For 9 years, clergyman enriches poor neighborhood, shining 'light' Departing minister helped Sandtown to achieve a vision

November 27, 1995|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Mark R. Gornik has always stood out on the streets of Sandtown-Winchester.

He is white and has freckles. He was raised in the affluent suburb of Ruxton and graduated from Towson High School. He favors wire-rimmed glasses and conservative ties. At 34, he looks a bit like a young George Bush.

Nine years ago, as a young Presbyterian seminarian, Mr. Gornik moved to Sandtown, a nearly all-black West Baltimore neighborhood. It was among the city's poorest and most drug-riddled, a place where the streets were littered with broken glass and broken lives.

He befriended new neighbors on the basketball court. Some thought he was a police officer, or a drug dealer, or a real estate speculator. No one thought he was Michael Jordan.

Nine years later, as he prepares to leave Sandtown, Mr. Gornik still stands out. But now it is for what he has accomplished as founding pastor of New Song Community Church, a congregation at Gilmor and Presstman streets with an abiding concern for the poor.

New Song's urban ministries enlist Sandtown residents and outside volunteers to reweave the tattered neighborhood fabric.

Sandtown Habitat for Humanity rehabilitates vacant houses. New Song Community Learning Center tutors dozens of students, runs a middle-school "academy" and nurtures a 60-member children's choir that just made its first compact disc. EDEN Jobs places unemployed residents. New Song Health Center runs a free primary-care clinic.

The common philosophy: Don't do for people what they can do for themselves.

"I was just about to leave the area and then along came Habitat and started shining that light," said Benny Joyner, a retired mason tender who runs a snowball stand on Baker Street and is a Habitat homeowner-to-be. "I give so much credit to [Mr. Gornik] for showing me a light. It's gotten brighter and brighter by the day."

Mr. Gornik and his partners in the New Song experiment, Allan and Susan Tibbels, try not to impose their will, but to help residents achieve their own vision. In part, Mr. Gornik's role has been to connect Sandtown to volunteers and money from suburban churches.

"He is seemingly almost totally selfless, without ego, without any agenda other than helping people who need help and doing it in a way that is not patronizing or condescending," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which has financed New Song projects. "He has lived in the neighborhood he is working in."

Reflecting on his years in Sandtown, Mr. Gornik unrolled what he half-seriously calls New Song's "strategic plan." It is a children's drawing done in response to a question: "What are God's intentions for a neighborhood?"

In the drawing, a street scene with stick figures and boxy buildings, the sun is shining. Mr. Gornik is walking his Labrador Retriever. Mr. Tibbels, a quadriplegic since breaking his neck in a 1981 basketball accident, sits in his wheelchair. Neatly kept houses, a church, a health clinic, a beauty salon, a bakery, a car dealership and other businesses are under a sign proclaiming, "No Drugs."

The children drew their ideal Sandtown seven years ago, when New Song services were held in Mr. Gornik's Mount Street living room and before Habitat had rehabbed a house. Mr. Gornik uses it now to gauge New Song's success. "We've accomplished a substantial portion of this vision," he said.

To be sure, burned-out buildings still stand within a stone's throw of New Song. Drug peddlers haunt nearby corners. One family in five owns its home. Seven of 10 Sandtown children live in poverty. Few live with both their mother and father.

But on a few blocks, Habitat families live in houses that once were eyesores and pay off their mortgages. The sidewalks are clean, and the corners are empty. Normalcy is spreading in New Song's 12-block focus area, thanks to a formula of no profit, interest-free loans, volunteer labor, donated materials and "sweat equity" by homeowners.

Mr. Gornik has begun a year-long sabbatical to write a book about churches' role in cities, using New Song as a case study, and to get married (to Dr. Rita Aszalos, a health center volunteer). Then he plans to grow New Song on fresh ground, possibly in New York's South Bronx.

He leaves the church in the hands of co-pastors, the Rev. Wy Plummer, who is black, and the Rev. Steve Smallman, who is white.

"We've always said we wanted to work ourselves into a new job," Mr. Gornik said. "For me it's been nothing but a privilege. I've gotten way more than I've given."

What made a team of white suburbanites -- with Mr. Gornik, the Tibbels and their two daughters, who lived in Clarksville in

Howard County, at the core -- move into West Baltimore?

"For us as Christians, it was no big deal that we relocated here," Mr. Tibbels said. "For society, it's bold or amazing. We don't see it as remotely amazing. We're just doing what we're supposed to do."

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