Saving Grace

May 24, 1997|By Antero Pietila

AS THE SCHMOKE administration plans to sell part of Druid Hill Park to the United House of Prayer, the congregation's current church near the Murphy Homes housing project is slated to become -- a park!

Go figure.

The question is this: Why is the city spending huge amounts of taxpayers' money -- and bureaucrats' time -- on all kinds of master plans, when it has no intention of implementing them?

The Druid Hill Park controversy is a case in point.

In a master plan that took more than a year and dozens of community meetings to develop, the recreation and parks department in October 1995 addressed the question of the 8.8-acre parcel the Schmoke administration wants to sell to the United House of Prayer.

Sale never considered

The option of sale was never considered. The plan recommended that the wooded, triangular site and its fire-damaged landmark buildings be offered to a park-related non-profit organization to renovate and occupy.

This was not done.

Instead, the parcel became a convenient vehicle to appease Del. Hattie Harrison, an influential eastside leader, who is an officer of the United House of Prayer.

Her congregation had made a bad deal. It had bought the Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church property on Liberty Heights Avenue without realizing that parking and other zoning issues would prevent it from building a big sanctuary.

Ashburton-area residents were relieved. They did not want Daddy Grace's church in their upscale neighborhood, whose residents include Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. (Under the Schmoke plan, city would effectively swap the Druid Hill Park site for the Liberty Heights Avenue parcel).

Sweet Daddy Grace -- as his followers called him -- has been dead for 37 years now. A rival of Father Divine, he was the flamboyant leader of a Pentecostalist cult that began and thrived during the Depression.

Daddy Grace sported finger nails several inches long painted in the colors of the American flag. He baptized believers with a fire hose and hawked Daddy Grace hair straightener, Daddy Grace skin cream, Daddy Grace tooth paste and soap.

"Lung Block"

Daddy Grace appealed to the poorest of the poor. When the United House of Prayer's sanctuary in the 600 block West Preston Street was built more than 50 years ago, it was around the corner from the infamous ''Lung Block,'' which derived its name from the astronomical tuberculosis rate of its residents.

Daddy Grace's message was simple: ''Never mind about God. Salvation is by Grace only. . . . If you sin against God, Grace will save you. But if you sin against Grace, God cannot save you.''

Under plans the city intends to submit to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in July, the West Preston Street church and the nearby George Street Elementary School are to be torn down to make way to a circular park that will be the centerpiece of Murphy Homes redevelopment efforts.

If that happens, the city will end up buying the United House of Prayer's West Preston street church property as well, making a sweet deal sweeter still.

In some neighborhood meetings, residents have got the impression that selling part of Druid Hill Park would help the parks and recreation department ease its budget woes.

That's not true.

According to Alma Bell, a spokeswoman, any revenues realized from the sale would go to the city's general fund. The only savings to the department would be that it would no longer have to care for the 8.8 acres of land.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/24/97

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