They did what?!"
Those were the only words I could mutter when Ralph Moore answered my question. We were walking east on Preston Street on Thursday afternoon, headed toward Greenmount Avenue. A cadre of marchers followed Moore, most of them students and staff from St. Frances Academy. Carl Stokes, the former city councilman who is now director of operations for the Bluford Drew Jemison Math Science Technology Academy, brought about 15 sixth-grade boys from the charter school, located in the 1100 block of N. Caroline St., to participate in the march.
City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined the march, as did City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy. All were there to protest the rampant drug dealing that has now all but crept up to the very doors of St. Frances Academy.
Moore, the director of the community center at St. Frances, sent out e-mails May 1 letting everyone know about the march. I've known Moore for years. We met through a man we both - to understate the matter - admire immensely: retired Johns Hopkins University Chaplain Chester Wickwire.
I've always known Moore to be even-tempered, calm and a man who would go out of his way to help even the drug dealers he was leading a march against. What had they done, I wondered, to get Ralph Moore, of all people, in such high dudgeon? So I asked him.
"They stashed drugs near a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the school grotto," Moore answered. Dealers also used a vacant lot next to the nearby convent on Brentwood Avenue - where nuns who teach at the school live - as a testing area to hand out free drug samples. That's when I gave my reaction to Moore's answer: "They did what?!"
I'm telling you, I didn't know I had any good Catholic left in me. Oh, there's plenty of bad Catholic left, believe me. I rarely attend Mass, I eat meat on Fridays and haven't been to confession since black folks were called Negroes. I've been known to say - and frequently - that while I've never doubted God's existence, I do doubt his sanity on an almost daily basis.
But that might change now. These sacrilegious scofflaws dealing drugs around St. Frances have managed to arouse the long-dormant good Catholic in me. (I guess I should try for the total truth here: make that "virtually dead good Catholic in me.")
This outrage has left me asking myself if I need to church it up more. Maybe I should start attending Mass again, do some praying and testifying and worshiping and maybe slipping in a little request that the Good Lord forgive me for my sins. I could start at St. Peter Claver's, where I was baptized in early January of 1952. Then the next couple of weeks I could visit churches like St. Bernardine's and St. Gregory's and St. Leo's in Little Italy.
And maybe I should drag some of those idiots dealing drugs near St. Frances along with me.
"Historically, people have respected St. Frances," Moore said as he showed me the grotto where the statue of the Virgin Mary stands. "The nuns took neighborhood kids to ballgames and helped residents with housing." There was an understanding about St. Frances that even those who weren't exactly law-abiding types adhered to: There was to be no funny business, not even a hint of misconduct, in the vicinity of St. Frances.
Moore told me a story that actor Charles "Roc" Dutton, who grew up in the neighborhood around St. Frances, told once. According to Moore, Dutton said that when neighborhood kids started a fight and found themselves near St. Frances, they knew they had to take the fisticuffs up to Biddle Street. It was understood that they couldn't fight near St. Frances.
Now the neighborhood has drug dealers walking onto the St. Frances school grounds to stash drugs. Dealers and addicts use lots next to where nuns live to hand out and use drugs.
On Thursday, Moore looked out on a playground across the street from St. Frances where several of the school's younger students swung gleefully down a pole. The administration at St. Frances built the playground for neighborhood children, but even that is now used to stash drugs. Only a few days ago, Moore said, there was an open drug deal at the corner of Chase and Forrest streets, right in front of the school.
"They're just brazen with it," Moore said. So brazen, in fact, that the Baltimore Police Department will have no choice but to treat these dealers like an anvil and drop a heavy hammer on them. Then they will need somebody praying for 'em.
Looks like I'll be doing just that at Mass tomorrow.