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Dan Rodricks: | From the ashes of an arson, a new and timely child care center in Highlandtown | COMMENTARY

Rev. Mark Parker, pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown, stands by two burned-out rowhouses being converted into a child care center and housing for refugees.
Rev. Mark Parker, pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown, stands by two burned-out rowhouses being converted into a child care center and housing for refugees. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Despite unanimous opposition from Republicans — and an inconsequential, overheated tweet from Maryland’s Republican governor — the Democrat-led House of Representatives on Friday passed President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. That’s welcome news for working parents with small children. And the timing could not be better for those who live near Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown on Baltimore’s southeast side.

Not only will Biden’s plan help pay for the care of their children, but there will soon be an expanded child care center on Clinton Street. It’s a real “out of the ashes” project — a small one, relative to others in the region, but the biggest that the century-old church has taken on in decades.

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Breath of God, originally St. Paul English Evangelical Lutheran Church, forms a grand stone corner at South Clinton and East Pratt streets, about five blocks from Patterson Park. The church was built in 1924, and in 1950 the congregation added a gymnasium on the Pratt Street side. The church sits across from Highland Elementary School. It’s a healthy neighborhood with significant ethnic and class diversity.

One year ago, on Sunday night, Nov. 22, a fire erupted in the rear of an unoccupied rowhouse two doors from the church office on Clinton Street. The fire spread to two adjoining houses and damaged a fourth with smoke. No one was injured, though a Latino immigrant family that rented one of the houses lost all its belongings and had to be relocated. The church and city agencies helped the family find a new place to live.

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The cause of the fire was arson, according to the pastor of Breath of God, the Rev. Mark Parker. The key suspect, he says, was a homeless man with mental health challenges. That man, according to Parker, is now in the care of the state.

Within a couple of weeks of the fire, Parker and church leaders looked at the ruins of three rowhouses, wondering what would happen next. They discovered that the owner of one house planned to rebuild while the owner of another seemed interested in selling. The house in between those two was in foreclosure.

Parker and his congregants assumed that the two rowhouses immediate to the church office would end up in the hands of investors and sell at the neighborhood’s increasing market rate. (Just a block away, I was drawn to a set of four beautifully renovated and occupied rowhouses that, when I checked, were empty less than two years ago.)

The church decided to jump in. “We worked hard to develop a plan and line up resources in order to acquire [two adjoining] properties and put them to community use,” Parker says.

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You might say it’s the church’s version of “Build Back Better.” The idea is to serve two needs — more child care for the low-income families who live in the area and domicile for refugee families who come through Baltimore. One rowhouse will be converted into child care, the other for refugee housing.

A few years ago, Breath of God established within the church a preschool for a maximum of 34 3- and 4-year-olds. The new project, on Clinton Street, will address the need for slots for 2-year-olds. The Abell Foundation last summer released a report on child care in Baltimore; the authors found that it was available, in one form or another, for about 48% of city children under 5 but only 12% of children under 2. “There were few regulated care options for the growing Hispanic community in the south and southeast areas of the city,” the report noted, “and gaps in availability in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.”

Add to that the consequences of the pandemic: With more parents working from home and restrictions on gatherings, many child care centers faced severe financial strain and even closure. So it remains a big complicated problem, and Americans understand that now; the pandemic apparently made it clear to everyone but Republican politicians. Polls have shown consistent support for state expansion of early childhood education and for relieving parents of some of the costs of private child care.

That’s one of the reasons why Biden’s plan to extend the nation’s social safety net to working families was popular and why, on Friday, as the House voted to fund it, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s tweet landed like a lump of old coal: “The Build Back Better Act is nothing but a reckless grab bag of massive tax hikes, Democratic Party wish list items, and handouts to special interests.”

“Nothing but”?

There’s $400 billion for more pre-K and affordable child care. Families that make under $400,000 a year — that’s most Americans — would spend no more than 7% of household income on child care and low-income families would pay nothing. Most of it would be financed with tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations. If you’re a working parent with small children, what’s not to like here?

On Clinton Street, meanwhile, work is underway on Breath of God’s project. When the child care center opens, there should be room for 22 more kids, and the church pledges better pay for teachers and aides. Grants and donations are making this possible, the biggest project of the church since an earlier generation raised money for the gym.

“There’s lots of bigger and better things going on out there in the world,” Parker says. “But we’re excited about what is going on here.”

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