Mayor seeks support for `networks of hope'

O'Malley discusses faith-based initiative with religious leaders

March 13, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley called on religious leaders yesterday to support his faith-based initiative, Baltimore Rising, which will connect 300 mentors in inner-city churches with 100 youths deemed most likely to kill or be killed by violent crime.

Addressing the 41st annual Interfaith Institute at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Upper Park Heights, O'Malley promoted the program he announced in last month's State of the City address, yesterday calling it "the most important initiative of our second year in office."

"I truly believe the religious communities will play a pivotal role in changing Baltimore for the better in the years to come," O'Malley told the gathering of about 450 attending the event on "Faith in the Future: The Religious Community's Role in Reshaping Baltimore."

O'Malley, a practicing Roman Catholic who has talked openly about his faith, noted that in most impoverished neighborhoods, two realities are constantly present and undeniably influential: "One is the drug dealer. The other is the faith institution. And this Catholic boy is going with the faith institution."

Although a Democrat, O'Malley unequivocally embraced government partnership with faith-based institutions, like that proposed by President Bush, a Republican.

Solving the crime, violence and drug addiction in the inner city "requires a spiritual element, and government is not too good at that," O'Malley said.

O'Malley acknowledged that critics claim such efforts overstep the intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who maintained a separation between church and state that is blurred by government funding of faith-based social service programs.

Appearing on the panel with O'Malley were religious leaders who are involved in community outreach and development activities in Baltimore. Sister Charmaine Krohe of St. Ambrose Family Center in Lower Park Heights told of how her organization, born 30 years ago from St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church, has served its mostly African-American community.

The St. Ambrose center on Park Heights Avenue, which is operated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity, recently completed a $2.1 million renovation and expansion of its building, an expansion it has outgrown. It is now eyeing a building across the street to use as a youth career center that would provide job training.

"The African-American congregations taught us that it goes beyond teaching," she said. "We must go beyond the stained-glass windows to reach out to the communities with which we are associated."

Sometimes, a church's efforts at community development can evoke a hostile response, said the Rev. John R. "Jack" Sharp, pastor of Govans Presbyterian Church and president of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., which is developing the Stadium Place senior housing community on the site of Memorial Stadium. Critics have fought attempts to tear down the stadium.

Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, moderator of the panel, queried the largely white audience to confirm his hunch that the majority live and worship in the suburbs. His assumption confirmed, he asked O'Malley what role churches outside the city could play.

Although Baltimore Rising will take place principally in the neighborhood churches, O'Malley said, "I do see it ... creating networks that cross county, cross faith lines. Networks of hope, really."

That might result in a variety of exchanges, such as inner-city children visiting churches, synagogues and mosques in the counties to get a glimpse of the suburban world.

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