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In Baltimore, at Christmas, taking count of the angels among us

I held onto this story for Christmas because it involves angels. The subject of their existence came up unexpectedly on a late-summer day as a Baltimore Circuit Court judge prepared to sentence a convicted killer to life in prison.
The defendant was an enforcer for the Black Guerrilla Family. He had carried out a revenge killing in the bright light of day. His victim was a drug dealer suspected of having killed another BGF member four years earlier.
There are “no angels in the city,” the prosecutor said, and he did not mean what the angry bigots who write to me mean, even in this season of goodwill -- that Baltimore is a city of criminals. He meant that, in the particular Baltimore of gangs and guns, bad guys often kill other bad guys. Still, justice must prevail. Villainize the victim, the prosecutor said, but someone must answer for his murder.
The judge that day was Alfred Nance. During his 18 years on the bench, Nance has been criticized for inappropriate words and bad decisions. But, on Sept. 11, he said something worth noting and quoting: “I do believe there are angels in the city, who without we will not progress . . . we will not survive.”
Nance noted that, while some young men end up in gangs or prison or early graves, others “will survive without the stench of gangland murder and drug dealing.” Those are the angels to which Nance referred – the ones who manage to rise above their surroundings.
The judge’s words carried extra meaning in 2015, one of the worst years in Baltimore’s history, so I wrote them down and tucked them away.
I have never used this column to discuss angels as celestial beings or messengers of God, though I enjoy the idea of them as guardians, as human whisperers who guide us to the good.
Mostly, I think of angels as living beings who go the extra mile for others, who feel responsible for the common welfare. They don’t just talk; they do. They focus on what’s wrong with Baltimore – not to malign it, but to make it better.
I asked around, and my friends and associates threw out nominations.
Some offered the obvious: The directors of nonprofits that provide services to low-income families with children, to drug addicts, to the homeless, to ex-offenders coming home from prison, to teenagers who need mentoring and help with homework. The city’s many nonprofits, and their generous benefactors, are Baltimore’s official angels; they should never be taken for granted.
But I like the less formal angel, the man or woman who would be embarrassed to be called an angel.
Two people told me about women who regularly go out of their way to feed the homeless. One buys breakfast for a guy on her walk to work almost every day. The other delivers food from Roland Park to a shelter for young adults in Park Heights every week.
A young man in Pigtown sees the angel in the smile of a pleasant woman, an immigrant from Ethiopia, who singlehandedly runs a friendly, little coffee shop on Washington Boulevard. A few blocks west, there’s a barroom run by a kind guy who gives away turkeys on Thanksgiving and who keeps the bar open on Christmas Day because many of his customers have no place else to go.
Someone mentioned a selfless man of faith in Park Heights who started a football program for kids and who makes sure they have school supplies every year. A friend mentioned a couple who moved from Towson to Greenmount West, bought and renovated some old rowhouses there and are still deeply involved in the revitalization of that neighborhood.
I thought of all the people who came out to clean the streets and sidewalks trashed by the vandals of April 27. An army of angels with brooms descended upon North Avenue and dozens of side streets.
A guy in Penn-North mentioned a woman who lost a son to violence, then organized a march against the killings in Sandtown-Winchester.
I thought back to a cold day last winter when a friend spent the morning under the Fallsway handing out blankets, coats, gloves and scarves and cash to the homeless who gather there. “I found a family that just needed a night inside and made it happen,” he told me later. “I was tired of the fundraisers and wanted to interact with people. One of the best days of my life.”
I have not dropped names here because, for every angel I could mention, I would miss a dozen others. So, in 2016, we will call out the angels of Baltimore. You will be reading more about them in this space.

Given all the challenges the city faces in the years ahead, we need to raise a glass to the angels among us. We need to thank them for being here. We need all the angels we can get.

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