Private faith helps guide public life

Mayoral hopefuls lean on foundations of religious beliefs

September 07, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Mayoral candidate Lawrence A. Bell III takes the lectern on a recent Sunday morning at the Christian Community Church of God in Southwest Baltimore and looks out over the congregation.

"We're at the most critical time in our history here in the city," the City Council president says, his voice rising. "And with all the fiery darts, with all the negativity, with all the demonic attack, I'm still standing on my faith in God."

Pretty standard stuff for evangelical church on a Sunday morning, but catch him on the hustings outside and Bell is likely to sound much the same. Whether he portrays himself as the young David facing Goliath, or as a figure like Jesus who was persecuted by Pharisees and Sadducees, Bell, the grandson of a Pentecostal preacher, is comfortable with the idiom of religion.

His two main opponents, Martin O'Malley and Carl Stokes, are less vocal about their faith. Both share a Roman Catholic upbringing, and both underwent the rigors of a Jesuit education. O'Malley and Stokes, though, are a bit more reticent than Bell about open displays of religion.

"I don't think my Catholic beliefs necessarily influence how I would do my job," said Stokes.

But Stokes and O'Malley articulate their private faith and its influence on their public life in a strikingly similar way: the idea that one man can make a difference.

"It was not enough to just have dreams, you have to have faith that one person makes a difference," O'Malley said of the Jesuit philosophy he was taught at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. "You have to be willing to risk action on that faith. And that's kind of a core belief of mine, and that's what kept me in politics."

All three men, the major Democratic candidates for mayor in Baltimore's Sept. 14 primary election, say they find themselves turning to prayer and leaning on the foundations of their religious beliefs to weather the storms of politics and to guide them to do what is right.

A source of strength

Bell's grandmother is Corinna S. Willis, a Pentecostal evangelist. She and her late husband had a small mission, Gethsemane Resurrection Ministries, that was at Walbrook Avenue and Monroe Street in West Baltimore in the early 1980s. As a youth, Bell and his family lived with his grandparents, and he calls Willis a profound influence on his life.

"She taught me that God comes first in everything we do," Bell said. "She has helped me to stay spiritual and not to be tainted by the very carnal nature of politics and the things that we do.

"She always felt that I had a calling for the ministry," said Bell, who is a member of the United House of Prayer for All People in West Baltimore. "I don't know. If I hadn't gone into politics, I might have gone into the ministry. I always try to reconcile those two things."

Bell was "saved," accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior, at age 12 during a Pentecostal church revival. That, in his grandmother's eyes, was a key event in preparing his public pursuits.

"When you're saved, you know when God has something special planned for your life," Willis said. "You begin to watch how God leads and directs you in your Christian walk."

And yet, polls indicate that Bell's campaign is not going well. His poll numbers are falling, and he feels betrayed. Betrayed by O'Malley, whom he once considered a friend but now views as a cynical opportunist; betrayed by African-American political leaders and ministers he feels should support him instead of Stokes; betrayed by overzealous campaign aides who have violated political etiquette in their attacks on the opposition.

Bell expresses that sense of betrayal in the language of the Holy Bible he learned to quote by memory as a child.

"Some months ago, I said to my grandmother: `You know, Grandma, I hate to admit that I hurt,' " Bell told the congregation of Christ Temple Cathedral, a Pentecostal church in Cherry Hill, on a recent Sunday.

"Those people I looked up to, and some of them I patterned myself after, turned against me," he said. "She reminded me where my strength comes from. And I am persuaded that no matter what the media does, no matter what the backstabbers do, no matter what the Pharisees and the Sadducees here in Baltimore do, God is still my friend."

Catholics and politics

O'Malley and Stokes, like many Catholic politicians, are more ambivalent about mixing religion and politics.

O'Malley says that when he speaks in churches where it might be commonplace to hear politics from the pulpit, "One of my throwaway lines is, `Being Catholic, I'm not used to a couple of things in church. One is good music, and the other is politics.'

"Religion is something that is important to me," he says. "I don't talk about it a lot. I assume that all people running for office have some sort of faith or convictions. I haven't really talked about it a lot. It's kind of a given."

Such reserve is not surprising, given the historical context.

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