PCUSA - Welcome to Baltimore!

Last week, The Center was at Big Tent to welcome our PCUSA friends to our city. Mel and Liv were asked to speak before the gathering and share about this city. We recorded it and are posting the text just in case you missed it - or want to hear it again!

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Baltimore’s received quite the press recently, haven’t we? 

I think the words were “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess”.... “NO human being would want to live there.”

These were the President’s remarks about the city we call home. 

If you didn’t know, and goodness I hope you do know, you’re in Baltimore City. And, you’re in the section of the city where investment has been most dense and is really pretty visible. It’s lovely around here, right? You can see the Domino Sugar sign across the way, the water’s beautiful, shops and great restaurants all over. Life all around.

It’s the piece of Baltimore that city leaders, developers, and investors have decided to make beautiful, but it’s only a very small slice of Baltimore. So, for the next couple of minutes, we’d like to share a bit about what we’ve seen and experienced since moving here about 10 months ago. 

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Baltimore City is the mother wailing over the death of her children 

and the children weeping to their mother’s for food. 

Baltimore City is the sirens crying out from wilderness places because blight has taken hold like leprosy. Can you see it? 

The man so close to the cleansing water and not one person will assist him in the few steps he would take to be healed. 

Can you see the trees growing from the rooftops of abandoned houses interspersed by the few with the will and the hope to survive?

The hardest thing about Baltimore is not Baltimore, but learning how to live in exile when your neighbors are free. 

The captive and the captor dwell together, just turn the corner and you’ll see something different. Look across the street and depending on what side you are standing on you’ll see hope deferred or a dream realized. 

The streets get cleaned or garbage cans are left overflowing. 

The hardest things about being in Baltimore City is seeing how the rest of Maryland treats Baltimore. 

A step-child, an orphan. 

The hardest thing about living in Baltimore City is becoming aware that I have become one of the exiled, yet I have lived parts of my life like a captor. 

The words spoken recently are not the first time I witnessed the harsh reality that Baltimore City is in exile to the rest of Maryland, Baltimore County and other surrounding areas. 

Baltimore City is a warning to the rest of the cities across America,

 “DO NOT ignore the weeping, the wailing, the shouts of injustice and the dead silence!” (or what?) Can you see it? 

Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? 

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Just last week, I was working in West Baltimore, the area being tweeted about, with part of a group of students who live just across the Baltimore County line.

3 young men, their adult advisor and I arrived at the gymnasium of St. Edwards Catholic Church to see what would become 50+ people---campers, counselors, and adults in this open space cooled off by a few industrial-sized fans and a slight breeze at the entryway. 

It was breakfast time. 

Cereal one day; rice crispy treats and applesauce another day because resilience is key

Mother sat in the corner near the back, Ms. Barbara was the timeout section of the camp.

Her Mahogany skin still smooth though she has reached the age of an elder. 

Her smile bright and sparse. I became her favorite. 

At times the movement of the camp would be so quick and chaotic, I’d go and put myself in timeout for a while. 

A hug and a laugh would revitalize my energy to make it through the next hour or so. 

I challenged her to keep showing up and she challenged me to do likewise. 

I learned she had 6 children and several grand. She bought a house just up the street from the camp, one of the few people I have met who own a home in the city. 

This camp mixed with science, bible study, and environmental awareness was daycare for working parents, a reprieve for tired grandparents, a safe zone for a growing generation, a place for learning to continue---reading, writing, and math. This one open space and the small corner church a block away that served as the emergency heat location is a balm to the exiled.

Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? 

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Baltimore does have rats, you know? Really well-fed rats, rats bigger than anywhere else’s rats. 

I’ve seen some. Accidentally picked up a gigantic frozen one once when I was picking up candy wrappers, broken bottles, and old newspaper in a local garden one day this past winter. 

Can’t really say all of the kids I spend time with here in Baltimore enjoy that rat-level of food access. At some of the camp days The Center has helped support this summer, lunch and snacks are provided for the campers and, most times, pockets are stuffed with granola bars and pop tart packets…for later.  

At that same camp, actually just last week, I was drawing with chalk with a couple of neighborhood kids. We were outside in their local park on a section of road between a field and a playground that felt like the surface of the sun. As we were kicking around chalk-drawing ideas and picking out colors, I noticed a couple needle caps around. Before I knew it, I caught myself trying to cover them up with my feet, not wanting the kids to see them. In all likelihood, they probably already had. 

Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? 

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If you’ve spent any time around me these past 10 months, you’ve absolutely heard me talk about this one garden in particular, the Glenwood Life Recovery Garden which is located directly across the street from Glenwood Life Counseling Center. Glenwood Life is a methadone treatment facility for people in recovery from opioid addiction.

The garden and the treatment center are located in a Baltimore neighborhood that, five years ago, had a 60% vacancy rate. Since its beginning just a few years back, the garden has been a place for the neighborhood residents to sink their hands in soil, experience beauty, pick some fresh produce. But! I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I have ten months worth of falling in love with this place that I want to tell you all about but the change I’ve witnessed in above-ground planting beds, in an empty field full of cinder blocks, in others lives and in mine is truly a sermon-series all its own. So, I’ll just tell you about Monday! I was in the garden with Mel, a group of visitors from a Presbyterian Church in Maryland, a couple other local supporters of the garden, and, the woman who had the dream for the garden five years ago when it was an empty, buckled parking lot, Precious. It was a sunny, sunny day on Monday and after getting to know each other a bit we got to work watering the new native plant garden, harvesting carrots, filling carton after carton with these bright orange cherry tomatoes, and mixing in new nutrient-packed compost with the rocky soil of the beds. Toward the middle of the day, Mel and I were chatting during a water break when a couple of the clients at Glenwood life came over to the Garden to see what was going on. We introduced ourselves and heard a bit about them and they shared with us their ideas for which plants and trees the garden needed next. This couple shared that they’d love to see a peach tree and a pear tree one of these days. Mel and I agreed that peach tree and a pear tree would be a great addition to what the garden already has to offer. I found myself envisioning them just between the fence by the beds in the back near where the watermelon vines are stretching out. As we were wrapping up our conversation together and just before the couple turned  to walk off, the gentleman turned around and said to Mel and me, “you know something? There's a reason this Garden doesn't have rats. You know why that is?”

Mel and I looked at each other and admitted that, no, we didn't know why this beautiful garden full of yummy food and healthy plants wasn’t crawling with rats all the time. 

And, in a sentence that felt immediately affecting and so, so timely he said, “because y’all are here tending the land! People are always over here tending the land. Rats don’t like to go places that are well taken care of.”


Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention?  

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Baltimore embodies two polarities and smatterings of everything in between

One: vacant streets, boarded up houses, violence, needle caps, hunger. Loss and urgent desperation. 

Another: new life. A deep sense of pride. Creativity born of necessity. Kids playing. Folks sitting on their front stoops checking in on each other. 

The cigarette butts Mel and I, our visiting group, and community members picked up yesterday along the York Road corridor will be back in a matter of days. AND, the cherry tomatoes from Glenwood’s garden that we picked carton after carton of on Monday, little balls of orange sunshine, will be back in a matter of days, too. 

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We’d like to close our time by inviting you to close your eyes for a moment. 

We want you to travel with us for just a mile. 

In this mile there are tree-lined streets and several homes with planters of all sizes and shapes filled with flowers, grasses, and crawling vines. 

In the early morning and evening cars line the street bumper to bumper. 

Even the side streets are filled and adorned with party lights that shine like stars at night. 

Are you seeing all of this? 

Along this section of the mile, houses have painted mailboxes and the house numbers are each uniquely crafted. Political bumper stickers and yard signs are hard to miss.  

Blocks and blocks of green space, trees, ponds, and play areas. 

Now, we’re turning slightly westward and there are fewer cars, and not as many trees lining the street, the homes look a little smaller, and the residential areas are now peppered with corner stores. 

There aren’t planters or varieties of flowers that adorn the front steps, a few window boxes here and there, but mostly the vacancy or piles of trash catch your eye first. 

The side-streets are mostly narrow alleys and no lights are strung overhead. 

Keep your eyes closed, we still haven’t gone a full mile yet. 

Now we’ve come to the playground across from an elementary school. 

A large tree provides shade to a faded plastic blue slide and swing set. 

There’s a good amount of trash on the ground. If it’s closer to trash day the one corner can is filled to the brim. 

Someone’s asleep on that bench over there and I think I see another pair of legs sticking out from the awning that way. 

Can you see all of this? 

The alleys are pungent with waste and debris. 

In this section there are a few boarded up houses. 

We’re not in Baltimore. 

Maybe it takes you further than a mile to notice divisions back home. Maybe noticing only happens when you accidentally take the wrong freeway exit. Perhaps you cross train tracks. Maybe the division where you’re from is between who owns the land and who tends it. 

We’re not just talking about Baltimore. 

We’re any place where boundaries, red-lining, block-busting, segregation, voter suppression, food deserts, and cultural and social boundaries that divide us from one another have been permitted to be the norm.

We’re in your city, your town. 

How stark of a contrast do you encounter in your mile drive? 

Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? 

-Mel Lowry and Liv Thomas at Big Tent, Baltimore, August 2019