They came up from East Baltimore's narrow streets, determined rivulets of humanity flowing together into a roaring stream.
More than 3,000 people, arriving on foot from about 18 churches scattered throughout the area, converged on North Caroline Street and marched to the Eastside District Court building yesterday afternoon, bringing a message of hope that drugs and killings would stop claiming their sons and daughters.
"It's time for God's children to come out on the streets," the Rev. Marshall F. Prentice, pastor of Zion Baptist Church on North Caroline Street, said to his congregation moments before they joined the march."We're marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion!"
The rally, organized by an organization of about 45 East Baltimore churches called CURE, or Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore, drew several elected officials,including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Mr. Schmoke, who earlier had attended services at Zion Baptist and who marched with the congregation, said he was concerned FTC by the rising level of drug violence that helped boost the number of homicides last year to 305.
The crowd, whose ranks of chanting and singing participants increased despite a light rain, gathered little more than 12 hours after a shooting in West Baltimore claimed the city's eighth homicide victim of 1991.
"We didn't fight slavery in the 19th Century only to find ourselves in a new slavery in the 20th Century, a slavery of crime and drugs," Mr. Schmoke said.
Mr. Schmoke said the black community had had a tradition of turning to the church as a source of inspiration and organization, particularly when it has been most seriously threatened.
He said he believes the church could again be effective in persuading the community to solve a vexing problem.
"Some would argue that getting away from that tradition is what has gotten us into trouble," Mr. Schmoke said, standing at the edge of the crowd before the march began. "So it might be a good idea to reaffirm some of those traditions."
The people who stood nearby were diverse in both age and gender, with gray-haired matrons standing shoulder to shoulder with youths with fade haircuts. Several members of the crowd who were interviewed said they knew someone who had been murdered.
Debora Womack, a tall woman with dark curly hair, said she marched because she is concerned that her 12-year-old daughter is growing up in an age in which shootings and drug dealing are increasingly common.
"When my daughter gets to be my age, it will be a normal thing and we don't want that," said Ms. Womack, who said she knows four people who have been killed in drug-related murders.
"I'm afraid even to walk near boys my daughter's age because they have guns and they are selling drugs," said Ms. Womack, who lives in Waverly and but attends services at the Bible Way Baptist Church at Port and Biddle streets.
Nearby, Reginald Harris, a night shift food worker, stood in the rain with his two sons, listening as several ministers and the mayor rallied against violence through a microphone they passed from one to another.
Mr. Harris brought his children to the rally hoping they might see how alarmed members of the community have become by drugs and murder.
"I want them to see this," he said, as his sons looked up at him. "I want them to use their eyes and their imaginations."
The crowd in which Mr. Harris stood spilled into the intersection of North Avenue and Harford Road, bringing cars to a standstill and forcing police officers to re-route traffic.
Maj. Alvin A. Winkler, who as commander of the Eastern District was responsible for crowd control, didn't seem to mind, however.
He applauded one minister who suggested that congregants become the eyes and ears of their communities, and call the police when crimes occur.
The more people that can be persuaded to take a stand against crime and drugs, he said, the better chance the police will have to keep people safe.
"This is good," he said wistfully. "Community involvement is what we need."