Pastors unite to bridge city's east-west division Ministers' initiative targets common woes

March 14, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

It's not something you can readily see. It's not something you can feel or touch. But under the surface of everyday life in the city lies an age-old rift between East Baltimore and West Baltimore, a gulf of perceptions about the haves and the have-nots.

Now, for the first time in decades, pastors from both sides of the city are coming together in an effort to heal the breach and create a new, more unified power base.

"You'd have to have been from Baltimore to understand," said Pastor Anthony Johnson, who grew up on the west side and now represents the other side of town as first vice president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore (CURE). "There's always been a rift in the church, politically, socially. There's always been a rift between East Baltimore and West Baltimore."

CURE and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance are co-sponsoring an initiative to bring about unity between east and west siders, leaders said, inspired by their faith and concerns about a city rife with abandoned buildings and drugs, a dearth of decent housing and jobs, and a school system in disarray.

Launched this week, the ministers' initiative is guided by spirituality, health care, education, community, economic development, politics and youth. A citywide clergy summit to further develop the agenda is scheduled April 17.

Cutting across religious, political, social and racial lines, the initiative is aimed at bringing together hundreds of clergy representing more than 100,000 parishioners in the Baltimore region.

"A major thrust is to speak to the political establishment of Baltimore and Maryland to say that the clergy will never again be divided but will speak as a united voice," said the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a leading representative of the west side.

"The church in Baltimore city has lost its voice and prominence in Baltimore city," Johnson said. "A black politician could not have been elected at one time unless they had the support of the faith community. That changed in the last 10 to 15 years. We are trying to unite as that one voice again. We're trying to come back as that power base."

Beyond the church, some say the rift manifests itself on the basketball courts, in games between Dunbar High School (east) and Edmondson High School (west). Others have witnessed it in fights between East Baltimore inmates and West Baltimore inmates. And still others have seen it in the unspoken distinction between East Baltimore Democrats and West Baltimore Democrats.

And then there are those who say the rift never existed.

"In many regards, it was more mythical than actual fact," said Nathan C. Irby Jr., executive secretary of the city liquor board, a former city council member and state senator from the East side.

Real or imagined, the rift goes back to the old days.

Patterns emerged during the era of segregation, when East Baltimore drew newcomers from the rural South while West Baltimore was home to the major black institutions -- the Afro-American newspaper, the local headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Pennsylvania Avenue, the shopping and entertainment mecca that featured the likes of Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday.

The west side was viewed as more prosperous, the east grimier. West Baltimore grew to be seen as the part of town with better schools, bigger churches and the townhouses of black doctors, lawyers and educators. It was the home of prominent families such as the Mitchells and the Murphys. East Baltimore was perceived as less educated and poorer.

The perception continues today, even if the reality has changed. "There's always been a perception that West Baltimore is better than East Baltimore, that East Baltimore is inferior or lower class," Johnson said. "But there's been a changing of the guard within the last couple of years. Pastors of East Baltimore, they've come to the point where they're heard more than in the past."

Pastors could be heard in stentorian voices Thursday evening on the east side at Zion Baptist Church, which towers over the surrounding row houses on North Caroline Street. Beyond the gray stone church, in the second-floor chapel, women handed out programs to about 100 people attending the launching of the initiative, a "call to unity" prayer service.

A sign behind the podium instructed the gathering: "The PREVAILING POWER of PRAYER will PRODUCE the PROMISED VISION of GOD." What followed was a crescendo of song and prayer, clapping and hugging, and "thank you Lord," with hands aloft.

The walls between east and west seem to have begun to tumble. Along the Charles Street corridor, which divides east from west, only a skeleton remains where construction crews have torn down Hamburger's, a Baltimore retail institution where generations once bought their fathers' ties.

For the city, it was a matter not of spirituality, but of aesthetics. "It really wasn't conducive to the type of atmosphere we were looking for -- light and air and openness," said public works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher.

But suddenly, through the steel girders, there is a clear view from east to west.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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