A rock to cling to after the storm


Harlem Park is one of those West Baltimore neighborhoods that is supposed to be without hope. The kind with crack dealers on street corners and old men drinking cheap wine on doorsteps. A neighborhood that would fall apart if disaster ever struck.

That's what people who don't live in Harlem Park might think. But those who live there know better. When the tornadoes that touched down Tuesday left many in West Baltimore without food or shelter, they found hope in Harlem Park at Unity United Methodist Church.

Wyoming Carter, who was born in Virginia, has been a member of Unity UMC for 35 of her 80 years. Stirring a pot of chicken and rice in the church kitchen yesterday, she talked about how natural it was for Unity to become a Red Cross relief center after the storms.

"We just try to do what needs to be done," she said. "We have a pastor [the Rev. Norman A. Handy] who always helps people. He believes in coming to your rescue."

Ida Hudson, a Red Cross coordinator, said 270 people had been helped by various public assistance agencies that set up shop at the church after the tornadoes. Temporary shelter was found for 18 of the 65 families that sought housing or other assistance at Unity.

Mrs. Carter said the church has for years been providing a soup kitchen for the homeless.

Another church member, Avon Burrell, reported that the soup kitchen had been serving 200 to 300 people every Wednesday before food donations slowed down earlier this year. But the church was receiving plenty of food yesterday -- fruit, canned goods and other nonperishables, as well as clothing for people who had lost theirs in the storm.

Everything was being collected on site and distributed by members of two of the new Americorps programs -- Civic Works and the National Civilian Community Corps (CCC) -- which are part of President Clinton's voluntary service project that helps participants pay their college tuition.

Brooke Harvey, 20, a CCC volunteer from Boston, said the young people had helped with damage assessment after the storms, )) determining what assistance a family might need and referring it to the appropriate agency's representative at the church.

Mary Ellen Trimiglozzi, a member of Civic Works from Montgomery County, said the volunteers also were picking up furniture from damaged houses and delivering it to storage sites where it will be kept while the structures are being repaired.

"There aren't that many people at the church now; most of them have already had their cases filed and been assigned to shelters or hotels," Miss Harvey said.

Indeed, the 40 or more volunteers at the church yesterday far exceeded the 15 to 20 storm victims who were still being helped.

Most were people who had already been assigned temporary shelter and were back to find out about a permanent place to stay.

Mr. Burrell, 64, of the 1000 block of Payson St., said he works at the church every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, mostly helping to clean up.

He arrived Wednesday to find the church a hubbub of activity providing help to tornado victims. "I'm usually off today, but I decided to come back and just pitch in wherever I'm needed," he said.

"This is fantastic, what is happening here. This church believes in helping people who need it."

Unity, founded in 1929, was known during the Depression as the place to which you could always go to get a bowl of soup and a sandwich.

Its pastor then, the Rev. Levi B. Miller Sr., operated a store across the street from the church and often sold food for a promise to pay later.

Such charitable traditions have since continued.

The church has a program to help recovering substance abusers; it has an AIDS ministry, a program for former prison inmates, and it has bought six run-down houses in the neighborhood that it will renovate and resale.

Unity didn't escape damage from the storms Tuesday.

Repairmen yesterday were replacing slates that had been blown from the roof of the church.

Unity UMC is located at the corner of Edmondson Avenue and that portion of Stricker Street the city has renamed "Unity Way."

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