A union political and priestly Trading public office for ministry, Gilchrist finds shelter for ideals

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 26, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- The spiritual odyssey of Charles W. Gilchrist, from high political office in Maryland to an inner-city ministry here, is about to take a new turn.

The two-term Montgomery County executive is coming back to Baltimore right after this week's Democratic convention. He will join the New Song ministry in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood Oct. 1.

"It's a wonderful time for us to be going home," he said. "We had always wanted to get back to the Baltimore-Washington area and Baltimore just seems to have the right scale."

Gilchrist, 59, surprised many in Maryland when he left politics for the Episcopal priesthood in 1986. For the last five years, he has been the executive director of the Cathedral Shelter system.

Before he leaves Chicago, he will brief old colleagues from Maryland and other state convention delegates on a tour of his various projects -- a shelter for recovering drug abusers, a long-term residence for homeless women and a food pantry.

But they will not get a sermon from their old colleague, who was himself a delegate at two Democratic conventions.

"I don't consider myself a commentator on public policies," Gilchrist said yesterday during a goodbye party. But he can show them an effort to "provide stability, a second chance and long-term housing.

"It's what we do," he said.

Cathedral's new, $2.5-million shelter is being renovated -- with funds from the city, the federal government and $800,000 from private sources. With Washington pulling back, he says, more partnerships like this will be needed.

Over the years, he said, he has maintained friendships in Maryland dating to the early '60s, when his family lived in Bolton Hill.

He was a young lawyer then at Venable, Baetjer & Howard. His colleagues there included Paul S. Sarbanes, now a U.S. senator, and Robert C. Embry Jr., head of the Abell Foundation. He and Embry were classmates at Williams College and Harvard Law School.

Embry suggested that he try to connect with the New Song community leaders, he said. His partners at New Song are to raise $7 million for a community center.

Gilchrist's parishioners at the Church of the Epiphany, where he conducted services yesterday, have no doubt the goal will be reached.

"Charlie has a wonderful ability to focus on the practical steps to get things done. He's one of those rare persons who is a deeply humane administrator," said Bernard O. Brown, former dean of the chapel at the University of Chicago and a member of the shelter's board of directors.

When he announced his career change in 1986, cynics wondered if it was a more dramatic form of midlife crisis, a self-indulgence that would not last. Those who knew him well were not surprised.

"He was a priest masquerading as a politician," said Blair Lee IV, who was Gilchrist's lobbyist in Annapolis. "There isn't a false bone in his body."

But the move was abrupt and even his wife, Phoebe, acknowledges some surprise.

"I thought he was Democratic Party to the core. He had put so much into it already. I didn't see the change coming." she said. Indeed, there were some who thought he might be governor of Maryland some day.

His moment of insight came while his son, Donald, was ill with a brain tumor. It was a crisis that allowed him a new perspective, he said. He made no bargain with God, but he recognized a need to lead a more spiritual life.

"I think it was there, though I had kind of rejected it, I had a feeling the church didn't respond to real problems of people."

What he is doing now, his friends say, amounts to a productive union of vocations -- the political and the priestly.

His success is easily seen.

Board member Brown says the shelter system was "in bad shape" when Gilchrist arrived in the neighborhood, one of the poorest in Chicago and located three blocks east of the convention center. Now the shelter system has expanded, employs 40 people and has a congregation of people who wonder how they will get along without him.

"He and Phoebe have been right here with us," said Mary L. Bennett, 70, who was one of the church's first black members in the late 1950s.

"We're going to miss his kindness, his warmth, his heart," said her daughter, Sharon.

In Baltimore, the Gilchrists will live in Sandtown-Winchester, a 12-block neighborhood with hundreds of vacant houses, a serious drug problem and epidemic gun violence.

"We like being part of the community. We've been very connected to this community so this will just be another step," Mrs. Gilchrist said.

He will join a community of spiritual leaders and neighborhood residents who have been establishing a network of helping agencies in Sandtown-Winchester even before the city and the Enterprise Foundation arrived.

Gilchrist's working title is to be director of operations, but he is likely to work in the drug rehabilitation programs and promotion of small businesses.

Gilchrist struck his new associates as just the sort of man they need: well-connected outside their inner-city precinct but willing to live there as they do.

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