the church's Saturday program of lunch and Bible discussion. Dante likes it because Grace is one of the few churches that let him use their facilities to wash up. Over time, church members got to know Dante and Nhiahni and learned of their quiet yearning to be together forever.

It was church member Margaret Davis who started the ball rolling, taking the couple to Virginia to buy a ring. Then the wedding planning snowballed. Lenore Reid brought Nhiahni to shop for a gown. Dante will wear a tux, thanks to Jason Studl. The invitations are printed, elegant lilac cards in formal script. The reception will feature a three-tiered wedding cake, made by Kristin Killoran, and music by two of Washington's finest jazz professionals, Marshall Keys and Herman Burney. The newlyweds will have a honeymoon, two nights at the Key Bridge Marriott, a gift from church members and the hotel.

Peabo Dante White, who says he has lived mostly on the street since he was 14, and Nhiahni Abeena Chestnut, who has six children living with relatives in three states, have led complicated lives. Dante, who never finished at the District's vocational public high school and spent some time in jail, struggles to find words to express himself. Chestnut, who started college but detoured into drug problems, says she has been clean for several years. They share Dante's $675-a-month disability check, a result of his mental illness, but they remain stuck on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

Their Washington is a circuit of breakfasts from meal trucks, alleys and building vestibules that provide a few hours of shelter before men in uniforms come along, and hiding places where they try to keep cherished belongings from National Park Service cleaning crews. It doesn't always work: A few weeks ago, all of Dante and Nhiahni's clothing and documents vanished in a park cleanup.

When they were first together, Dante and Nhiahni rode city buses from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. each night, back and forth, trying to stay warm, sleeping as best they could while sitting up straight. "The bus drivers would never say anything as long as we sit up," Nhiahni says. But she got tired of never being able to lie down, so they found a park, near Union Station, then another, on E Street NW. The city's shelters were out of the question: Both of them had been jumped, robbed and harassed there.

"We stay by ourselves, to each other," Dante says. They live in fear, especially since their friend, Yoshio Nakada, a homeless man who sang to his fellow citizens of the street, was murdered, beaten in his sleeping bag across from the Watergate complex last Christmas Eve. For protection, Dante and Nhiahni depend on Missy, their chocolate-brown pit bull. Dante found Missy, bone-thin and whimpering, in a trash bin outside a Georgetown McDonald's. Dante says he has never known a love like he has for Missy -- well, maybe for the woman he has long called "my wife."

Missy brings safety, company and money. "It's tears in my eyes when I saw her first time, her bones," Dante says. "On the street, I don't ask for nothing. Never. But people give me money because Missy is there. I go out with Missy and people say, 'Are you homeless? Is your dog homeless?' I don't want to use my dog, but people want to give to her. I got $45 one day."

Nhiahni has had a string of short-term jobs; she was a cashier for the Washington Nationals when they were still playing at RFK Stadium. But like Dante, she's been unable to find work the past couple of years.

"People ask for your address, your number they can call," Dante says. "All things I don't know."

After next weekend, the tux goes back to the shop, the cake will be eaten, the hotel stay will end. The people of Grace Church want to make this a glorious week, then focus on helping the couple live under a roof instead of over a grate.

Dante is tired of the sidewalks. "My plan is to find a place to make my family safe and get a key and you can go in and out," he says.

Nhiahni hopes marriage will help them qualify for subsidized housing. "I know, after everything dies down, we'll still be on the outside. But I still can't wait for the wedding day. I just know I'll be crying and laughing and crying all together."

By Marc Fisher |  April 26, 2009; 10:18 AM ET  | Category:  City life , Family , Social services , The District
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I would like to thank you, Mr. Fisher, for printing this story "Couple's Nuptials a Hiatus From Life on the Streets". The story touched my heart as I'm sure it has done for so many of your readers. I hope and wish with all my love that Nhiahni and Dante' find peace and happiness in their new life together.

I was initially ecstatic that through all of my sisters' life issues, she was able to find GOD and a man, that would love her unconditionally. There is however, a second emotion that was brought forward when reading this article, outrage! A slap in the face if you may! Thanks for the consideration.

I am outraged that as a member of Nhiahni's immediate family, and one of her siblings helping to support and raise one of her six children, that I and her daughter nor any of her other family, including her parents were not informed or invited to share in this special moment in Nhiahni's life. I certainly didn't receive one of those formally written lilac notes in the mail.

Everyone, including my parents who provide for Nhiahni's two youngest children, has sacrificed everything financially and emotionally to keep Nhiahni and her children involved in each others lives. Graduations, Christmas', Thanksgivings', summer breaks, whatever it takes. It brought tears to her daughters' eyes, which causes me problems,to read the newspaper to find out that her mother is to be married. She asks,"When was she going to say something to us?" "Why weren't we invited?"

It makes me wonder who was invited? Is this what we deserve as her loving supportive family, to open a newspaper to learn of her wedding?

Thank you once again for sharing your article with the world. Otherwise, her family may never have known.

Peace and Blessings.

Posted by: fcnut06 | April 26, 2009 7:52 PM

This is a wish for peace happiness and most of all success to Nhiahni and Dante, and congratulations on this momentous occasion. How exciting it is to have a spring wedding in the heart of Georgrtown with guests traveling from every corner of Washington to see them exchange vows-- wealthy Georgetowners and people who live on the city's rough edges. Does this include Nhiahni's six children? How nice is must be to have a wedding planned by a professional wedding planner with no expenses spared. How warm, excited and filling must Rev. John Graham and Margaret Davis feel as they finalize all of the preparations. How commendable for Lenore Reid and Jason Studl to step up and be so generous, it warms my heart. Elegant lilac cards in formal script will be a keepsake for all of the invited guests. I can only imagine how tasty and beaufiful the three-tiered cake, made by such an accomplished pastry chef as Kristin Killoran will be. And to be musically accompanied by Marshall Keys and Herman Burney is the musical treat second to none. This will be talked about about in Washington circles for years to come. But, what about those six children? Are they invited to the wedding? Are one of her two daughters going to be given the opportunity and privilege to participate in such a grand affair? What about her four sons, two who live right here in Washington, DC? It might be a little difficult for the two older sons to get here from college, especially since this around finals time. And what about the parents of the bride and groom? Isn't it customary for the father to give away the bride. I'm sure Ms. Davis made sure that she got those lilac invitations to Nhiahni's parents. What about the bride three sisters and two brothers? Are there brides maids and groomsmen? Maybe these people don't matter or are too busy raising the six children to break away from such mundane tasks. But please let the world know, especially the "wealthy Georgetowners" that the children are doing fine. Let Marshall Keys and Herman Burney know that the two youngest boys are musicians and are here in Washington, DC. Let Lenore Reid know that there is fifteen year old daughter in high school who would love to dress up and look like a princess. And please let the world know that the youngest daughter is a straight A student in fifth grade who is a state scholastic champion. As the reception winds down, and the honeymoon ends and all of the guests return home knowing that they have celebrated a union, please let them know that there are six children who would have loved to have been invited to see their mom achieve some happiness after having so much pain. Cheers.

Dennis Chestnut
Father of the Bride
202-396-7340

Posted by: dtsdtw | April 27, 2009 7:41 AM

Wow. I am very moved to read the comments from the bride's family. My heart is breaking to think of the bride's children not being included in this wedding.

What is the story behind this? Mr. Fisher, will you follow up on the situation as it develops and keep your readers informed?

Posted by: JenPam2003 | April 28, 2009 5:23 AM

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