At a time when many Howard County churches are prospering, it can be easy to forget the many Baltimore parishes in need.
T. Milton Nelson, a member of The Lutheran Church of the Living Word at Columbia's Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, has not forgotten the city poor. Honored Sunday with the Lutheran Church's Delaware-Maryland Synod Social Ministry Service Award for the Baltimore West Conference, Nelson has reached out during the past three years to be a partner with Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church of East Baltimore.
"We serve in the ghetto, and it's very poor," said the Rev. Karen Brau, pastor of Amazing Grace, who nominated Nelson for the award. "We need help. Inner-city churches without links outside their community can't make it. ... Milt has been wonderful."
Nelson's relationship with Amazing Grace began when the Rev. John Hagedorn, a member of the Living Word congregation, came up with the sister parish idea after getting to know Brau. Hagedorn then moved to New York. "I felt an obligation to keep things going," Nelson said.
At the time, three small churches in East Baltimore had recently consolidated into what became Amazing Grace. Reaching into the Columbia religious community, Nelson gathered youths from Presbyterian, United Methodist and Roman Catholic congregations at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center to help renovate a former parsonage into the Amazing Grace Sunday school building.
Along with organizing these volunteers, Nelson found a contractor and did work on the building. He also organized a large group of volunteers to clean out a balcony at Amazing Grace, an effort that Brau says could not have happened without him.
"Milt really understands [Jesus' command about] 'feeding my sheep.' ... He's willing to go where Jesus Christ pulls him to go," Brau said. Nelson refers to the book of James, which says that "faith without works is dead," as a way to understand his involvement.
Two years ago, Nelson teamed with Living Word's pastor, the Rev. Bill Hayman, to till ground for a backyard garden at Amazing Grace and have the soil tested. This was the beginning of a gardening ministry. Members of Living Word donated gifts of seeds and seedlings to the parish, including a miniature apple tree to symbolize the friendship between the two churches.
"The parish was trying to do something locally" in addition to a sister parish relationship in Guatemala, Hayman said. "We had heard Amazing Grace in Baltimore was trying various things. ... Many of our parishioners like to work hands-on, and this has been an opportunity. It's been a way for us to stay connected with the inner city and to be in relation with others in the surrounding community in which we can recognize our world as a little larger than Columbia."
The connection is vitally important, Brau said. "I think that when the church forgets the inner city, it forgets what the church is about."
Brau, who has worked in urban ministry in Baltimore since 1990, describes some of the problems people face. "It's a very violent area. There are a lot of drug dealers on the corner. It's difficult to deal with the drug traffic and addiction because it's part of the fabric of the community. "
Because drugs destroy families, the church has become a "second family" to many, Brau said. "This is where people can practice loving each other," she said.
"It's like a second home [for] many of these kids," agreed Nelson. "I went down to the basement and one girl was setting another girl's hair."
Amazing Grace has been active in its community, trying to meet material and spiritual needs. "You need to do both," Brau said. "You have to try to help people understand the giftedness that God has given them. This empowers people."
Thanks in part to Living Word's help with renovations, Amazing Grace offers Sunday school, gardening and a one-day-a-week, after-school program. It will offer a Vacation Bible School next month and six weeks of summer day camp for about 30 children.
Amazing Grace and Living Word congregations make an effort to worship with each other periodically, although transportation to the suburbs remains a problem, and the two pastors have preached at the other's church.
"Urban congregations have much to offer us spiritually," Hayman said. "They can provide gifts to us."
"What you discover," said Brau, "is that when you go out to feed the sheep, you are fed too."
Information on Amazing Grace: 410-276-5674.