"When 1990 began, we thought, 'My gosh, we may be looking at some really great times,'" says the Rev. Harry Holfelder, the pastor of First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church downtown.
But, as the year ends, Holfelder says, "We're saying, 'My gosh, we may be going to war and people all over are losing their jobs.' You would think that a year that began with the end of the Cold War would wind up being more joyous."
Instead, the Christmas spirit of good cheer is being crowded by the daily headlines. The economic recession and the threat of war with Iraq have turned the expression "peace on Earth," usually a joyful proclamation, into a wistful prayer of hope, say local clergy.
"Among religious people who tend to be activist, there is this sense of deepening trouble," says John Springer, executive director of Baltimore Clergy and Laity Concerned, an ecumenical group that addresses peace and justice issues. "I have no doubt there's a connection between all the money being spent [for the military build-up in the Persian Gulf] and the lack of money available for local neighborhoods."
With less money being pumped into communities, Springer says, the upshot is "hate, violence and frustration among people who are feeling they can't find work and don't see lot of hope around them."
The Christmas message of peace, he adds, should focus on "the more religious and biblical sense of the word 'peace,' which is justice, as opposed to the more popular idea of peace as a way of letting go, feeling good, forgetting our troubles. If we focus on justice, we can begin to attack the problems that make this such a stressful period."
The Rev. Richard Lawrence, the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church downtown, says that Jesus' birth promised Christians that life is "all blessed, all redeemed, all going-somewhere. God isn't just playing around with blocks, he's leading us in a definite direction."
This doesn't mean that people should study current events for signs from God, says Lawrence.
"War and a bad economy don't necessarily contain special meaning in and of themselves," he states. "But there's meaning in trying to carry on in spite of those things."
If there is to be fighting in the Middle East, it would have a particularly crushing effect on the black community, claims the Rev. Frank Ellis Drumwright Jr., the director of the Morgan Christian Center at Morgan State University.
"Most of the enlisted men and women in the armed forces are black, and I think they're there because they found that all the hype about getting a good education and a good job was just . . . hype," he says.
Still, the work of all the military personnel is in line with the Christmas-related concept of sacrifice, says Drumwright, who is an ordained Baptist minister.
"In the birth of Jesus, there was a mother, Mary, who was sacrificing something; a father, Joseph, who was sacrificing something and, of course, there was God's sacrifice of entering this world as a baby," he adds. "I mean, his love for us was so great, he took that risk for us, the risk of taking human form."
The economy may be turning sour and war may loom on the horizon, but that won't ruin Christmas for the Rev. William Yingling, the pastor of St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hampden.
"After all, look at the state of the world when Christ was born," explains Yingling, who heads the Hampden-Woodberry-Remington Ministerium, a group of pastors in those north Baltimore neighborhoods. "Christ came into the world at a time of extreme turmoil and strife. The Israelites were having their problems, the world was under the heal of the Roman Empire. It was anything but a peaceful and loving world that Christ was born into. Yet, when he came, he entered the hearts and minds of people at that time, and has been doing so ever since."
Gary Gillespie, a member of the Homewood Friends Meeting and an official of the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, says Christmas "had a powerful meaning of peace and goodwill for me when I was younger."
Now, he tends to feel angry at the recent turn of events in the world. Christmas, however, reminds him to try to use his emotion creatively.
"It's important to be angry, but you have to do it without hating," Gillespie says. "I've tried to channel my anger into ways of making social change."
Gillespie's birthday falls on Christmas Day. His wish for the day is that calm heads will prevail in the Persian Gulf crisis, that peace really will reign on Earth.