Bullet hole at church a haunting reminder

This Just In...

November 19, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

I LEFT everything intact," said the Rev. Frank A. Murphy, pastor of Miracle Baptist Church, as he pushed open the door to the empty classroom no one wants to use anymore. Murphy pulls on the Venetian blind cord so I can see why.

On Oct. 28, a bullet punched through a double-pane window below colorful cutout letters that spell "Reading Is Power." It sliced across the little classroom, just inches above a girl seated at one of two long tables where 15 third-graders were getting a math lesson. The bullet pierced a wall next to a sign that says, "God has not given me the spirit of fear, but power, love and a sound mind."

The bullet exited the wall in a hallway, above a row of pegs where children of the Miracle Baptist Church school hang their coats, and where a poster of a smiling black boy says, "Be Proud Of Your Heritage." Then the bullet landed against a sheet that covers an opening to a storage room, and fell to the floor. That's where police found it.

"It's just been traumatic," Murphy says. "We haven't used the room since the shooting. No one wants to go back in there. ... I've seen people come out of this room with tears in their eyes."

The church and school, on Moravia Road, are bright, clean and relatively new. The black parish moved in less than three years ago. The church and school are in a section of Northeast Baltimore that has become racially mixed. Murphy can look out his office window and see houses where white neighbors live.

Three teen-age boys from one of the houses were seen toting rifles immediately after the shooting. Police questioned them, confiscated two rifles (one rigged with a scope, according to Murphy), and charged each of the boys as juveniles in connection with the shooting. Two were charged with reckless endangerment, malicious destruction of property and discharging a gun in the city. The third was charged with reckless endangerment. Those are all misdemeanors.

Murphy says the boys, who were released to their parents, were home by supper time.

He's outraged -- at the level of charges (he thinks the boys should be charged with attempted murder), at the quick return of the juvenile suspects to the neighborhood, at his unreturned phone calls to politicians (including the mayor-elect) and at the lack of media attention the shooting generated despite his efforts to get news coverage in the days immediately after the incident.

"I believe with my whole heart," Murphy says, "that, had these three boys been black, and had the church and school they shot at been white, this would have been all over CNN."

The man has a point. The nature of the charges against the teen-agers leaves the impression the boys, who are each 17, were merely engaged in some juvenile prank -- not an act that has characteristics of a hate crime. The FBI is investigating the incident, but a spokesman for the regional office says the shooting is not regarded as racially motivated.

You have to wonder how federal agents reached that conclusion.

Because it's hard to walk away from the little classroom in Miracle Baptist with anything else in your mind.

The symbolism of the bullet hole is stunning. My eye went to it and then followed the bullet's path across the room, where books and work papers were still on the long table where the children had been sitting.

"You have a little girl at home, don't you?" Murphy asked me. "I can tell."

That might be what upsets me about this, and why others have walked out of that little classroom with tears in their eyes.

There's also the depressing specter of black children, their parents and their teachers being afraid to use this house of God and place of learning at a time long past the violent struggles for peaceful equality.

Racist threats were made this week against African-American student leaders at the University of Maryland, College Park. In Texas, three white men dragged a black man to his death. Didn't things like this happen in the previous century? Didn't they happen in the 1950s and 1960s? What are they doing in 1999? Hasn't this nation grown up yet? Aren't we teaching our kids to love, not to hate?

A masterpiece

Kids learning to love, not to hate -- that could be one of the many messages that cascade from Barry Levinson's nostalgic-with-an-edge, culturally lush Baltimore film, "Liberty Heights," which opens here today. Set in 1954, with integration as its historic backdrop, the movie tells many stories, all beautifully entwined in a style that has become uniquely Levinson's.

Among the tales: two middle-class Jewish brothers, on cultural odysseys to discover "the other people" in their city. One goes on a frustrating journey into the anti-Semitic world of wealthy, Waspy whites; the other takes an enriching but similarly frustrating ride into the very separate world of the black middle class.

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