Times so tough even city church hasn't a prayer

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 07, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

God has been placed in protective custody on Aisquith Street.

Stretched across the front of the Urban Bible Fellowship Church -- the magnificently steepled former Church of St. James and St. John, built in 1865 -- there's a high metal fence, chained tightly shut, with barbed wire running all along the top to keep out the immediate world.

For His own protection, they've hidden God behind lock and key. Ancient stained-glass windows that once graced the church have been shattered. There are window panes missing in some places, and boards in others. Last summer looters made off with the church's air conditioner and copper rain spouts.

''You know how kids are,'' a man inside the church rectory, around the corner, says yesterday morning. ''They throw rocks and stones.''

He shrugs his shoulders and asks that you not put his name in the newspaper. He's standing behind a couple of locked doors located behind a separate fenced entrance with more barbed wire. He says he doesn't know when -- or if -- the fence might come down.

''It's very sad,'' says Joan Ruzicka, who's worked at the Institute of Notre Dame, next door to the church, for the past 11 years. ''We used to use the church for our girls, for Masses and school ceremonies. Now they've had all this vandalism.''

Across Aisquith Street is the Latrobe Homes housing project, low-income apartments that were gutted and rebuilt a couple of years ago. This was supposed to be a sign of better times for the poor. U.S. Housing Secretary Jack Kemp showed up one day to pronounce it symbolic of Washington's commitment to impoverished American cities.

But on Tuesday morning, when some people in this city were going to the polls, the housing project looked awful, a disheartening sign of some people's lack of caring about their own neighborhood, or their anger and desperation, and certainly a hint that it takes more than an apartment fix-up when people's lives are still without hope.

In a frosty morning breeze, clumps of trash blew about randomly in courtyards, and metal screen doors flapped loosely. Graffiti marred red brick walls. There were big trash Dumpsters next to each court, but some people had simply dumped their garbage in the street at the base of the Dumpsters rather than toss it inside, a gesture that seemed either incredibly lazy or simply contemptuous of all civility.

And all day Tuesday, the people who still have dreams about this city went to polling places and cast votes like prayers upon the water.

''Tomorrow I'm going to work,'' Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Tuesday night, at the end of a triumphant day, at the close of an empty shell of a political season. ''I wish I could say I'm going to Disneyland, but I'm not.''

Everybody at his campaign headquarters chuckled. It was a brief moment for laughing past the graveyard. What is happening at places like the old Latrobe housing project, and what is happening at the Urban Bible Fellowship Church across the street, where God is placed under house protection, causes the laughter to choke on itself.

''People are in pain,'' the mayor said in a quieter moment Tuesday night. ''I know it.''

Down a hallway stood the Baltimore state's attorney, Stuart Simms, who watches the pain march into court every day. As we now live in a time where economists determine the future livelihood of cops and prosecutors and various social scientists, Simms holds his breath.

''The next 12 months,'' he says, ''are crucial. If the economy turns around in a year, maybe we can hold on until then. If not . . . ''

''Then what?'' Simms is asked.

''We pray,'' he says.

The same two words are uttered by Edward Woods, the city's police commissioner. Election night, Woods glanced toward nearby streets and said, ''It's frightening.''

He held two fingers an inch apart. ''The criminal's got a brain this big, see?'' he said. ''But he hears about cuts in the Police Department, and he hears about cuts in the state's attorney's office, and he's thinking, 'Great. They're cutting back. It's gonna be a piece of cake.' ''

For a lot of street hoods, it already is. The cops spin about madly, and even when they turn open-and-shut cases over to prosecutors, a cry is heard from city judges: There's no place to put these people.

And so the neighborhoods get a little rougher and the criminals get a little more brazen. The old Church of St. James and John, on Aisquith Street by the Latrobe housing project, held on through difficult times but finally folded about two years ago. The new parishioners, the Urban Bible Fellowship Church, number about 75.

The man in the rectory says they're trying to fix up the old edifice, worn down not only by vandals but by time.

''Most of our help is volunteer,'' he says. ''The Lord sends them, and whoever he sends, we use them.''

The Lord needs all the help he can get. He's not meant to be kept behind barbed wire like this. But those vandals in the street, they're so dumb. They think they can hurt God with something as puny as rocks and stones.

But all that they ruin is their city.

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