Private faith helps guide public life; Mayoral hopefuls lean on foundations of religious beliefs


Mayoral candidate Lawrence A. Bell III takes the lectern on a recent Sunday morning at the Christian Community Church of God in Southwest Baltimore and looks out over the congregation.

"We're at the most critical time in our history here in the city," the City Council president says, his voice rising. "And with all the fiery darts, with all the negativity, with all the demonic attack, I'm still standing on my faith in God."

Pretty standard stuff for evangelical church on a Sunday morning, but catch him on the hustings outside and Bell is likely to sound much the same. Whether he portrays himself as the young David facing Goliath, or as a figure like Jesus who was persecuted by Pharisees and Sadducees, Bell, the grandson of a Pentecostal preacher, is comfortable with the idiom of religion.

His two main opponents, Martin O'Malley and Carl Stokes, are less vocal about their faith. Both share a Roman Catholic upbringing, and both underwent the rigors of a Jesuit education. O'Malley and Stokes, though, are a bit more reticent than Bell about open displays of religion.

"I don't think my Catholic beliefs necessarily influence how I would do my job," said Stokes.

But Stokes and O'Malley articulate their private faith and its influence on their public life in a strikingly similar way: the idea that one man can make a difference.

"It was not enough to just have dreams, you have to have faith that one person makes a difference," O'Malley said of the Jesuit philosophy he was taught at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. "You have to be willing to risk action on that faith. And that's kind of a core belief of mine, and that's what kept me in politics."

All three men, the major Democratic candidates for mayor in Baltimore's Sept. 14 primary election, say they find themselves turning to prayer and leaning on the foundations of their religious beliefs to weather the storms of politics and to guide them to do what is right.

A source of strength

Bell's grandmother is Corinna S. Willis, a Pentecostal evangelist. She and her late husband had a small mission, Gethsemane Resurrection Ministries, that was at Walbrook Avenue and Monroe Street in West Baltimore in the early 1980s. As a youth, Bell and his family lived with his grandparents, and he calls Willis a profound influence on his life.

"She taught me that God comes first in everything we do," Bell said. "She has helped me to stay spiritual and not to be tainted by the very carnal nature of politics and the things that we do.

"She always felt that I had a calling for the ministry," said Bell, who is a member of the United House of Prayer for All People in West Baltimore. "I don't know. If I hadn't gone into politics, I might have gone into the ministry. I always try to reconcile those two things."

Bell was "saved," accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior, at age 12 during a Pentecostal church revival. That, in his grandmother's eyes, was a key event in preparing his public pursuits.

"When you're saved, you know when God has something special planned for your life," Willis said. "You begin to watch how God leads and directs you in your Christian walk."

And yet, polls indicate that Bell's campaign is not going well. His poll numbers are falling, and he feels betrayed. Betrayed by O'Malley, whom he once considered a friend but now views as a cynical opportunist; betrayed by African-American political leaders and ministers he feels should support him instead of Stokes; betrayed by overzealous campaign aides who have violated political etiquette in their attacks on the opposition.

Bell expresses that sense of betrayal in the language of the Holy Bible he learned to quote by memory as a child.

"Some months ago, I said to my grandmother: 'You know, Grandma, I hate to admit that I hurt,' " Bell told the congregation of Christ Temple Cathedral, a Pentecostal church in Cherry Hill, on a recent Sunday.

"Those people I looked up to, and some of them I patterned myself after, turned against me," he said. "She reminded me where my strength comes from. And I am persuaded that no matter what the media does, no matter what the backstabbers do, no matter what the Pharisees and the Sadducees here in Baltimore do, God is still my friend."

Catholics and politics

O'Malley and Stokes, like many Catholic politicians, are more ambivalent about mixing religion and politics.

O'Malley says that when he speaks in churches where it might be commonplace to hear politics from the pulpit, "One of my throwaway lines is, 'Being Catholic, I'm not used to a couple of things in church. One is good music, and the other is politics.'

"Religion is something that is important to me," he says. "I don't talk about it a lot. I assume that all people running for office have some sort of faith or convictions. I haven't really talked about it a lot. It's kind of a given."

Such reserve is not surprising, given the historical context.

"Traditionally Catholics in the United States have not used religious language in politics because when they first arrived here, they were a poor minority group that was persecuted and whose religion was considered un-American," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit-published magazine. "So we tended to use more general, ethical, philosophical language rather than theological language. We talk about the common good, we talk about justice. But there would not be very much quoting from the Gospel."

When asked, O'Malley and Stokes both describe the influence of religion on their lives in language rooted in Catholic social teaching, particularly of action on behalf of the poor. They also reflect the ethics of their Jesuit educators, who taught them to be men in service to the world.

'The foundation'

Stokes is a lifelong member and serves as a lector at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore, the first black Catholic church established in the United States.

As a youth, he and his best friend, now the Rev. Melvin Tuggle, frequented each other's churches. Sometimes, the two would be found at St. Francis Xavier attending a Catholic Youth Organization function. The next week, they were at St. Paul Christian Community Church in East Baltimore to help with chores.

"We didn't look at the difference between Protestant and Catholic. There was no difference. We knew that we served God," said Tuggle, pastor of Garden of Prayer Baptist Church in East Baltimore. "There was always this niche for us in the churches as the cornerstone of the community. Coming up in Baltimore, church was really the foundation. We recreated in church, we had fun in church, and we both had a strong belief in God."

Stokes says one of his strongest religious influences was the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who taught him at St. Francis Xavier elementary school.

"It was their very strong discipline and their desire to make sure each of us in class fully, fully, fully were able to reach our potential as they saw it for us," he said.

He went on to study with the Jesuits at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, which "refined my discipline and ability to be analytical in my thinking skills," he said.

"Those things, along with my strong belief in the Lord, helped me to believe I can achieve and I'm not doing it alone," he said. "If I do the right thing in terms of if what I'm trying to do is for the greater good, then it's more likely than not that I will succeed."

Being black and Catholic made Stokes a bit different from other neighborhood children.

"I grew up in the Latrobe housing project in East Baltimore. No one in my court was Catholic, except for my family," he said. "I remember being amused at times. I remember being out on the playground, and the other kids would say, 'Carl's Catholic. He can't tell a lie so you can tell him whatever you want.'

"The young people in my neighborhood had higher expectations in terms of my morality than other young people," he said. "They felt Catholicism was something very special and had a high moral standard."

An ironic recollection in light of the revelation that Stokes' campaign literature falsely claimed a Loyola College degree?

"No, I don't feel that it's ironic," he said. "That was a mistake I should not have made, but because of my faith and belief in a redeeming Lord, I also understand we all have made some lousy mistakes, some stupid mistakes. Unfortunately this is one I made that I should not have made."

A lesson not lost

O'Malley said that when he decided to run for mayor, one of the first people he consulted was his parish priest: Monsignor William F. Burke at St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore.

Burke said he encouraged O'Malley to run.

"Whenever I speak with somebody who asks for an opinion, I really want to hear how well they have thought something through," Burke said. "He certainly to me appears to be a person of integrity who's not speaking rashly or making decisions rashly. I think it's important to think clearly and act on your convictions and a conscience well-formed. And I trust that has been his background."

O'Malley was raised in suburban Washington and went to a Jesuit school in Washington. Everyday, he took the commuter train from Rockville to Union Station and walked the last few blocks to Gonzaga.

"So you'd come in from the lily-white suburbs, and you'd see the nation's Capitol looming up in front of you, and then when we took that left onto I Street, you'd walk by the morning line of homeless and poor and jobless men who were waiting in line at Father Horace McKenna's," a Jesuit priest who ministered to the poor from the church next to the school.

"That was not lost to many of us walking into school by that line every day, how lucky we were, how much we had," he said.

"I was taught by some holy men at Gonzaga who planted that seed that one person makes a difference in the world, and you've got to figure out where you can best make that difference," he said.

That belief articulated by Stokes and O'Malley of one person making a difference in service to the world sounds familiar to the Rev. Jack Dennis, president of Loyola Blakefield. It's what he and his Jesuit colleagues try to impress upon their students.

"If I had a slogan or motto that is common to all Jesuit schools, it is that we educate our students to be, in our case, men for others," he said.

Turning to prayer

All three candidates say that as a result of the spiritual schooling they pray regularly.

O'Malley says he begins most days by reciting a prayer called "The Breastplate of St. Patrick," which he found several years ago in Thomas Cahill's book, "How the Irish Saved Civilization." O'Malley even set the words to music. The prayer begins:

I arise today through a mighty strength,

The invocation of the Trinity

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the creator of creation.

Bell says he prays "all day long."

"I believe that prayer is simply talking to God. I believe that public prayer has its place and it's good, but I think we all have to have a personal relationship with God," he said. "As Jesus said, at times we should close the door. We don't need for everybody to know."

"I used to be involved with fellowship groups, scripture study in the evenings," he said. "I don't do it as much as I used to because I'm too busy as president of the council. But I miss it. If there's one thing in my life I feel I need to strengthen, that's fellowship. Because fellowship to those who are in the body of Christ, it's important because no matter how much you may read, the reality, especially in politics, is you are encountering so many carnal influences that you really need that kind of fellowship to help uplift you and keep you from being tainted by it."

Stokes says that he prays "morning and evening."

"I think it has allowed me to weather a couple of storms during this campaign," he said. "As a matter of fact, I'm sure it has."

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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