Marion Barry seemed to be a man of great dignity when he spoke before the congregation at West Baltimore's Bethel AME Church last fall.
Mr. Barry -- who had just won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Washington, D.C. -- arrived at Bethel draped in the robes of an African statesman and he carried himself with the unflinching pride of a village chieftain. Mr. Barry's wife, Cora Masters Barry, was at his side, dressed in a flowing African gown, looking as stately as a queen.
Mr. Barry spoke to the congregation of "redemption, restoration and resurrection," not just for himself but for troubled inner city communities across the country. And he spoke movingly of the power of faith.
"I know what the Lord has meant to my life," said the once and future mayor who was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for possession of crack cocaine after a highly publicized federal sting operation in 1990. "And I know this is a good day because God has made it with new beginnings, new thoughts, new hopes and brand new possibilities."
Bethel's congregation wrapped Mr. Barry in its warm embrace on that frozen Sunday in October because its members believe in the redemptive power of faith. They were there to applaud that faith, to hold it up as an example for others, to give Mr. Barry spiritual strength through their support. They applauded Mrs. Barry with equal enthusiasm in recognition of her role as Mr. Barry's partner, and as a source of stability and strength for him.
All in all, it was an inspiring event -- the more so because few of Bethel's members live or vote in Washington. Yet, they went out of their way to say, "We believe in you. We want you to succeed."
Even a hardened cynic such as myself caught the fever.
But that was then.
Mr. Barry has been Washington's mayor for a little over 100 days and already he is embroiled in scandal.
The allegations of misconduct surfaced two weeks ago when Mr. Barry's former housekeeper claimed that she helped Mrs. Barry divert $2,000 in campaign funds to her brother, Walter Masters. Next, a Washington businessman allegedly offered the housekeeper a job if she retracted her story. And then it was alleged that the same businessman, Yong Yun, had helped the Barrys renovate their home, a possible conflict of interest because Mr. Yun has a $17.6 million contract with Mr. Barry's government.
In fairness, it is important to remember that Mr. Barry denies any wrongdoing. Still, I am distressed by the tawdry nature of the charges; by this suggestion that Mr. Barry may have been absorbed in his own creature comforts while folks in Washington, Baltimore and beyond were going out of their way to offer spiritual support.
Is the community's trust to be betrayed so casually, so quickly? Does faith, then, count for nothing? And what was Mr. Barry really thinking about at Bethel last October, while the congregation prayed and sang hymns and did everything it could to demonstrate that prodigal sons are welcomed back into the fold: Was he debating whether to wallpaper his bathroom?
Yesterday, I raised those questions with members of Bethel's congregation whom I count as friends. I wanted to know if they felt Marion Barry had let them down; whether they felt the current Barry Affair suggests that people would be better served treating politicians with skepticism instead of faith?
"I don't know the answers to those questions, I really do not know," said a 39-year-old financial planner who has worshiped at Bethel since childhood. He asked that I not use his name, in part because he feels it is too soon to react to unproven allegations. Still, he admitted that he found the allegations as painful as I did.
"I know that it is a good thing to empower our leaders through our spiritual support," he continued. "At the same time, I know we can never hold leaders accountable to the truth without a healthy degree of skepticism. I guess balancing those two is the dilemma of a democratic system."
I suppose my friend has a point. Still, it seems as though the community constantly finds itself rallying in support of its embattled leaders. It would be nice if I could do a story about leaders rallying in support of embattled communities for a change.