More than a meal offered to needy

Church: Israel Baptist offers sermons and social service connections with a holiday dinner.

November 26, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Warren Davis walked into Israel Baptist Church yesterday, he was looking for a hot meal.

By the time he walked out two hours later, he had also heard an inspirational sermon, signed up to join the parish and applied for transitional housing that he hopes will propel him out of a neighborhood saturated with drugs.

"I'm hoping to change my life," said Davis, 40, who works odd jobs at a mattress company and says he has battled a cocaine habit. "I know what's right and wrong. I'm just not living the right way."

Davis joined more than 1,200 needy people in East Baltimore yesterday for a novel program at Israel Baptist, a congregation of more than 2,500 families. Although many houses of worship serve Thanksgiving meals, this gray stone church just off Collington Square took tradition a few steps further.

In addition to turkey, Israel Baptist served continuous religious services and recruited social service agencies and nonprofit organizations to help visitors with problems ranging from AIDS to homelessness.

By wrapping food, faith and social services into one event, the church hoped to meet a broad array of needs for its East Baltimore neighborhood, one of the city's most impoverished and distressed areas.

"Many of these people are good people," said the Rev. H. Walden Wilson II, the pastor, sipping ginger ale after the fourth of 10 sermons he would deliver over seven hours. "All they need is for someone to give them a chance, and what better place than the church to provide these things?"

The line outside Israel Baptist's burgundy awning formed before 11 a.m., as people in worn coats and scuffed shoes arrived holding tickets for what the church billed as a "Thanksgiving Dinner & Rescue Mission." To manage the crowds, each ticket had a specified entry time.

Inside, church volunteers greeted each visitor. "Praise the Lord, sister. God loves you, and so do I," repeated a man in a leather Ravens jacket. As the guests explained their needs to volunteers, each received color-coded stickers indicating which social services they required.

Next came wind-sprint religious services led by Wilson, a charismatic preacher who has served Israel Baptist for more than a quarter-century. Banging the lectern, Wilson delivered a blistering sermon to each group, urging people to turn their lives around and seek spiritual salvation.

"I strongly believe things will be better for you," he declared, bursts of organ music punctuating his sentences. "I am a fool enough to believe that it will not always be this way!

"If you believe there is a better day ahead, raise your hands and say, `Praise the Lord!'"

At the end of each service, Wilson called people seeking salvation to the altar, where they faced the congregation and received applause. Church volunteers then led them to a nearby office where they filled out membership applications.

`I really need it'

Among those who applied was Davis, who came to yesterday's event after he found an entry ticket lying on the street last week. "I know people who go to church and their life is better," said Davis, who wore a gray hooded sweat shirt over his sloping shoulders. "I know I really need it."

In past years, the church has held a single Thanksgiving service. One in five people who applied for membership last Thanksgiving remain at Israel Baptist today, church workers said.

After filling out his form, Davis joined scores of people in the basement for a turkey dinner with baked ham, sauerkraut, green beans and dressing. Among the servers were Mayor Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, city Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark and City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

Wilson said yesterday's event cost more than $20,000, most of which the church provided. The idea for adding social services came from Bernice Smoot, a private consultant. Smoot runs Saint Wall Street, a Silver Spring company that provides economic development services to churches and faith-based groups.

While most visitors seemed to enjoy the religious service and the dinner, many left without seeking help from the social service organizations whose representatives had set up tables on the second floor. Davis signed up for housing and received a complimentary bottle of laundry detergent from I Can, a nonprofit group that aids the homeless.

But Davis also needs work and was disappointed that representatives from Baltimore's Eastside Career Center didn't appear as expected. The center called earlier to say it did not have enough staff available, said Mary Dent, who runs the church's economic development ministry.

Wilson attributed the sparse turnout for social services to a cycle of defeat and pessimism. "Too many people have been conditioned to believe there is no hope for them," said Wilson, 54. "It's going to take a lot of these kinds of events to change that."

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