BUILD turns 20 with gusto Advocate for poor lists gains, challenges in lively celebration

February 10, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Robert Matthews got a scholarship for Morehouse College in Atlanta. Darlene McClain bought a three-bedroom house cheaper than it costs to live in public housing. Renee Brown now earns nearly $2 more than minimum wage at the World Trade Center.

All spoke as examples of the successes of Baltimore United in Leadership Development (BUILD), which celebrated its 20th birthday yesterday at a lively ceremony at City Temple of Baltimore Baptist Church at Dolphin and Eutaw streets.

BUILD is an interdenominational church-based group that builds houses, fights for "living wages" for workers and helps the poor.

BUILD leaders recalled the group's humble beginnings in 1977 with 10 congregations. In fiery speeches yesterday that left hundreds of congregants shouting praise, they promised to continue to confront power and rock the status quo.

"BUILD will be around long after we are gone, because BUILD understands that power is arrogant," said the Rev. Vernon Dobson, pastor of Union Baptist Church and one of the organization's impassioned founders. "Power has no moral character."

Not satisfied to simply reminisce, the preachers and others attacked a major downtown bank for not paying some employees more than the minimum wage. They criticized pastors who would rather attend shopping center openings than join their cause.

And they took a sly swipe at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"I've seen the BUILD organization bring down some pretty big people because they ran out of time," Dobson shouted from the pulpit. He then turned to Schmoke, sitting to his left, and said with a smile: "Welcome Mr. Mayor." Schmoke smiled.

BUILD has been politically active since its start in Baltimore. It courted Schmoke and incumbent Clarence H. Du Burns in the 1987 mayoral race; both candidates accompanied BUILD leaders on a tour of housing projects in Brooklyn.

The BUILD project that stands out most is the Nehemiah housing program. Begun in 1987 under the leadership of the Enterprise Foundation, it resulted in the construction of 300 homes -- mostly for low-income homeowners -- in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester and Penn-North neighborhoods.

That was followed by 28 homes built in Cherry Hill. The third Nehemiah project, 150 newly constructed and rehabilitated homes in the Eastside communities of Oliver, Old Town and Johnston Square, was begun last year. Officials announced yesterday that another 300 homes will be built in Sandtown-Winchester.

But BUILD has other accomplishments.

BUILD, now made up of 47 churches, has fought against bank red-lining and high insurance rates for the poor and conducted a politically charged battle for nursing home reforms.

Institutions across Baltimore, Dobson said, "watched and behaved because of BUILD."

The group got a scholarship for Matthews to Morehouse College in Atlanta so he could study business. "They were able to get the funds, and I was able to make it," he told the church service yesterday.

For McClain, it meant a place to live. She grew up in Cherry Hill, one of eight children, and went on public assistance when she left home. She was paying $416 a month in rent to live in city public housing, but through BUILD, she bought a house with a mortgage payment that is $100 less.

She asked for support for others so they can "fulfill their dream and live in a community they grew up in."

And Brown, who works at the World Trade Center in Baltimore, is now paid far above minimum wage.

"That raise has meant a lot to me," she said. "I've been able to pay off some bills and make some home improvements. Now at the trade center, everybody is satisfied. Now, no one wants to do anything to get fired or quit."

Schmoke, who has had disagreements with BUILD, particularly on budget allocations, called the group "the heart and soul of Baltimore," adding that its ability to bring together fragmented and contentious causes "is in itself an accomplishment."

But much work needs to be done, he said.

Schmoke called on BUILD to reach out to more churches "and get them involved. Twenty years is a good time to take stock and reach out in a new way."

Dobson railed against fellow ministers who he said are afraid to meet with BUILD. "There are a lot of them," he said, joking that many are too interested in attending shopping center openings. "That's the new thing for young preachers."

He issued a warning to the crowd: "Don't come to the next meeting unless you bring your preacher with you."

In typical BUILD style, an impassioned Carol Reckling, a BUILD leader, took on the establishment, leaving the congregation with a challenge.

"Go to places where you are uncomfortable going," she said. "Go to places where people say you have no right to be. Go to Annapolis."

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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