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Missing the point in Baltimore

In their book, "Adventures in Missing the Point," Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo contend that limited ways of thinking prevent us from accurately diagnosing our situation, and hence, offering a remedy for our problems. "If global capitalism makes the rich richer and leaves the poor in poverty, what will we do?" they ask. "Merely thank God we're among the rich? Can we say we love God if we don't love our neighbor who lives in an overpopulated, underfed, overpolluted, undermedicated, strife-torn slum?"

Their observation rings true as I reflect on statements made by elected officials in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray case, and on the unconscionable homicides that have since stalked our city. After the fires of rebellion and protest died down, one of our elected officials said, during the Preakness, "Baltimore is ready to exhale." Later, the official said that "the city is moving forward." I admire the determination of elected officials to accentuate the positive, but they may be doing so while ignoring the obvious: 42 homicides in Baltimore during the month of May, the largest number in a month since 1990, and 29 in June.

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Those numbers hardly suggest the city is ready to exhale and move forward, and neither do a host of other conspicuous problems, including: residential water shut offs, economic disparities and community neglect, underfunded schools, over-incarceration and unsafe neighborhoods. Until these issues are effectively addressed, it seems that we are missing the point — several in fact.

The point is that we have an unemployment rate for black Baltimoreans that is two and a half times the national average. Before massive deindustrialization, and job and capital flight, Baltimore was once a thriving city with a population of nearly a million people. Many of the men in my family made a living working at places like Grace Chemical and Bethlehem Steel. They were proud homeowners who often had the luxury of two cars in their garages. My grandfather was delighted to share the same neighborhood as former Mayor William Donald Schaefer when upward mobility boosted him from Lexington Street to Edmondson Village.

Not much later job insecurity besieged many of our homes as black men were laid off and eventually displaced from work with few opportunities to work again. Trade schools cropped up to help fill the employment vacuum, rivaling public high schools' role in supplying students' labor-intensive skills for jobs that were often obsolete by the time students entered the marketplace. Few of us had the foresight to embrace STEM to fit a highly technical and specialized niche; and neither could we stem the tide of shipping jobs overseas. Thousands of folk in subsequent generations seem to have been written off to persistent poverty and entrenched violence.

We are also missing the point when we don't eliminate the blight in our urban communities. It is disconcerting to witness rows of houses with irreparable infrastructure damage and caved roofs not immediately condemned and razed. It is more than an eyesore; environmental poverty devastates the human psyche. Dwelling in rat infested neighborhoods with boarded up housing — and being bombarded with vacant lots and alleys glutted with garbage, and an urban landscape dotted by liquor stores, unhealthy advertisements and police cameras on nearly every corner — eviscerates hope and reinforces poverty and crime as a destructive norm. It is not enough to take advantage of redevelopment opportunities downtown without addressing the dehumanizing poverty and corrosion uptown.

We are missing the point when we provide limited and narrow interpretations of a complex problem. For instance, the unjustifiable violence, and the sale and use of drugs, in our disenfranchised communities are coping mechanisms for people who have been abandoned and left with methadone clinics instead of mental health counseling. Our most vulnerable community members are offered jails but not jobs, and the rat-a-tat of high magazine guns but not recreation centers.

We are missing, too, a focus on the human capital within our communities. While I applaud the move to integrate our society in the '60s, our efforts also unintentionally widened the gap of the have-gots and the have-nots in our urban centers. We must refocus our priorities on restoring people as we rebuild properties in Baltimore. We have to address the real and felt needs of a disadvantaged populace in Baltimore with healthy and vibrant communities and not political rhetoric and the jail cell — and with safer and stronger schools, jobs and training, and mental health services. We must stop legitimizing gang cultures and, instead, offer incentives of creative opportunities of recreation and redevelopment. If Baltimore is truly to exhale and move forward, we need innovative and sincere leadership that will harness the massive intellect, ideas and energy of our communities to revitalize the most impoverished areas of our city.

Ever since the indictment of the police officers in the Freddie Gray case, and the subsequent seeming calm of the rioters and protesters, I have been anxiously awaiting a plan to redress the city's age-old systemic maladies. Let's not keep missing the point by allowing false perceptions of progress in certain sectors of our city to anesthetize us from the hard realities in other quarters of our city. We are not ready to move forward until all of Baltimore is ready to move forward, and we have yet to reach that point — or to exhale.

Donte' L. Hickman is pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore City, Harford and Howard counties. His email is pastorhickman@me.com.

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