In city of Baltimore, finding hope is like a gift

December 25, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

One Christmas night years ago, when there were still high-rise public housing complexes in Baltimore and drug gangs terrorizing them, I looked up from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and saw a ring of lights in a high, end-of-row window, the only such lights on the stark west side of the 14-story building. I took it as a small miracle, something like a gift - the spirit alive in one of the most foreboding places in the city - and have kept it with me all these years.

I look for Christmas wherever I can find it - even in that bleak, broken Baltimore that seemed for so long hopeless, bogged down in poverty, unemployment and drug addiction. Especially there.

The search can be disappointing. I sometimes feel I've been over this ground too many times and that despite all the impressive progress in recent years, many places and people in Baltimore today are as they were three decades ago, when I first visited the city's saddest neighborhoods, the criminal courtrooms, the crowded homeless shelters and halfway houses. I've seen rowhouses long abandoned and crumbling, and the same aimless men hanging along the avenues. There are streets and buildings that remind me of stories too grim to repeat - the worst involving children - or stories that turned out too good to be true.

So here it is, Christmas Day, and I find myself again scratching for a suitable story, something like a gift, which is what anyone taking the time to read the newspaper today deserves, if you ask me.

Here's my offer. Let's visit a place where you hardly would expect to find joy, love and miracles - the old, stone courthouse on Calvert Street. It may seem like a strange setting for a Christmas Day story - the only thing that jingles there are shackles between the limbs of accused felons - but that's where I'm headed.

New families

It's the Friday before the Friday before Christmas, and we start on the first floor, through the dim lobby and the metal detector, past stone-faced deputies, down the long hall to the left and through the doors to family court.

It's adoption day, one of the few days when the courthouse can be said to be a happy gathering place. On this day, instead of state's exhibits, there are strollers, baby carriers, blankets and diaper bags.

The room is relatively small, longer than its width, crowded with family and friends, and the perfumed warmth they create first thing in the morning.

There are men in topcoats clutching babies, a young woman with an edgy hairstyle who looks like she just stepped out of an Italian movie, a guy who must be "Al" because that's the name on his slate-gray company jacket - he's apparently taken time off from work to witness the adoption of a grandchild - and maybe 40 other people in sweaters and coats, suits and dresses.

They have all been through the long, emotional process of adoption. They are black and they are white, tall and short, fat and slim, modestly dressed, stylishly groomed. There are young couples, middle-aged women, grandparents from Massachusetts, a lawyer with a video camera.

Cases are called: "24A- 0501100021 ... 24A- 05000126."

The judge calls the names of adoptive parents: "Lee Gary Grabel and Jennifer Grabel ... Deborah Kinder and Rose Kinder ... Douglas Ford and Maria Ford."

Now the names of children: "Sun Yung Park ... Jung Hyuk Joon ... Anna Caroline Sheid ... Maura Patricia Tejada ... Lamont Bryant."

The smiling presiding judge is Gale Rasin, tall in her black robe, standing in front of the bench, papers in her hands, more ministerial than judicial in this role. New parents approach Rasin for a blessing, it seems, as much as a decree.

Adoption day is the rare, delightful interlude in the long year of a Circuit Court judge, a bright holiday from the docket's gray reality. Rasin kisses and hugs as many babies as possible. She poses for pictures with all the adoptive families. There are smiles everywhere, and beautiful children with black hair, red hair, blond hair, no hair. There are little girls in jumpers, little boys in white shirts and sweater vests. This could be Sunday school.

Clerks shuffle through papers and folders on a table behind the judge. More names are called. The children are white, black, Asian, Hispanic - toddlers, 4-year-olds and teenagers. There's a couple adopting twins born on 9/11, another adding to the two children they've already adopted, a stepmother adopting three handsome teenage boys, a woman adopting her teenage niece.

Ripples of applause, the chatter of children, decree after decree and a courtroom full of love.

Parents rise from the benches as Rasin calls their names: "Robert Connerton and Elisabeth Rose Connerton ... Gerald Redman Majett and Janet Carter."

The child previously known as Yun Hwa Shin becomes Eun-Hea Lee Grace Carter Majett.

The child previously known as Eun Sung Kim becomes Thomas Eun Sung Robb.

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