'Spiritual boot camp' in Curtis Bay changed lives


DRIVE THROUGH Curtis Bay, a 1 1/2 -mile stretch of rowhouses and makeshift bars south of the harbor, and you're likely to experience a community that has its roots in blue-collar America.

From the hillside architecture to the industrial buildings, docks and oil refineries, the sight is nothing short of mundane.

The night is filled with the seedy transactions of prostitutes, drug dealers, and teen-age gangs in the streets. Disheveled men wander with knapsacks on their backs. Car stereos blare. Eighteen-wheelers rumble over Pennington Avenue, coughing thick plumes of black smoke. Small children play dangerously close to roadways that cut square-block swaths through the urban jungle.

Residents sometimes appear beaten and battle-weary. They are hard workers and they are slackers. They are gritty and proud. They are all survivors. Yet nestled in the former Hotel Curtis Bay, a spot once notorious for housing a fugitive profiled on TV's America's Most Wanted, is Calvary Temple of Baltimore.

As an offspring of the Assemblies of God, Calvary's evangelical foundations are undeniably fundamentalist. Centered on hard-line, Bible-thumping principled living, many of its members regularly spar with the community, using a no-holds-barred view of the word of God as their weapon of choice.

The church's discipleship ministry provided an alternative for men who would have otherwise been sentenced to prison or left to the streets for dead. Here they found food, clothing, jobs and hope.

But like many inner-city ministries, Calvary's outreach program was eliminated a couple of years ago and the focus shifted to the faithful. Now, Calvary is about to pack its bags as it looks at a piece of real estate in Bowie.

I was a "graduate" of Calvary in the mid-1990s, when it was called Emmanuel World Outreach. For many men who had bounced from one program to the next, Calvary offered asylum from a road paved with failure.

Men who entered the program initially were given tight curfews or put under house arrest - the latter a condition imposed by the state for those on probation - until they had proved themselves to church elders. Each day offered a regimented schedule. Bible study was mandatory, sometimes consuming hours. Housework was an unavoidable outgrowth of one's stay, and many men were expected to perform demeaning jobs as a way of instilling character.

There were three two-hour services a week followed by community fellowship. Compare that with your local parish. Discipline was meted out swiftly. A blackboard hung in the second-story hallway. If someone was reprimanded, his name and the punishment were published for all to see.

Punishments were meted out for anything from improperly made beds to back talk.

Calvary combined door-to-door evangelism with an aggressive program of going into prisons to preach to inmates. Many of the local police referred to Calvary as a kind of "spiritual boot camp." It lived up to this reputation.

In my 1 1/2 years there, nearly 50 men came and went. You grew close to some and were glad to see others leave. The dormitory-like environment gave little room to pick and choose friends. But for the chosen few, the program did what it promised: It turned men who had virtually no knowledge of the church's teachings into defenders of the spiritual faith.

Calvary's mission has changed over the years. And as it prepares to relocate, some in the community will mourn its passing. And while almost all of us left Calvary on our own terms, no one who left was unaffected.

Today's writer

FRANK S. PALMISANO III is a civilian technical writer at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, has taught English at Towson Univeristy, from where he graduated with honors, and is a free-lance writer. He lives in Nottingham.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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