Rallying for liberation

Prayer: A series of meetings takes a message of hope and healing to neighborhoods victimized by drugs.

November 14, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

If 13 bullets didn't kill him, Israel Cason knew drugs could have.

After using and selling heroin on Baltimore streets for 30 years -- and surviving five gunshot wounds in one incident -- he decided to follow the straight and narrow.

Now he's leading a series of prayer rallies throughout Baltimore to help drug addicts, dealers and criminals follow his life-saving course.

After Cason led about 200 people in praise and worship Monday night at Park Heights and Wylie avenues, four people acknowledged their addictions and asked for help, organizers said.

"The goal is to get addicts drug treatment, to bring about awareness of the disease of addiction," Cason said.

The rally was the fourth sponsored by I Can't We Can, a drug treatment group Cason started more than four years ago. The Northwest Baltimore resident and married father of three said he founded the program "because I had to give back what was given to me."

Baltimore has an estimated 60,000 addicts and 8,000 treatment beds. Cason hopes to reach as many of those addicts as possible, so he and other community activists meet monthly at corners in what police say are known drug-trafficking areas. There they hold rallies and invite addicts to talk about cleaning up.

Barbara Mattison, 40, testified at the Park Heights rally that her biggest desire used to be to "smoke, smoke, smoke."

Mike Jackson, 35, predicted that if he doesn't stay clean, "my kids are going to watch me die."

To motorists and other passers-by, the large crowd in the 4400 block of Park Heights Ave. seemed odd. No ambulance was speeding away with a shooting or stabbing victim. No fight or drug raid had occurred.

One man got out of his car, grabbed the microphone and confessed his drug troubles.

The prayer rallies began Aug. 7, when Doni Glover and other city residents gathered at Carrollton and Riggs avenues in Sandtown-Winchester.

"We started doing this because we realized that calling the police would only do so much," said Glover, a local radio personality and public information writer for Empower Baltimore Management Corp. "We take the prayer tours to drug corners."

Glover didn't help start the prayer rallies -- now officially dubbed Prayer Tour 2001 -- by accident. A Sandtown resident and Baltimore native, he got tired of looking out his front windows and seeing drug deals being made.

"Clearly, drug dealers are not pleased when we come to their corner and have a prayer rally, interrupting their business," Glover said. "They're not pleased, but they just take it elsewhere, down the street. I think deep down inside they are touched as well, but not enough to stop selling."

The second rally was at Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues. Last month's occurred at Pennsylvania Avenue and Cumberland Street. Future rallies will be held in East Baltimore.

Focus on reaching addicts

Glover said he thinks the mobile prayer rallies have been successful, but the emphasis is not on stopping illegal drug sales in Baltimore. It's on reaching addicts.

That's where Cason comes in. Each month, busloads of recovering addicts from I Can't We Can attend the rallies to sing the program's praises and encourage others to get help.

I Can't We Can has an office in the 2900 block of Clifton Ave. and 25 transitional houses throughout the city, where men and women receive treatment for their addictions. In the 4400 block of Park Heights Ave., the organization runs a thrift store, grocery store, beauty salon, barber shop, restaurant and banquet hall.

Abstinence and spirituality

Cason said his program succeeds -- nearly 200 people have completed the program -- because it stresses total abstinence and spirituality.

"The biggest problem with the city is the traditional way of treating people is not working, and they've been doing it for the last I-don't-know-how-many years," Cason said. "They use methadone, and it's just a substitute addiction."

Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson said he thinks the I Can't We Can program is a good one.

"Anecdotally ... they seem to have a sizable number of success stories, and Israel is a very dedicated person who works hard," Beilenson said.

"On the corner thing, I think symbolically it's fine," he said. "It may even ID a few addicts who want to get treatment, but I think the most important thing we can do in terms of advocating for treatment is advocating in Annapolis for funding."

Cason said the rallies will continue.

"I'm looking at the drug dealers when I'm talking," he said. "We know these people because we used to be into that."

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