Free-wheeling charity clashes with landlord Agape House, church bicker over costs and policies

January 01, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Agape House, one of Baltimore's best-known homes for neglected children, is in the midst of a crisis and might soon be leaving the Southwest Baltimore building that has housed it for 15 years.

Ten days before Christmas, the charity's landlord, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, announced it would charge the charity rent, increasing the cost of occupying the house from nothing to $1,500 a month.

Even with a $500 rebate to the charity from the church, the Rev. Edward G. Robinson, president of Agape House, said the organization cannot afford the bill and will have to cut its services to abused and neglected children or find a new home.

It sounds like a replay of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." But this is not a simple story peopled by Ebenezer Scrooges and Tiny Tims. There are complicating factors.

Among them: Agape House is unlicensed and for years has resisted state pressure to change its free-wheeling operating style. It was uninsured until Dec. 19, four days after the Rev. Walter Burgess, St. Luke's only parish priest, demanded rent and insurance from the charity. And it is changing its mission, from providing homes to orphaned children to housing recovering drug addicts and their families.

The struggle between Agape House and St. Luke's is about people of strong faith and strong wills fighting over issues such as money, liability and control -- of the diocese's property and the charity's direction.

Agape House -- whose name comes from the Greek word for divine love and is pronounced Ah-GOP-ay -- has always been an unconventional charity. When its founder, Carolyn de Borja, got the letter from the parish instituting rent, she interpreted it as an eviction notice. She instructed Robinson to write a letter to the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, Episcopal bishop of Maryland, "basically telling him to go fly a kite," she said.

"My theory is as long as God wants to keep us there, nobody can move us out," she said.

Burgess said he has spent several months trying to get Agape House to produce income for the parish and professionalize its ++ operation, and finally made the Dec. 15 rent demand out of frustration.

The parish originally set a deadline of today to began collecting rent, but Burgess said he will be flexible about the demand. He said he will meet with Robinson next week to try to reach an agreement and added that he would like the charity to remain.

"I don't want them out," he said.

De Borja's single-mindedness has made Agape House an asset to the neighborhood at a time when St. Luke's largely white, working-class parishioners, faced with a decline in their numbers and a struggle to keep their church going, had no time for the largely black and poor Poppleton neighborhood that surrounded them.

"Everybody thought she was doing great work, and the church was glad to have somebody to work with the neighborhood because they weren't interested," said Burgess, who came to St. Luke's in June.

But now, Episcopal officials have decided Agape House has too much freedom and has bent too many rules.

"You have to understand something about Episcopalians," Burgess said. "I'm coming from a group of very stern people who've done things one way for a long time, and they want to keep on doing it that way."

Attendance at St. Luke's had dwindled to 10 or 12 about a year ago, but is back to 40 for Sunday services at the 1,000-seat church. Burgess said St. Luke's can't afford to run the clergy house itself.

In an attempt to revive the parish, the diocese is sending an additional $36,000 a year to St. Luke's this year and next. When that money is gone, the parish might be left with little besides a small endowment and its principal asset: the house at 222 N. Carrollton St. With its high ceilings, inlaid wood floors and fireplaces, it is valued by Episcopal auditors at $1.7 million.

"Agape House has benefited for years from the fact that the parish and ministry of St. Luke's have been essentially nonfunctioning," said Ihloff. "Now it's time for the people of Agape House to get down to the nitty-gritty."

In 13 years, de Borja has survived many such storms. She left a comfortable life in 1984 to work with poor children among the vacant lots and boarded-up houses of Poppleton. She persuaded the diocese to let her use the St. Luke's Clergy House as a shelter for the children of drug addicts and alcoholics. As many as 28 children at a time lived there, often with de Borja as their sole adult caretaker.

When problems came up, de Borja solved them her way. When state child protection officials told her she needed a license to care for so many unrelated children, she went to court and got legal guardianship of the children instead. When a 1996 child molestation allegation was investigated and declared unfounded, Agape House applied for a state license, but failed to complete the application process.

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