A look back in anger, with hope for a future

DAN RODRICKS

October 01, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

Tom Composto started writing the prayer he held in his hands last night in 1968, when, as a young Jesuit priest, he first arrived in Reservoir Hill with the hope of changing the world.

All those years, all that work, all those funerals, all that sadness, and there he was -- Tom Composto standing on the steps of his house, holding three pieces of paper in his hands, reading a "letter to the young men of Whitelock Street," and a prayer for his blighted neighborhood.

"God wouldn't let me sleep until I wrote it down," Composto said.

The people of Reservoir Hill held a candlelight vigil in the chilly dusk to symbolize a determination to take back their sad streets from the drug dealers and addicts.

About 100 men, women and children gathered in front of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center, which Composto and a small group of volunteers have been operating, along with a dental clinic for the poor, since the 1960s. All that Composto ever wanted to say -- in anger, in bitterness, in hope -- finally poured out of him.

Whitelock Street, one of the poorest and most decrepit in Baltimore, has long had a fierce drug problem and the intimidating young men who go with it.

So much has passed before Composto's eyes -- and so little of it has changed.

And yet, he is still there. "I want you to hear me, young men of Whitelock Street," he shouted into the air. "Drugs are sucking the life out of our people. Look around. Look what drugs have done to our neighborhood.

"When you sell drugs to our neighbors, you bring death to all of us. . . .

"What would Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman say if they saw you stealing life from the people they worked so hard to

save? . . . Dr King died with a dream on his lips. You kill to get a buck in your hand. "I have buried too many young men since I came to Whitelock Street 25 years ago. Ask March's Funeral Home how many. Ask how many young men your age he has in his rooms today, and tomorrow and tomorrow.

"I don't want to bury you anymore. I hate death.

"I get to know you. I get to love you. I get to pray prayers at your grave. I don't want to pray prayers at your grave. I want to play keyboard at your marriage.

"You're in my Bible School at seven and in the dirt at 27, if you live that long. Can't you do better than that? "Jail and The Man and drugs. Isn't there anything else in your life? You turn away when I look at you, when I smile at you, when I say, 'Good evening.' Are you embarrassed? Aren't you human anymore? Are you going to hide the rest of your life? Don't you have any plans?

"If you live five more years, where are you going to be? Still on Whitelock Street watching your back? Still a dealer's flunkie with new shoes? "When you buy and use, and spend your drug money, you help the killing. . . . How about the little baby in the trash can? Do you think a drug-free mother would have done that?

"How about that father killed right in front of his little kids? Do you think an educated, drug-free brother would have done that?

"Why don't you try praying? Go ahead. Laugh. But it's safe. Nobody ever OD'd from praying. Nobody ever got shot with a 9-mm prayer. I'm no holy roller. I just want you to stop dying and killing. I want you to stop being a waste of skin. "You've got so much talent. You could be artists and poets and painters and salesmen and doctors and nurses. . . . Many of you are leaders. I see that. Why don't you lead your brothers and sisters out of this swamp instead of into it? You're all salesmen. Why don't you sell life instead of death? Lead our people out of these killing fields."

And so many years after he first established his ministry in Reservoir Hill, long after most men would have been thoroughly jaded, Tom Composto could still say this to the young men of Whitelock Street:

"Some of you tell me you want to change. You tell me you can't go on this way, but you're stuck. You tell me you love your mothers and sisters and brothers, and you're hurting them. Believe me.

"There is a way out. Ask me. I'll help you start your way out. I'll help you dream your dream and make it work."

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