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Will suburbanites see Baltimore as ‘our city’ again? There’s hope for that. | COMMENTARY

The Rev. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, narrates a video about plans to renovate an abandoned rec center in the Poppleton neighborhood in southwest Baltimore.
The Rev. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, narrates a video about plans to renovate an abandoned rec center in the Poppleton neighborhood in southwest Baltimore. (Vimeo)

These days I seldom hear people in the suburbs refer to Baltimore as “our city.” Not like I used to. Expressing that connection and sense of regional unity seems to depend on how things are going.

One winter night 20 years ago, when the Ravens were headed to their first Super Bowl, I heard a woman from Bel Air call a talk show. She loudly proclaimed, with a clear Bawlmer accent — specifically, a transplanted-to-Harford-County Bawlmer/Highlandtown accent — Baltimore’s mayor as her own. “Ehr mare, [Martin] O’Malley, is doin’ a great job,” she said.

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When things aren’t going so well — and, not counting the arrival of Lamar Jackson as Ravens quarterback, that would describe the last five years — people from the counties are less likely to use the plural possessive pronoun. In fact, I’ve heard many suburbanites speak of the city with scorn, in harsh and sometimes racist terms.

A lot of that has to do with the debilitating pace of violent crime. Some people have refused to visit the city since 2015, and that’s just not good for anyone — not for Baltimore and its residents and businesses, not for the sense of place and pride that everyone in the region should want to draw from its cultural center.

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So when people reach across boundaries — with time, money and good intentions — to build relationships and help the city move out of its tailspin, attention must be paid, even if those involved don’t particularly want it.

Last year, in a video appeal for donations, the pastor of a large Catholic church in Baltimore County asked his parishioners to help “our city,” and he used that plural possessive noun more than once.

I speak here of the Rev. Michael White and the Church of the Nativity, located in Timonium on the map but “in North Baltimore” on the church’s website.

“In 2015,” White says in the video, “in the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore, we set out to work with local churches and organizations to identify opportunities for our parish to help heal the pain in our city, to address the underlying causes of violence and racism, and to advance restoration and renewal.”

White stands in front of an abandoned building on West Saratoga Street in Poppleton — the Greater Model Community Recreation Center, built in the 1970s but closed due to budget cuts in the 1990s.

The Southwest Partnership (SWP), a collaboration of seven neighborhoods trying to bring housing and new business to that part of town, has been negotiating with the city to renovate the building and reopen it. The partnership’s executive director, Michael Seipp, says the project will cost about $1.1 million.

Fourteen miles away, on Ridgely Road, White’s church maintains a strong mission-driven tradition. It considers the SWP one of its mission partners. Last year, the church decided to help Seipp raise funds for the rec center, part of Nativity’s Advent appeal.

The goal, White tells his parishioners in the video, is “to provide a safe and loving environment for kids and teens, and a real center for the community in the heart of the neighborhood.”

The camera follows White inside the building, where he speaks of its needs — new heating and air conditioning, electrical wiring, plumbing, windows and doors. The rec center has ball fields, a swimming pool and a wading pool, each in pretty good shape. “When renovated, this will be no ordinary rec center,” the priest says. “This will be a jewel.”

White suggests that Nativity volunteers could help with cleanup, painting and landscaping to reduce labor costs. He mentions the rec center’s proximity to the Mother Mary Lange School, the first archdiocesan elementary school to be built in the city in six decades, due to open in September 2021. “Taken together, kids in this community will have safe, enriching, vibrant environments available to them every day, all day,” White says.

He finishes by asking for donations and invoking the possessive plural again: “None of us have been unmoved by the striking challenges and heartbreaking events that our city has weathered in recent years. Let’s do more than just hope for a better future. Let’s help build one, a better future, a greater future, a greater city.”

Under normal (non-coronavirus) conditions, Nativity regularly attracts up to 4,000 worshippers to seven weekend Masses.

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The church is known for a couple of things besides being huge — its progressive appeal to “disconnected Catholics” and its use of technology to raise funds. In fact, White and his pastoral associate, Tom Corocoran, co-authored a book about electronic giving and funding missions like the one in Poppleton.

So one weekend in December, parishioners watched White’s video about the rec center. Seipp attended each of the seven Masses and, as donation tallies appeared on a video screen — $100,000 … $200,000 — he was astonished. “This was cash,” Seipp says, “not pledges.”

Some time after the total passed $300,000, he started to cry. Seipp has been working at fixing Baltimore for decades and, while frustrated with the pace of renewal, he’s still on the front line. Nativity’s mission to help the Southwest Partnership gave him a big spiritual lift. “I mean,” he says, “the people were just phenomenal.”

In the end, Nativity parishioners contributed $400,000 toward the rec center, another $100,000 to the Mother Mary Lange School project. All in one weekend. All for the children of “our city.”

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