From the outside, the spires of Bolton Hill's Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church rise splendidly heavenward, making it easy miss what's going on down below, where barriers are rapidly toppling.
"It's dramatic," says the Rev. Roger Gench, pastor of Brown Memorial. "The walls are breaking down. It's the most dramatic change I've seen in seven years here."
Brown Memorial is among 24 churches that have been working with parents, teachers and community leaders to perform a miracle. They are putting their bodies between children and their fate, trying to alter a future preordained by the neighborhoods in which thousands of Baltimore children grow up.
Their means are modest -- after-school programs for children at 10 city schools. Their goals are not -- they want to wrest control of the most dangerous hours of a child's day, the treacherous after-school hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. when children can flourish or fail, eat milk and cookies and learn through music, art and games, or begin their initiation into life on the streets.
With the programs just beginning under the banner of Child First, it is too early to say whether lives can be changed, whether miracles will be wrought, but already the churches are witnessing lesser transformations.
At Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary on North Caroline Street, children are quickly and happily settling into one of the first programs to open; others are aiming for a January beginning.
Brown Memorial and two other churches teamed up with Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School a year ago, serving as catalyst for parents to plan and organize an after-school program for their children.
The church has begun to feel profound effects from the alliance, even though the children won't arrive until January. An impassive stone building, looking over the rooftops as if a beacon to its many suburban members, is becoming a living, breathing part of lives closer by.
"We're trying to shift from being a commuter church to being a church intimately in touch with our neighborhood," says Gench. "Getting more and more involved with Eutaw-Marshburn has done marvelous things for us. It offers a whole dimension that goes beyond social justice."
Mary Mashburn, with a small smile of pleasure, recalls the Saturday night she and other Brown Memorial members spent talking about the future while sharing a chicken dinner with Eutaw-Marshburn parents and teachers.
Eutaw-Marshburn, on Eutaw Place, is only a few blocks from Brown Memorial on Park Avenue, but the distance between them is mined by the differences of race, class and poverty that set off fear and suspicion.
"And there we were on a Saturday night," Mashburn says, "hanging out and eating chicken. I've really enjoyed being a part of this."
Brown Memorial has a long-established tutoring project at nearby city schools. Even so, the largely middle-class congregation has been anchored to the island of Bolton Hill, living apart from the surrounding streets, which have been eroded by the urban decay washing across the nation's cities.
"We don't want to be Fortress Bolton Hill," Gench says. "We want to make a commitment to the neighborhood."
Presbyterian churches, Gench says, tend to be pretty staid -- especially European-American churches. "Ours has certainly been that way," he says. "And to stay alive we have to change."
New members coming to the church are largely suburban baby boomers who want to be involved in the city, and they're very interested in children, Gench says. So the after-school programs have been a logical extension of that desire.
Brown Memorial is a member of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the church-based organization known as BUILD that developed the Child First campaign. Gench is on the board of directors of Child First, which has fought for about $1 million in public and private funds to begin the after-school programs.
BUILD is still fighting for money, and for organic change. It is demanding that downtown development benefiting from public subsidies pass on some of the profits to the city's neighborhoods. Pushed by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, the General Assembly authorized the city to create a Child First Authority modeled after the public-private partnerships that operate the port and the stadium.
Its ultimate goal is to have a portion of the revenue produced by downtown attractions dedicated to operating after-school programs in up to 40 city schools.
Child First has required an investment of talk as well as money, as churches, parents and teachers have debated what they want and need in an after-school program.
Some of the church volunteers expected to find burned-out, apathetic teachers. Instead, at Eutaw-Marshburn, they found Sharlette Jones-Carnegie, Ralph Gallman and other teachers who gave themselves tirelessly to the Child First cause.
"I'm just so excited," Jones-Carnegie says. "This is going to give our children exactly what they need. We're going to pull out all the stops."
Parents were invited to a meeting in March, and Mashburn feared the worst. "It rained. It was a terrible day. We thought about postponing it," she says. "But 60 parents turned out. We split into small groups and asked what parents wanted for their children and themselves.
"The parents started testifying. They talked about how they loved the school. They talked about wanting a safer school, and their fear of the drug dealing. They wanted more computers and art. That was the genesis of it."
BUILD wants to change parents -- and neighborhoods -- through this process. "BUILD's idea is that you don't do for people what they can do for themselves," says Mashburn, who helped organize parents at Eutaw-Marshburn, which didn't even have a PTA.
In much of the city, most of the middle class has fled, leaving the poor marooned and their children prey to ever-deepening desolation. An air of defeat hangs heavy -- and parents who feel powerless have not been inclined to join PTAs.
Now, more and more are. Early one gray school day, Mary Kuciara, president of the General Wolfe Elementary Parent Advisory Council, and eight other parents were trying to attain that power.
Kuciara was saying how she regrets having to scare her little boy with talk of death and needles, but the danger on the streets of Upper Fells Point is too real, she says, to instill anything but fear.
"If you pick that needle up," she admonishes 5-year-old Robert as they walk in the neighborhood, "you're going to die because it has AIDS on it."
The school doesn't have a playground, only a sliver of asphalt with some faded hopscotch games. The parents say that in the afternoons they keep their children inside because even a backyard is treacherous, considering the needles and cocaine vials tossed in from the alleys.
"When they're on the streets they see all the violence," Kuciara says. "They're getting killed just because they don't have anything to do. When I was growing up here we had the recreation pier. Now it's 'Homicide' " -- a set for the television series.
Kuciara used to feel powerless as she contemplated the overwhelming task of bringing Robert up safely and educating him well on these uncertain streets.
Now, drawn up in the Child First campaign, she finds herself talking up to the city Board of Estimates and addressing rallies of hundreds of people.
Five schools, including Bernard Harris, opened their Child First programs this month. Eutaw-Marshburn and General Wolfe plan to open theirs next month. Already burdened with enormous changes because they are "reconstitution schools," those ordered to improve or face state takeover, their work has gone more slowly.
And even though after-school hasn't begun at General Wolfe, Kuciara says, life has changed. She feels a sense of possibility, and the power to pursue it.
Pub Date: 12/28/96