S. African tries to build bridges


St. Frances Academy, the oldest black Catholic high school in the United States, stands in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods of East Baltimore -- in the shadow of the gothic horror that is the Maryland Penitentiary.

This is an institution that has always remained true to its mission -- spiritually and physically.

A black woman founded the school in 1828 to educate the children of escaped slaves, electing always to work in the community that needed her most.

And St. Frances Academy remains there still -- in a 121-year-old building-- ministering, educating, nurturing the children of the poor and disadvantaged.

Today, close to 90 percent of its graduates go on to college. Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, the school's founder, has been nominated for sainthood.

But serving the poor reaps spiritual, not financial rewards.

And so, on Monday, there will be a major fund-raising dinner on the academy's behalf. The money raised will go toward scholarships for the most needy students and for everyday operating expenses.

And now that I have identified the cause, I will reveal that the keynote speaker at this dinner will be Harry H. Schwarz, the South African ambassador to the United States.

Yes, the South African ambassador to the United States -- the apartheid regime's highest-ranking official on these shores; the representative of the one country in all the world that has been most at war with human decency and justice, the one country in all the world whose policies seem most at odds with all of the things that Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange stood for.

Yet Harry H. Schwarz, who assumed his post here last month, is by all accounts a unique individual with a peculiar background for a South African ambassador and those peculiarities make his appearance here on St. Frances' behalf oddly appropriate.

Schwarz is a Jewish man of German descent who has spent his entire political career campaigning against apartheid. He was a member of the defense team for African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. He is the first anti-apartheid activist in South Africa ever elevated to senior ambassadorial status.

And, in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last month, Schwarz articulated a vision that seemed as appropriate for communities like East Baltimore as for Soweto, South Africa.

One man, one vote alone, he said, "will not fill an empty stomach, nor will a constitution put a roof over the heads of the homeless." Programs that promote equality in education, jobs creation, economic entrepreneurship, are equally important.

"I must and will work to ensure that the new democratic South Africa has a fair chance to succeed economically as well as politically, and to try to assist in fulfilling at least a part of the dream of the oppressed and deprived when the new South Africa is born," he concluded.

No recent candidate for president here has spoken better.

"I have to be honest," said Sister Barbara Spears, the school's president. "There were a lot of mixed feelings about this, a lot of concerns. We certainly see ourselves as connected with our African heritage, and the last thing we wanted was to be seen supporting something against our own people."

"But," continued Spears, "the more we researched the more we learned that he has always been consistently against apartheid. And, for a small school like ours, to have any ambassador helping to keep our dream alive is a really special blessing."

The policy of the anti-apartheid movement here has been to attempt to isolate South Africa politically, economically and socially and I support that. But if isolation is too complete, it is impossible for either side to grow and to learn about the other.

"I truly believe things happen out of the grace of God for some reason," said Spears, "and so there must be something providential about this. For some reason, we are going to have this man at a fund-raiser for us and, although I may not understand it all, I'm accepting it as a blessing and for that I am grateful."

Monday's dinner will certainly prove to be a blessing for the school.

It could also be a first step toward building a bridge between the white people of South Africa and the black people of America.

Why do we need such a bridge? Why do any peoples need bridges.

In this case, lifting the isolation for one night will be more of a blessing than a harm.

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