Faith flourishes with promise of resurrection

Easter: Four Baltimore-area Christians who have faced adversity find hope in Jesus' return to life, which is celebrated today.

April 23, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

With sunrise services, bouquets of white lilies and choruses of alleluias, Christians around the world today celebrate the central tenet of their faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But the feast doesn't just commemorate the empty tomb. Before Easter Sunday and Jesus' resurrection came Good Friday and his suffering and death on the cross. Increasingly, theologians and pastors emphasize this complete paschal mystery, the winter before spring, and the suffering before new life.

On this Easter Sunday, four Baltimore-area Christians -- a choir director who has overcome an addiction, an Episcopal priest battling breast cancer, a mother who buried her daughter, a pastor rebuilding his church after a devastating fire -- reflect on the adversity they have faced in the light of the resurrection's promise of hope.

It's a long way from Maryland's Eastern Shore to the recording studios of Los Angeles, but Kendall Leonard made the trip.

In the late 1980s, Leonard, who grew up in Salisbury, was a successful jazz and rhythm and blues sideman with artists such as the Manhattans and Rick James and the Stone City Band, playing keyboards and saxophone and touring the country. And cocaine was becoming a regular part of that life.

"I enjoyed it because that was one part of my life, getting high and playing with various groups around the country," Leonard said. "It was fun because I was very young and spiritually bankrupt and blind."

As avocation turned to addiction, Leonard lost his gigs, became unemployable and moved back to Salisbury.

He went through a decade of addiction, spent time in jail, went to rehabilitation and through periods of self-willed sobriety. By 1998, he was functional enough to come to Baltimore and get a job teaching at a city school. But then came a two-month relapse. He lost his job and moved back to Salisbury.

A minister in Baltimore whose church he had attended persuaded him to return and enter "I Can't, We Can," a spiritually based treatment program run by a former addict, Israel Cason.

Coming from a middle-class home in Salisbury, Leonard didn't like the inner-city neighborhood I Can't, We Can calls home. He said he wanted to leave. The staff challenged him.

"They said to me, `Are you willing to go to any and all lengths for your recovery?'" he said. "I said, `I certainly am, because I know I have much more to offer the world than this mess I've made of myself.'

"So I stayed for a few days, and a few days turned into a few months. And I graduated from the program in January."

Leonard works as choir director of St. Gregory the Great Roman Catholic Church and leads the I Can't, We Can choir, made up of fellow recovering addicts.

On this Easter Sunday, he says, he will celebrate his new life. "I'm coming to a clearer understanding of the entire Lent-Easter period, which as a musician, for so many years has just been another way of making some money for me," he said. "It deals with the resurrection and because of that resurrection, we have a chance at this thing called salvation."

Leonard says he feels like he, too, has a chance.

"The Lord has given me a new birth," he said. "I'm so grateful."

It was during a routine mammogram in late September that a lump was discovered in the Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins' breast.

This experience would test her belief in the central teachings of her faith.

"You spend your life preaching death and resurrection," said Hawkins, assistant pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton. "But it comes to you in new ways when you look death in the face for yourself."

After surgery in October, Hawkins, whose cancer was caught in an early stage, began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The radiation treatments, she said, were an opportunity for meditation.

"They've got this big machine that comes over you, and there's a light up there," she said. "And there are these two red lines that make a cross. I don't know what they mean, it was probably something about getting the focus on the right spot. But for me, it was a cross. It became for me a meditation opportunity, and I'd meditate on the cross whenever I was going through this."

Her illness has presented opportunities to reach out to others in her congregation.

"I have found people are more willing to come forward, to share what they're going through," she said. "I remember one lady coming up one day and saying, 'I've joined your club.' I'm not sure if she would have let us know that she was going through a bad time, but it certainly made it possible for me to know, to get right over there and be with her through surgery and walk that walk together."

Through her experience of sickness, Hawkins said she identifies more with the sufferings of Jesus.

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