There was a time a few years back in Chicago when the Rev. Iris Tucker dreamed of missionary work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She studied Swahili and tried to channel her experiences as a county social worker and special-ed teacher into a life ministering in African forests.
But she landed in Baltimore instead - in a small, desolate neighborhood just northwest of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Though raised in poverty on Detroit's east side, nothing in her theological studies had prepared Tucker to help the neighbors of her East Baltimore parish overcome the trials of inner-city living.
A firebombing changed that.
Tucker's church, Knox Presbyterian, sits catty-cornered to the charred remains of the rowhouse where seven members of the Dawson family were killed in October last year.
The arson, which sparked outrage around the country, acted as a spiritual catalyst in Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. During the past 12 months, Tucker, a coalition of eight local churches and the scarred community have inched closer to understanding how such a thing could occur in their midst, and to begin building a safety net of social programs and capital improvements so it doesn't happen again.
"When all of this happened, I didn't feel I had done my job," says Tucker, 57, sitting in the church rec room, which serves as soup kitchen one day and a meeting place for recovering addicts the next. "I took it personally. ... To me, it was a wake-up call."
Darrell L. Brooks, a small-time drug dealer who lived across the street from Carnell and Angela Dawson, their four sons and a teen-age daughter, would plead guilty to the Oct. 16, 2002, firebombing.
Tucker, who has three master's degrees and a weak spot for underdogs, had arrived in Baltimore two years earlier to be the pastor at Oliver's smallest church - with a congregation of 150, most of whom hailed from other East Baltimore neighborhoods.
But it wasn't what she saw inside her church that rocked Tucker; it was the condition of the community. Ruined buildings lined the sidewalks. Addicts peddled drugs to pay for their own use, then complained to police about the neighborhood crime.
Fear among residents was oppressive.
Tucker didn't know that Oliver was a typical east-side neighborhood - on the surface no worse or better off than other communities besieged by drugs, addiction and blight.
The Dawsons rented their three-story corner rowhouse for $300, a bargain but for the problems they faced from dealers determined to control their turf.
Stanford W. Carpenter, a cultural anthropologist who has studied Oliver, calls it "a marketplace in the purest sense."
"It's a shopping mall for bad activities," Carpenter said. "A lot of the people who are selling and buying the drugs aren't from the community. In the soup kitchen, a lot of the people aren't from there either. What allows some suburbs to be what they are is that certain illegal activities are pushed into other communities. Oliver is one of those communities where the crimes converge."
After the surprise of her new setting subsided, Tucker re-evaluated her expectations of ministering an inner-city church and began to broaden her focus to the neighborhood.
She was two months into a doctoral theological program at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, when the fire struck.
After two false starts to study preaching, her specialization was urban ministry, concentrating on redeveloping communities, need and neglect, and the spiritual toll of blight.
"The structure of urban living and how ministry impacts a changing community and vice versa. It is a crash course in life," explains Tucker. Tucker is a mother who is twice divorced and a widow, as well as a survivor of breast cancer and congenital heart failure.
Her dress is plain, brown, ecclesiastical. Every other Monday, she leaves her Windsor Mill home in Baltimore County, a temporary residence until she moves to Oliver, and turns her blue sedan onto Interstate 95 to drive the 140 miles to attend daylong classes in New Brunswick.
`Kids night in'
For 10 months after the fire, she also held weekly "kids night in" gatherings, and brought in counselors to help children and their parents cope with post-traumatic stress.
Last summer, Tucker organized the first maafa commemoration in Baltimore at Knox.
Maafa, a Swahili word meaning great catastrophe or calamity, is also the name given to the 500-year period of African suffering that began with the Middle Passage and continues.
Nine years ago, the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, a pastor in East New York, began staging dramatic interpretations of the capture, enslavement and perseverance of descendants of the African diaspora in maafa ceremonies.
Tucker seized on the emotional production as a way to help Oliver mend. "That's what the maafa was: using the community to minister to the community for its healing," Tucker said.