An Eye-opening First Visit

Danish volunteers see how their help is needed in a rough city neighborhood

Maryland Journal

August 01, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Helle Christensen sat on a chair in a church basement in one of Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods and bounced on her lap a 17-year-old girl's 8-month-old baby, whose bottle was filled with Kool-Aid. In the next room, Kenneth Jensen mopped up juice spilled by an older child, while nearby, Herluf Vernegaard Hansen staggered under the weight of a rambunctious boy who was draped around his shoulders for a game of chicken.

As activities for a first-time visit to the United States go, the Empire State Building or Grand Canyon this was not. But the five Danes who came to Baltimore for the past two weeks were not here for sightseeing. They were here on a mission.

The quintet with the bright blond hair and equally sunny idealism could have taken their altruistic zeal to some of the neediest corners of the globe: Honduras, Niger, Botswana.

Instead, they came to America, where they found another troubled corner: the intersection of Pratt and South Calhoun streets in Southwest Baltimore.

If there had been any doubt in their minds about whether the richest country in the world could use their attention, it was erased upon their arrival.

"What we saw when we came ... " said Christensen, 25, her voice trailing away as she recalled her first glimpse of Baltimore blight. "We thought, `This is impossible, this is untrue.' People have this fairytale of the U.S., that it's so rich, but we came, and we saw the streets, and thought, `Wow, it's something wrong here.'"

The five Danes' visit was organized by Youth for Christ, a worldwide, nondenominational service network.

They were joined in their Baltimore mission by several dozen other volunteers from around the United States, part of the legions of young people, many of them in church groups, who spend part of their summer toiling in hot and sticky cities, far from the beaches or mountain camps where many of their peers are.

At night, the volunteers slept on the floors of two Southwest Baltimore churches - the women at St. Paul's on Washington Boulevard, the men at Metro Ministries, also known as Charm City Church, an evangelical church that opened last year in the former Southwestern District police headquarters at the corner of Pratt and South Calhoun streets. (The building is the subject of an ownership dispute between the church and a tax-lien company.)

During the day, the volunteers spend their time overseeing a vacation Bible school for local children at the old police building, cleaning trash from vacant lots and helping with church renovations, and doing door-to-door recruiting on behalf of their host churches.

Throughout it all, the Danes, most of whom belong to evangelical churches in Denmark, tried to make sense of what they were seeing around them.

One morning, the second woman in the group was stepping outside the precinct building with a local child under her arm when a dozen police officers swarmed the block in cruisers and on foot, guns drawn, to arrest a suspect just steps away.

Another day, Christensen saw a man come out on steps near the precinct building and hurl a puppy to the sidewalk, where it lay crumpled.

And there was the drug sale that was carried out right in front of Thomas HojJensen, a slender 25-year-old in sandals.

"They were selling just in front of me, like I was not there," he said. "It was a little uncomfortable."

Needless to say, many other local residents took more note of the Danish visitors in their midst.

Hansen, 19, recalled the young man with the dazed-looking eyes who wandered up to him one evening on the sidewalk - with a baseball bat dangling in one hand.

"It was a little frightening at first, but he was just asking questions, you know, where are we from," he said.

Hansen had thought he would know what to expect in Baltimore based on TV shows and movies he'd seen depicting American inner cities. If anything, he said, he assumed those depictions were exaggerated. But he was wrong.

"Before I came I knew it was one of the worst areas in the U.S., but it's hard to imagine when you haven't seen anything like it," he said. "I was amazed it was so bad. It's not just the movies - it's really like that."

In general, the Danes said, the reception they met was positive. Most of the people they chatted with on the streets and in their door-to-door visits would take note of their accents, ask where they were from and seem impressed - and not a little puzzled - that they had come from so far away to help.

Beulah Wilbur, a Charm City congregant, was still raving about the Danes several days after some of them came to her rowhouse a few blocks west of the precinct building to clean her backyard and fix her door frame, in exchange for her having cooked them some breakfasts.

"They're very well-behaved and very nice," she said. "I've been here 35 years, and I've never seen the backyard that nice. You know the grass that grows between the concrete blocks? They even got that out."

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