A ministry behind bars

Religion: Through the Preacher's Row program, prominent clergy reach inmates and help provide the spiritual foundation to reclaim their lives.

April 08, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Paul R. Ball Jr., robed in black and leaning over a light brown wooden lectern, fixed his gaze on his captive congregation.

"Let me tell you something: We miss you all out there," he said, gesturing beyond the walls and razor wire of Baltimore's detention center. "Somebody else has to do your job. Somebody else has to pay your mortgage. Somebody else has to raise your child."

The men in T-shirts and jeans or yellow or red prison jumpsuits sat on folding chairs in the jail's gymnasium, noisy and restless when the minister arrived, but silent, except for the occasional "Yes!" or "Amen" after the sermon began.

Ball, pastor of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in southern Baltimore, is the latest visitor to Preacher's Row, where the city's highest-profile ministers come to inspire, cajole, scold and console the city's incarcerated.

Preacher's Row was conceived by LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, who took the title from a street in his boyhood town of Brooklyn, N.Y., lined with large houses, where all the ministers lived.

Although the detention center has a full schedule of religious services during the week, Flanagan said he wanted to do something that would have more impact, so he invited the area's most prominent preachers.

"I'm doing it because these 44,000 persons who stay with us at any given point in time need to have some spiritual dimension to reclaim their lives," he said, referring to the number of inmates who have extended stays in the jail every year.

"I want to send the inmates a message," Flanagan said. "The inmates see people they see on TV or have heard about, and they see them right in front of them. It is most important they have role models to give them direction, encouragement and inspiration to enable them to reshape their lives."

After a few fits and starts, the program began in earnest in September, when the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, came to the jail.

"He does run the largest church in the city [with 14,000 members] and is on TV," Flanagan said. "I figured if I could get Frank Reid, I could get anybody."

Since then, many big names in Baltimore's African-American church community have appeared: Bishop Douglas I. Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance; the Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr. of New Shiloh Baptist; the Rev. Vashti McKenzie of Payne Memorial AME; and the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr. of Unity United Methodist and a Baltimore City Council member.

Flanagan also has invited leaders from other religions: A Muslim Imam spoke briefly during Ball's appearance.

For preachers accustomed to a fancy pulpit and an ornate sanctuary, the detention center offers a worship space that is monastic in its stark simplicity: a gray linoleum floor, bare walls and folding chairs, with basketball hoops overhead.

The gospel they preach is the same.

The guest choir belting out gospel tunes came from a West Baltimore drug treatment center, "I Can't, We Can."

Ball, built like a middle linebacker, which he was for the Howard University Bison, knocked them down and picked them up.

"God has placed all of us here, today, right now, for a reason," he said. "And we need to understand that God has given us some instructions to follow while we are here. This is important because they will determine what we will do when we leave here. I challenge you to take your assignment from God!

"You ever feel in your life that nobody cares about you?"

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

"We have been called by God to go through this experience. Sometimes, we hate it, sometimes we get mad. But I have good news for you: God still has his eyes on you."

As Ball spoke, inmate Solomon Chapman nodded, smiled and clapped. "I've spent most of the years of my life incarcerated, through my own doing," Chapman, 48, said after the service. "I became addicted to drugs. This gives me a great deal of hope. Not only hope, but it gives me motivation to go on."

"To me, the most powerful thing he said is that God got you here for a reason," said inmate Marvin Powell, 31. "I'm here for something I didn't do, but I've got to deal with it. It could have been for things I did and got away with. Any way you look at it, you can't get around it."

Powell said he also took to heart the message that his incarceration affects those outside: "I've got four beautiful kids doing real good in school. Like the man said, they need me at home."

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