. . . Where worlds end with whimpers, not bangs


This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper. T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

THE BIG bang. The mushroom cloud. Nuclear incineration. One blast igniting more devastating conflagrations, effectively ending human life, or creating a planet where the "living envied the dead." This is still a distinct possibility. Nuclear madness lives and breathes and waits. Itchy, disturbed fingers still fondle nuclear triggers.

But for most of the people, most of the time, the world does not end with such immediacy. Death comes more slowly. Life is a series of whimpers.

Presently, we are concerned about the whimpers, the individualized endings of the world in Sowebo, Southwest Baltimore.

Since 1968 Viva House has been located in the unit block of South Mount Street. The neighborhood has always been poor, daily life always bitter. Gentrification and historic preservation gimmicks have not muted the whimpers.

Our neighbors have always been in struggle. People are always battling to stay one step ahead of the landlord, always running out of food, always losing or not even finding a job, always facing an eviction or doubling-up in some uninhabitable house with a friend or relative.

Today, too many people are running out of hope. Bruised people have become crushed people. In the Reagan/Bush years it has been an assault in broad daylight. Some of our neighbors will never recover. Despair has eaten away at the soul and ravaged the dignity, just as the rat gnaws away at the wood and plaster to gain access to the baby's bedroom.

Despair is always accompanied by violence. And in this country violence is a learned response. Have a problem? Follow the example of the U.S. government. Get a gun. Put negotiation strategies on a back burner. Bomb Iraq. Invade Panama and Grenada. Keep the war fires burning in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Send Haitians packing.

So when the headlines scream that Baltimore averages 300 murders each year, why be surprised? People are just following the example of the "leaders." And daily, people die. Not big bangs, mind you, just the whimpers of families trying to comprehend.

At Viva House we are trying to comprehend. Why, last October, were five men having a gunfight in the Stewart Hill Elementary School playground (directly across the street from us), while children were playing?

Why, a week later, was the security guard gunned down in the grocery store two blocks away? Why, last November, was a young teen-age woman raped and sent running naked down our alley at 5 p.m.? Why, just six weeks ago, were four people shot at on their way to church, just two blocks from our front steps?

It is painful and disheartening to admit that the violence is understandable. Drugs, alcohol, mental illness are all contributing factors. However, overwhelmingly, it is poverty that kills hope.

In Sowebo, basic dignity, solidarity with others and family bonds have been stripped naked. An entire generation is not planning a future. And, if you do not see yourself fitting into the Baltimore renaissance, why not disassociate from the so-called civilized society? Each time we serve a meager plate of food we bear witness to the gradual erosion of the human spirit.

For many young people employment is unattainable. Experts tell us there is a "work force gap." This is a polite expression to explain that in Baltimore the job skills and education level of the work force do not match up with the jobs currently available.

We have lost the traditional blue-collar jobs, where an honest day's work produced a livable full-time wage. More important, we have lost sight of the concept that work, when properly defined, benefits the common good and enhances the dignity of the worker.

Today, unless a person has at least two years of college education and the talent to work in "producer services" -- engineering, law, medicine, banking, etc. -- the only work available is part-time. So, basically, we have an army of fast-food jockeys and a "service economy," in which the working poor serve the needs of the upwardly mobile.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, provided the clearest insight when she insisted: "Don't invest money except in the poor. There you might expect a return." Clearly, we have not chosen this direction.

Brendan Walsh directs Viva House.

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