Citywide initiative connects worship centers, residents

Calling on the city's religious institutions to do the work that government cannot, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced a new faith-based initiative Thursday aimed at reconnecting congregants at Baltimore's churches, synagogues and mosques with neighborhoods and residents.

The "Awaken Baltimore" initiative asks congregants to devote one Thursday or Friday of each month for the next year to engaging the communities surrounding their places of worship through volunteer work. Religious institutions, Rawlings-Blake said, can help the cash-strapped government and police reduce violence.

"Faith without work is dead," Rawlings-Blake said. "The challenges we face today from crime and poverty are too big for City Hall to handle alone."

She pointed out Ark Church, the site of Thursday's announcement, where caretaker Milton Hill was killed in July, just days after the killing of Stephen Pitcairn, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. Their deaths, Rawlings-Blake said, were an "outrage" but also a turning point, making clear that violence can touch innocent lives.

Kevin Slayton, the mayor's liaison to the city's faith community, said at least 33 Baltimore religious institutions have commited to the initiative. Rawlings-Blake was joined Thursday by leaders of synagogues and mosques as well as the city's churches.

Slayton said the outreach program will help bridge a gap between congregants and the worship center's neighborhood residents.

"A lot of our churches have become commuter churches," Slayton said, with congregants traveling from homes outside the city to worship in Baltimore. "Through this initiative we're asking them to go and sort of meet the folks who are living in the shadows of those temples."

The Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr. of New Shiloh Baptist Church in the Mondawmin neighborhood said he and about 10 other pastors in his area were contacted by the mayor's office a few months ago to start talks on the faith-based project.

The initiative, Carter said, is aimed at removing "a certain disconnect between city government and the faith-based community, as well as the neighborhoods," which he attributed to a lack of communication.

After the killings of Hill and Pitcairn this summer, about 16 churches in the Oliver neighborhood, including Ark Church, launched their own volunteer effort.

Carl Stokes, the city councilman who helped organize "Operation Good Faith" and who represents the area where the killings occurred, said that since early October, congregants of member churches have been walking the blocks around each church, clearing out weeds and debris and reporting on problems and criminal activity.

Walter Barham, director of operations for Zion Baptist Church, said about 20 people participate in each week's walk and help police in the Eastern District protect the area more effectively.

"The Police Department can't do their job alone," Barham said. "They need the help of churches and neighborhoods and everything to clean up and keep an eye on things."

Stokes said church members hope to meet with Maj. Melvin Russell, the Eastern District commander, this month to discuss their findings.

"We're very proud that we started this initiative, and that now the mayor is going to take it citywide, it feels very good to us," Stokes said, adding that he expects there will be some coordination between the East Baltimore efforts and the citywide campaign.

Previous editions of this article misreported the number of religious sites in the city that have committed to the initiative. Around 33 have committed, not 75. Representatives of 75 religious institutions RSVP'd to the event announcing the initiative.

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