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Taking back the east side, one church at a time

There are an estimated 120 churches in Baltimore's Eastern police district, for years one of the two most violent in the city. "There are more churches than liquor stores," says City Councilman Carl Stokes, "but the liquor stores seem to be winning."

He means those who sell wine and booze from behind bullet-proof glass — as well as those who sell heroin on corners — seem to have more influence on community life than those who stand in sanctuaries and preach salvation-through-Jesus. While the statistics show overall decreases in some of Baltimore's most-tracked crime categories, and while city police have made a significant dent in the number of shootings there, the east side is still infested with drug-dealing, gang activity and violence.

It has been that way for a long time, and there have been attempts to organize the churches to do something about it before.

Mr. Stokes, a Jesuit-trained civic activist and one-time candidate for mayor, is mightily aware of that.

As a city councilman in the 1980s and 1990s, he attended numerous neighborhood crime meetings. He's attended vigils held in the wake of senseless killings, too. Like a lot of middle-aged people in this town, he wears a been-there-done-that T-shirt.

Now, having returned to the council this year, he's back in the thick of things. He helped organize a large vigil in July on North Avenue after a church caretaker, 71-year-old Milton Hill, was shot to death in an apparent robbery. Mr. Stokes pledged to build a street-level movement to reduce crime and revive some of the east side's left-for-dead neighborhoods.

This time, Mr. Stokes has a simple plan that he's pitching to pastors — take back the four blocks around your church and the one across the street, and pretty soon the east side gets healthy again. He calls it Operation Good Faith, and he's challenging ministers to challenge their congregants to get on the street, sweep up trash, pull weeds from the cracks in the sidewalks, fix up nearby playgrounds, conduct evening walks, meet the churches' neighbors door-to-door, and keep in touch with the police.

"In African-American communities," Mr. Stokes says, "we have looked to the church leaders to also be the leaders in political life, in civic life — there's a long tradition of that — and there was a time when church leaders lived among us. Now, being upwardly mobile, many of them — and their members — have left the old churches; they are no longer there. So people in the neighborhood wonder why do they come back [on Sundays] and take our parking spaces, then leave. They leave us with the drug dealers they walk by on the way to church; they leave us with the trash. They might wonder why the ministry that goes on inside the church does not leave the sanctuary. Where is that ministry?"

That is a question Jeffrey MacDonald, a religion journalist and minister in the United Church of Christ, asks in a new book about what might be called comfort-zone Christianity. Christian churches in America, Rev. MacDonald writes in "Thieves In The Temple," have become more about entertaining and soothing their members than about challenging them to sacrifice for others and to "stretch their hearts" for Christian-inspired purposes.

In small congregations and in megachurches — and numerous churches in between, in city and suburb — pastors are pressured to make churchgoers feel good, to provide a kind of spiritual escapism for an hour or so on Sunday. Those who don't, he says, risk the same consequences as any retailer who doesn't give his customers what they supposedly want.

Rev. MacDonald sees in the modern "consumer-driven church" a profound problem: Forsaking core Christian principles for feel-good spirituality diminishes the power of churches and church leaders to move people to action and to inform the nation's moral conscience.

So, in Baltimore, in these old neighborhoods that have been under siege so long, Carl Stokes is making another push to get the ministers and their congregations into the streets with the men and women of their churches, just four blocks at a time. It's not enough to go to Sunday services and drive away.

"This will change lives," Mr. Stokes says of Operation Good Faith, conscious of the history of such efforts and of the dramatic sound of his claim. "I think it will change neighborhoods. … We're tired of going to vigils."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is host of Midday, noon-2 pm weekdays on WYPR-FM.

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