Smiting with prayer, they drive drug dealers out Baptists in East Baltimore carry church into streets

October 04, 1990|By Susan Schoenberger

For years, they prayed inside their church for the drug dealers to change their ways, or at least to leave their children alone. But it wasn't enough.

In May, the members of the Israel Baptist Church in East Baltimore brought their prayers and their hymns and the force of their presence outside. And it worked.

Without guns and without violence, they have swept the drug dealers from their street corners and changed the character of their neighborhood so that church members are no longer harassed as they walk to Sunday morning services.

"We've got the dope on the run, and we want to keep it on the run," said the Rev. Harlie W. Wilson II, pastor of the 1,700-member congregation for the past 13 years. "God has worked miracles on this corner."

The effort began after police from the city's Eastern District encouraged area churches to take their anger over drug dealing to the streets. In response, Mr. Wilson brought the church's weekly prayer service outside the stately stone church on the corner of North Chester and East Preston streets.

Then, the parishioners began to march.

Armed with a portable microphone, banners and signs, church members started twice-weekly walks around the neighborhood, preaching to drug dealers and drug users to turn away from drugs and back to God. They stopped in front of known crack houses to pray.

"Ever since they have been marching around, the problems have diminished," said Maj. Alvin A. Winkler of the Eastern District, who has encouraged the group. "The problems have diminished to the point that we don't even get calls anymore for drug activity right around that church. And it was pretty heavy."

For the first month, the group needed a police escort to protect them from dealers who occupied crack houses near the church's community center on the corner of North Chester and Mura streets. They received threats from dealers telling them to stay inside, where they belonged.

But now the 50 to 100 people who show up for the services, at noon Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Friday, walk the streets without police and without fear. The dealers haven't disappeared, they acknowledge, but they have moved their operations blocks away.

"I couldn't sleep at night," said Johnnie Williams, a church deacon who lives on Mura Street. "The drug users, drug dealers, drunks and everybody else, they had no respect."

"But they've moved up and gone out," he said. "When you get talking about the Bible, you don't get too many sinners in the neighborhood."

At noon yesterday, the group gathered outside the community center, squinting in the strong sunlight. Twenty or so members sat in folding chairs on the sidewalk and sang gospel songs to begin the service. As church members took turns at the microphones, more people filed out of their row houses or came from work on a lunch hour.

When they were 40-strong, the group marched slowly down Mura Street behind a banner, singing hymns and chanting, "No to drugs, yes to Jesus."

Along the way, residents sat on their steps or opened windows to watch the group pass, some smiling with encouragement, others watching with the curiosity of the non-religious for the evangelical.

"It's not completely gone, but it's really made a difference," said Barry Jenkins, a Mura Street resident. "It's been pretty quiet, and it helps my kids."

As they turned the corner onto Patterson Park Avenue, still growing in number, Dorothy L. Daniels described the neighborhood of less than a year ago.

"I used to come to church on Sunday mornings, and sometimes you'd be scared to get out of your car," she said. "Now some of them [drug dealers] have come and joined the church."

Crossing back over North Chester Street, the marchers made their way down the 1200 block of Chatham Street, a collection of row houses that are burned out and boarded up. Mr. Wilson approached a young man who had glassy eyes and lines of sweat trickling from his temples.

"You got to get off the stuff and come into the church," Mr. Wilson said. "Let us help you. Let God help you."

"I will, I promise," the man replied. "I got to get away from it."

Past billboards on East Preston Street advertising liquor and cigarettes, the marchers returned to their church about 1 p.m. Almost 70 now, they prayed with Mr. Wilson for the drug dealers, for the drug users and for the strength to continue their efforts. "We stayed inside too long, to the point that folks out here took us for granted," Mr. Wilson said. "All we have to do is stop, and they'll be right back."

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