East Baltimore church confronts drug trade

May 21, 1992|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

A little more than two years ago, some members of Israel Baptist Church in East Baltimore left a Sunday service only to discover that dealers had stashed drugs in the exhaust pipes of their cars.

Before the parishioners could even reach their parked vehicles, they had to push past the junkies and pushers who loitered outside the church located at 1220 N. Chester St.

"People were afraid to come to church activities because of them," the Rev. H. Walden Wilson II, pastor of the church, said yesterday. "They [dealers] asked people if they wanted to buy drugs as they came out of the church. They put drugs in the church Dumpster and in our members' cars -- even in my car."

So the pastor and many of the church's 2,000-member congregation decided to confront the neighborhood drug problem.

They began holding a portion of their Sunday service outside of thechurch sanctuary in the midst of the users and dealers. They marched through the neighborhood singing powerful gospel songs and they began preaching the word of the Lord on drug-infested corners.

And they began holding noon, mid-week services at various locations in the neighborhood, a move that astonished the drug hustlers.

Yesterday, more than 100 members came to a noon ceremony at the church to celebrate the success of the 2-year-old program, dubbed "Sanctuary Without Walls."

The celebration was held outside of the church, in front of a boarded rowhouse that police said was once used to store drugs. Several blocks away young men gathered on corners and strained to look at the parishioners.

Afterward, Mr. Wilson led a march through the neighborhood.

"People in the community usually just turned their heads at the dealers, now they aren't afraid to call the police," Mr. Wilson said. "We've made a difference and will continue to make a difference.

"They [dealers] don't believe we're going to stay and keep doing this. We've got to show consistency. We're out here in the cold and with our umbrellas. The church stayed inside too long, we turned our heads too long."

After the church took a more visible role in fighting drugs, the police department noticed a drop in calls from area residents. One police official estimated that crime and drug activity has decreased by 75 percent since the Sanctuary Without Walls began.

"Israel Baptist Church has done for this community something that the police couldn't do," said Maj. Alvin Winkler, who heads the Eastern District police station. "The community appreciates it when they can sit on their steps at night without fear."

Major Winkler said that he used to receive several calls daily from residents complaining of drug activity in the area or saying they could not sleep because of hearing random gunshots.

Calls about problems in the neighborhood are now infrequent, and one officer currently patrols an area in which four officers were assigned not so long ago, Major Winkler said.

"This has taken the fear out of the community and the residents will now come and say who is selling drugs," the major said.

One resident, Johnnie Williams, 72, who has lived on Mura Street near the church for more than 40 years, said that he once was afraid to sit on his front porch steps.

"I had to have a shotgun behind my door to sit on steps, sometimes two of them," Mr. Williams said. "Now I can take off my shoes and sit there and enjoy myself."

As he spoke, a police helicopter soared overhead and hovered over an area not far away. Mr. Williams pointed to an area about a block away and several young men.

"You can't be scared of them," he said.

Since the Sanctuary Without Walls began, some of the alcoholics, junkies and prostitutes who once roamed the streets near the church now come to the services. "In the community where they said nothing good could come about," Mr. Wilson said, "we've shown they're wrong."

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