Church is committed to serving community Couple trying to change lives

August 29, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

If you wanted to make another movie about urban decay in America, you could start at the corner of 25th Street and Greenmount Avenue and go in any direction.

Drugs, high unemployment and deep discouragement line the littered streets.

Yet, it is the perfect neighborhood for Douglas and Rosanna Miles.

A year ago, the Rev. Miles and his wife decided to attack the problems at their source and founded Koinonia Baptist Church in a former auto supply warehouse north of 25th Street.

From that brick and cinder-block base, they have worked to bring vitality to a neighborhood trapped on a treadmill, where two steps forward are followed by two back in an area Eastern District police say is a "hotbed" of drug activity.

Koinonia is committed to serving the community. Its commitment is written in big letters on a banner slung just inside the front door: "A Church Moving Beyond the Walls."

Mr. Miles, 44, is a 1970 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University. He has a master's degree from the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary and is program director of the Maryland Food Committee, a private fund-raising organization. Mrs. Miles has 14 years of experience as youth director at two churches.

They probably could write their own tickets. So why are they plowing their energy and time into a 100-member church in the middle of a poor and dangerous neighborhood?

"We felt the need here for a strong witness who was community-minded. It's the opportunity to minister where ministry is needed," Mr. Miles says calmly.

He believes that black churches are the key to making a positive change in urban America.

"We have to accept the responsibility," he says. "The black community would get worse without the black church. Black churches have made inroads elsewhere.

"We go door to door. We have outdoor services, a food bank, a clothing closet, a youth program," Mr. Miles says. "You can't reach the community by just holding Sunday services."

Until the late 1940s, the neighborhood around 25th and Greenmount was mostly white and blue-collar, populated mainly Irish and German and a few Orthodox Jewish families. Its men rode the streetcar to work at Sparrows Point or Bethlehem Shipyard, or to many of the other plants that made Baltimore hum with industrial activity.

Its women had large families and stayed home to care for them. Many families attended St. Ann's Catholic Church at 22nd and Greenmount, a religious and social center for the neighborhood's white families.

Black families lived in the alleys, like 22 1/2 Street, and along Guilford Avenue up to 25th Street. The men worked as janitors and elevator operators, and did odd jobs for white people. The women looked after their children and took in washing, scrubbed steps and cleaned windows.

There was crime, but it was not the vicious, all-consuming matter it is now. Alcohol was a major problem. Drugs were little known or understood.

The neighborhood's makeup changed rapidly in the late 1940s and early 1950s as blockbusting became epidemic, and white families moved to new subdivisions in the suburbs. The decline was slow but steady through the next three decades as low employment, a weakening educational system and the drug culture took hold.

Newspaper stories offer glimpses of recent events in the neighborhood:

* Man shot and killed, woman critically wounded in the 2500 block of Greenmount Ave. (March 4).

* Twelve people shot during a crap game at 21st and Greenmount (April 10).

* Man shot and killed on front steps of his home, 27th and Greenmount (June 4).

* Woman abducted at 25th and Greenmount and raped (May 30).

Single parents dominate in a neighborhood where parenting used to mean two people. Cursory education has replaced the sisterly strictness of the Catholic schools and the basic values that dedicated teachers taught to orderly classes in the public schools.

Summer program

"We have children 9 and 10 years old here that can't read or write," Mr. Miles says. "For every kid who drops out of high school, you can bet big bucks that kid will become a criminal or an addict."

He and his wife operated a six-week program this summer for 50 neighborhood children ages 6 through 12, with the help of three college students and several high school students fulfilling their 75-hour volunteer service now required in Maryland for graduation from public schools. (Most private high schools also have volunteer requirements).

An $8,000 grant from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and $3,000 from a city anti-drug program helped fund the effort.

The college students are members of President Clinton's Summer of Service campaign, a seven-week program during which they work in low-income neighborhoods. They get $4.25 an hour, plus lunch and bus passes, and earn $1,000 toward college tuition.

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