A framed collage hangs on a wall of Kittamaqundi Church in Columbia. It's made up of delicately cut pictures of smiling children from Southwest Baltimore's Agape House.
They are smiling because the Kittamaqundi members who are leading them on horseback, reading to them and playing games have crossed social, economic, class and color lines to bring the two communities together.
Judy Colligan, a longtime Kittamaqundi worshipper and since 1995 a board member of Agape House - a Christian children's ministry - is responsible for their connection. Seeing Agape House's Saturday School program failing, she solicited volunteers who decided to keep it as a regular commitment.
"It was through the redesign of the Saturday program about two years ago that other K.C. church members really got involved with our ministry," said the Rev. Edward G. Robinson, Agape House president and chief executive officer. "I can't help to mention that the children are predominantly African-American and that the K.C. members are predominantly Caucasian, but those different backgrounds have meshed into a successful Saturday School activity for the Agape House."
Since January 2000, about 12 volunteers from Kittamaqundi Church - armed with arts and crafts, games, books and songs - have been journeying into one of Baltimore's more impoverished neighborhoods on the first Saturday of every month. Once there, they are greeted by 30 to 40 excited children.
Last weekend's agenda was typical. The children made introductions, sang inspirational songs and were divided into work groups. Agape House's dining room changed into an arts-and-crafts center, where small hands glued colorful feathers into pinecones to form the bodies of turkeys.
In the sanctuary, young girls maneuvered crochet hooks under instruction. The living room was quiet, except for the trickle of kids going in and out, and a volunteer reading a children's story. After two hours, the group reassembled for a closing prayer.
"I hope they get out of it a sense that they are cared for and that they are special and that reading is important," Kittamaqundi volunteer Ruth Smith said.
It appeared that 9-year-old Jennifer Brown got the message. "They're nice because they come out here and help us and teach us things," she said. "Some people go to church, but they just don't want to help anybody."
Saturday School has deepened connections between the two groups, including field trips, picnics, pen-pal groups and summer camp. They also take turns bringing their congregations to worship with each other.
"It has become a wonderful relationship," Robinson said. "Each and every person from that group is very dedicated, energetic and personally involved. They have supported us financially and spiritually."
Not to mention personnel support - providing the necessary bodies and talents to pull off major activities such as the separate boys and girls camps.
Kittamaqundi members are committed to providing exposure to new and different experiences for the children, and that's part of the reason they keep coming back.
"I love children and I want to see every child's potential nourished and cherished regardless of their station in life," Colligan said.
"I really believe in the work Edward Robinson is doing here," added Bob Racine, an Agape board member. "I can't do too much for them."
According to some volunteers, the energy and mutual love are starting to spill over to Agape parents, who have also visited Kittamaqundi Church. "Some of them come in and see us working with the kids and start to see us more as individuals rather than white, middle-class people, and that we're not so really different from each other," Colligan said.
Colligan and an Agape House mom met on Christmas Day in 1995. "We hit it off almost immediately," Colligan said. The two developed a friendship that endures, and Colligan has filled an "auntie" role in the lives of the Agape mother's children, visiting with them at least once a month over the past five years.
"That's one of my goals ... to get to know their [the children's] families," Smith said. "When some of the parents look at me, they see white and think I'm rich when, in fact, I was one of 11 children. I spent some time in the projects of southwestern Pennsylvania, and I was on welfare for a short time."
A second framed collage - this one on a wall at Agape House - has also captured the smiles of Baltimore children.
"They [the collages] just remind us every time we're in our worship spaces of our connection to each other by keeping the children in our hearts and minds in a concrete way," said Normale Doyle, a Kittamaqundi member, "and it helps them to do the same."
Keisha Reynolds is an early childhood coordinator who runs the Success By 6 education program based at Agape House. She is employed through a Southwestern Consortium Baltimore Success By 6 Partnership grant funded by United Way of Central Maryland and the Family League of Baltimore.