Evangelical churches in the suburbs and the inner city can be united in advocating rights for the poor, overcoming their differences of race, culture and economic interests, an East Baltimore preacher believes.
This will be a new experience for some churches that have focused their missions on personal conversion to Christianity and charitable relief, says the Rev. Joe Ehrmann, a former defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts who runs a youth ministry in poor neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But he believes evangelicals are compelled by their own belief in the absolute authority of the Bible to seek reform on behalf of people who are at the margins of society.
"We want to teach people to integrate the problems of the city with their faith," said Mr. Ehrmann, whose Door ministry on North Chester Street is starting the social advocacy ministry, Project Justice.
He has already gathered a network of about 30 evangelical churches, from city and suburb, affluent and poor, to support his Door ministry of tutoring, sports and family counseling to city youths.
Now he is asking those churches to confront the social and political structures that create the disparities among them.
"I can't sit in Baltimore County and say, 'My kids are in county schools and they're OK. I don't need to worry,' " he said about poor children in city schools that receive less money per pupil than most suburban ones.
Project Justice will take up issues in four areas: poverty, racism, children and youth and family disintegration.
"This is an area that the evangelical church has not taken grasp of," said Kim Turner, a community organizer hired to administer Project Justice. Part of her job will be to stimulate talk within evangelical churches about issues, such as lead paint poisoning of children in poor housing, and to ask how their fidelity to biblical authority might compel them to take a stand.
Mrs. Turner acknowledged that the urban-suburban split that often occurs as legislators ponder such problems, and their implications for public spending and taxation, may arise among the churches in Project Justice. But as the different churches reflect on how to act, she said, the question will be, "If I am a child of God, what is my responsibility here, notwithstanding whether I live in the city or in the county."
A first step toward achieving that unity among disparate churches was an evening of preaching and singing last Friday in the auditorium at Lake Clifton High School with about 500 people in attendance, mostly from the churches in the Project Justice network.
The preacher was Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Washington-based ecumenical Christian community with evangelical roots. Through its magazine and advocacy work, Sojourners aims at a radical understanding of the social justice themes of the Bible.
The Bible in the hands of Mr. Wallis was not only the reference point for his message but a stage prop in his chastisement of Christians whose material comfort has overshadowed the biblical mandate of justice for the downtrodden.
"My text tonight is the whole Bible," Mr. Wallis said, and told the story of a seminary student who once conducted an experiment in cutting out of the Bible all passages that referred to the poor. "When he was all through, that old Bible was literally in shreds," Mr. Wallis said, waving one aloft. "This is the American Bible -- full of holes, from all we have taken out."
Mr. Wallis dwelt on the gulf that is widening around the world between rich and poor, arguing that the inequities of biblical times would pale in comparison with those of today.
"The logic of the system we have inherited has run its course," said Mr. Wallis, proclaiming that a better day was coming. "All our problems stem from this one: We have lost our sense of being brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God."
Christian songs, from a contemporary music format to gospel style, often brought the interracial audience to its feet and had them hugging and shaking hands.
But "the hard part is ahead of us," said Murphy Harrison, a deacon at Rising Zion Baptist Church, whose storefront church in East Baltimore lies in the midst of the crime and poverty that Project Justice intends to address.
In a conversation after his gospel choir had sung, Mr. Harrison said he fully expected the spending and taxing implications of social justice to come up as the churches talk about economic and social disparities. "There's not enough of that discussion taking place," he said.
The Rev. Jerry Cooper, an associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Towson, said his church was already involved in a coalition of Presbyterian churches -- some evangelical like his and others theologically liberal -- that promotes an agenda of social justice issues. But he said Project Justice would approach it from an evangelical perspective.
Project Justice will eventually involve evangelical Christians in "a lot of lobbying, a lot of protest, a lot of sign-waving," said the Rev. Michael Coles, pastor of Lamb of Hope Evangelical Free Church, a congregation that he described as "the underemployed, the unemployed, those who are oppressed by the system."
Project Justice aims to have a group of churches ready to advance a set of issues by next year's meeting of the General Assembly.
Mr. Ehrmann says the claims of the Bible should bridge any initial differences among the churches over how to approach those issues. "If they see it in scripture, in the Bible, you can't blow that off," he said.