Faith flourishes with promise of resurrection; Easter: Four Baltimore-area Christians who have faced adversity find hope in Jesus' return to life, which is celebrated today.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With sunrise services, bouquets of white lilies and choruses of alleluias, Christians around the world today celebrate the central tenet of their faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But the feast doesn't just commemorate the empty tomb. Before Easter Sunday and Jesus' resurrection came Good Friday and his suffering and death on the cross. Increasingly, theologians and pastors emphasize this complete paschal mystery, the winter before spring, and the suffering before new life.

On this Easter Sunday, four Baltimore-area Christians -- a choir director who has overcome an addiction, an Episcopal priest battling breast cancer, a mother who buried her daughter, a pastor rebuilding his church after a devastating fire -- reflect on the adversity they have faced in the light of the resurrection's promise of hope.

It's a long way from Maryland's Eastern Shore to the recording studios of Los Angeles, but Kendall Leonard made the trip.

In the late 1980s, Leonard, who grew up in Salisbury, was a successful jazz and rhythm and blues sideman with artists such as the Manhattans and Rick James and the Stone City Band, playing keyboards and saxophone and touring the country. And cocaine was becoming a regular part of that life.

"I enjoyed it because that was one part of my life, getting high and playing with various groups around the country," Leonard said. "It was fun because I was very young and spiritually bankrupt and blind."

As avocation turned to addiction, Leonard lost his gigs, became unemployable and moved back to Salisbury.

He went through a decade of addiction, spent time in jail, went to rehabilitation and through periods of self-willed sobriety. By 1998, he was functional enough to come to Baltimore and get a job teaching at a city school. But then came a two-month relapse. He lost his job and moved back to Salisbury.

A minister in Baltimore whose church he had attended persuaded him to return and enter "I Can't, We Can," a spiritually based treatment program run by a former addict, Israel Cason.

Coming from a middle-class home in Salisbury, Leonard didn't like the inner-city neighborhood I Can't, We Can calls home. He said he wanted to leave. The staff challenged him.

"They said to me, 'Are you willing to go to any and all lengths for your recovery?'" he said. "I said, 'I certainly am, because I know I have much more to offer the world than this mess I've made of myself.'

"So I stayed for a few days, and a few days turned into a few months. And I graduated from the program in January."

Leonard works as choir director of St. Gregory the Great Roman Catholic Church and leads the I Can't, We Can choir, made up of fellow recovering addicts.

On this Easter Sunday, he says, he will celebrate his new life. "I'm coming to a clearer understanding of the entire Lent-Easter period, which as a musician, for so many years has just been another way of making some money for me," he said. "It deals with the resurrection and because of that resurrection, we have a chance at this thing called salvation."

Leonard says he feels like he, too, has a chance.

"The Lord has given me a new birth," he said. "I'm so grateful."

It was during a routine mammogram in late September that a lump was discovered in the Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins' breast.

This experience would test her belief in the central teachings of her faith.

"You spend your life preaching death and resurrection," said Hawkins, assistant pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton. "But it comes to you in new ways when you look death in the face for yourself."

After surgery in October, Hawkins, whose cancer was caught in an early stage, began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The radiation treatments, she said, were an opportunity for meditation.

"They've got this big machine that comes over you, and there's a light up there," she said. "And there are these two red lines that make a cross. I don't know what they mean, it was probably something about getting the focus on the right spot. But for me, it was a cross. It became for me a meditation opportunity, and I'd meditate on the cross whenever I was going through this."

Her illness has presented opportunities to reach out to others in her congregation.

"I have found people are more willing to come forward, to share what they're going through," she said. "I remember one lady coming up one day and saying, 'I've joined your club.' I'm not sure if she would have let us know that she was going through a bad time, but it certainly made it possible for me to know, to get right over there and be with her through surgery and walk that walk together."

Through her experience of sickness, Hawkins said she identifies more with the sufferings of Jesus.

"You can't get to the joy of Easter until you've been through the pain of the cross," she said. "It's what we live out in our lives. And at this time in the liturgy of our church, it's what we're trying to get at, in a world that turns Easter into Easter bonnets and bunnies and eggs and pastel colors."

After celebrating the victory of Easter, Hawkins will go Tuesday to receive her penultimate chemotherapy treatment.

"Not all the days are Easter Sundays," she said. "But the memory of Easter Sundays keeps you going."

When Mary Louise Dawson attends this morning's services at St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park, she will be celebrating her second Easter this year.

She celebrated her first Easter on Jan. 12, the day she buried her 28-year-old daughter, Caroline Heller. The funeral service focused not on death, but on resurrection.

"So we had a little early Easter, which was really nice," Dawson said. "Especially then, in the dead of winter, that really helped."

Heller taught preschool at Garrison Forest School and coached field hockey and lacrosse in the middle school. She was diagnosed with melanoma four years ago. During this time, Dawson experienced first-hand the religious truth that there is grace in suffering.

"She did suffer. Our whole life for four years was based around this illness," she said.

"But she had really quality time in between all this," she said. "And every day, we cherished. You realize how important every single day is. I just think every day of your life now is such a gift. ... All this never really came to me until we went through this."

Throughout her illness, her daughter remained positive and drew on her faith to get her through the ordeal -- so much that she was an inspiration for others, including her mother.

"She was always asking somebody else how they were doing," Dawson said. "I learned so much from her."

Dawson said it is her belief in resurrection that helps her to cope with the tragedy. "If I didn't believe that, then I don't know how I could ever get through this," she said.

And for her, Easter is a reminder of that promise of new life that makes it easier to cope with pain and suffering.

"Even maybe five or six weeks ago, it was so cold and the weather was so awful, and you just can't wait for spring," she said. "You know that spring will come. It's that renewal. It does help to get through that.

"So Easter always comes," she said. "Thank goodness."

A fire in January last year may have consumed the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Hampden; but it didn't destroy the congregation.

Attendance dipped after the blaze, as the church became an itinerant congregation. But the Rev. Thomas Cobb is building it again as he searches for a new home for his Pentecostal flock.

Cobb had been born in Baltimore, but moved to Louisiana with his parents when he was age 3. "I came up here to see my mother's folks," he said, "And the Lord gave me a burden to help the youth of this community of Baltimore."

Cobb established the church on The Avenue in 1980, and it prospered after a fashion. It was never huge, but it was a haven for the youth and the needy of 36th Street.

"It's been pretty much young people at first who came into our church. Of course, some of them have grown up and become couples now, and they're good citizens. Some of them we have in our church, people who were drug addicts, people who sold drugs, alcoholics, ... we've been able to help."

The first week after the fire, the congregation met at a Fraternal Order of Police hall. For several more months, it met at Woodberry United Methodist Church. About a year ago, it moved to share a sanctuary with St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Roland Avenue in Hampden. The Episcopal congregation disbanded, and Cobb's church has the building to itself.

But Cobb said he does not feel as if his congregation has reached its ultimate destination. Someday, he said, he hopes the congregation will have a home to call its own.

"But we feel like we are about to hit the resurrection," he said. "We feel like when resurrection comes, it's going to be twice as good. [God is] going to give us twice as much of what we had."

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