I got lost on the way to the church.
A few weeks ago, I was heading down Wolfe Street into the complex that is Johns Hopkins Hospital when I drove past Ashland Street. I had to stop at a Citgo station for directions to get back on track.
There it was — the City of Hope Missionary Baptist Church — a two-story building that shared a block with some of the vast medical encampment that is both swallowing and saving East Baltimore. Just beyond the church were abandoned rowhomes, some of them roofless, all of them boarded up.
This particular weekend marked City of Hope's fifth anniversary. Upstairs in the sanctuary, families of all ages gathered for worship. Visitors had to stand to be recognized, and congregants came around to hug us and welcome us to the service. "God bless you," they said again and again. "God bless you."
And then the singing began. The middle school choir from Sisters Academy of Baltimore, where I work, was early in the lineup. Ten girls in white uniform blouses and black skirts or pants, looking as sincere as one should look when singing in church. This was one of their first outings as a group.
I sat next to Natasha, one of our mothers, and we clapped and tapped our feet and sang along (when we knew the words). Her daughter Perlita kept her eyes completely on the choir director and sang with the open-faced emotion that only a child can muster, a happy cherub in a choir of angelic voices.
One by one, different groups came forward to sing and dance in the front of this sanctuary. The music overpowered any sounds from the city outside, the beat thumped away any remnant worries carried into church that afternoon. We sang on.
The space grew hot and I had to take off my scarf. Across the aisle, two women broke out paper fans and began swatting the air. Still we sang and clapped.
Two hours passed. The service went on, but I had to go home and cook dinner for my children.
"Be safe," our choir director told me as I stepped out into the twilight. I walked right down the deserted street, knowing that it was safer to be there than on the sidewalk by those boarded-up buildings, where somebody could be hiding in the shadows.
City of Hope.
About 100 years ago, Baltimore was the umbrella capital of the world. It's true, we were the city that manufactured the most umbrellas. Back then, all kinds of things were built in Baltimore.
More than 70 years ago, my grandfather left his family farm in southern Virginia to work in Baltimore's steel factories. During World War II, he labored around the clock building battleships. By the time the conflict was over, he and my grandmother had paid off their house and all of the furniture they had bought on loan.
These were the years when Charm City was a great place to live if you wanted a job.
I grew up hearing stories about these times — and about a relative who helped rebuild the city after the great fire in 1904, about a great-grandmother who studied at MICA (before it was MICA) and worked for a photographer.
These days, Baltimore is well known for "The Wire." Two years ago, we had a fundraiser for our school and David Simon, the show's creator, participated in the event. The emcee introduced him as "the man who single-handedly ruined tourism in the city."
Everybody, and I mean everybody — black, white, old, young — laughed and clapped. We got it.
Sometimes I wish I could have seen the city back when my grandmother was a little girl roller-skating down Park Heights Avenue, and Bing Crosby and other Hollywood celebrities rode past in chauffeured Rolls Royces on their way to Pimlico racetrack.
But sometimes I forget that this isn't a time of prosperity. Oh, don't get me wrong; I know the economy is bad, and I can worry about money in every waking hour of the day when given the chance.
I know that vast swaths of Baltimore lie in ruins of gutted homes and poverty, that we need more than Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Under Armour and our good sports teams.
I know all this. But it's hard not to catch a spirit of hopefulness when 50 people clapping and singing in a shabby church in the shadow of a giant hospital in a nearly abandoned neighborhood feel like a lantern on a dark night.
It's hard not to see that those who named this little church knew what they were doing.
City of Hope.
Jessica Gregg is the director of graduate support at Sisters Academy of Baltimore. Her blog is charmcitywriter.wordpress.com.