Over one year after unrest, church’s West Baltimore effort continues

From Dallas to Baton Rouge, La., to France, as the world simultaneously salts and licks wounds – and many question whether the center can hold – West Baltimore, with help from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and others, is doing its best to see that it does.

The scene of the final arrest of Freddie Gray Jr., whose death was an early event in the continuing spiral of violence and tragedy, it is also the focal point of a concerted effort by organizations and individuals, great and small, to effect positive change.

“We have a wonderful outreach here, for all the trouble we have,” said Gloria Williams, an outreach minister at St. Gregory the Great, near the site of Gray’s arrest.

At a recent town hall meeting for employees of the archdiocese, William McCarthy Jr., executive director of Catholic Charities of Baltimore, noted that the parish is now working with St. Edward and St. Peter Claver, also in West Baltimore, to offer expanded food pantry services to the neighborhood.

“We feed between 75 and 80 families on Mondays and Fridays, and the families are big, running between seven and eight,” Williams said of the St. Gregory pantry, which receives support from myriad suburban parishes as well as Catholic high schools.

According to McCarthy, St. Peter Claver’s pantry was open once a month, and St. Edward had no pantry, prior to the unrest.

“Currently, with the three parishes, a pantry is now open four days a week in a community serving hundreds of people,” McCarthy said, adding that a case manager is also on site, “with the goal that they will no longer need pantry services.”

St. Edward is also the site of a workforce development center which trains residents to obtain employment as automotive service technicians.

Archbishop William E. Lori speaks with Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis at the March 2016 launch of a new Safe Streets violence reduction location at St. Peter Claver in West Baltimore. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Harrelle Felipa, 48, a West Baltimore resident, was a graduate of the first class. Previously out of work for two years, he now works at Munro Muffler Brake and Service at Northern Parkway and Reisterstown Road, not far from his home.

He found the class, especially the hands-on portion, useful, though he admitted that a 90-day course is a serious commitment.

“A lot of us come in broken,” Felipa said. “A lot are coming in homeless; people drop out. It took a lot for me to stick through it.”

Felipa said he is working toward starting his own business.

The St. Edward Workforce Development Center has graduated two cohorts, with about two dozen adults earning certificates.

It is not the only new job training center in West Baltimore. Thanks to a $1.36 million, three-year grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Seedco, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading economic opportunity, will partner with Bon Secours Community Works to help those in work-release programs add to their marketable skills.

“We believe the partnership with Seedco will empower … citizens with jobs, training and education,” said Dr. Samuel Ross, CEO of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, in a statement.

Last month, Bon Secours Community Works – a division of the health system dedicated to community development – celebrated the completion of a hoop-house garden at the corner of  Fulton Avenue and Fayette Street

The hoop house – created in partnership with Big City Farms and volunteers from Grace Lutheran Church in Westminster – will simultaneously provide food for the community and work experience for Bon Secours’ workforce development program participants, who will tend the garden and sell the produce.

To reduce violence in West Baltimore, Catholic Charities – in partnership with the No Boundaries Coalition, the Baltimore City Health Department and others – is operating a new Safe Streets Baltimore violence interruption location at St. Peter Claver.

At the initiative’s launch event in March, Archbishop William E. Lori said he hoped Safe Streets would help de-escalate disputes “before they result in violence, before they cause more fear and anger and disillusionment.”

The archdiocese is also expanding its outreach to the very young and their families. According to McCarthy, Catholic Charities Head Start of Baltimore City, an initiative that prepares children for school, has increased from serving 276 families at nine sites to “nearly 700 children and families at 15 sites.”

In West Baltimore, he added, the service grew from one site to three, now serving 215 children and families.

Renewed commitment

Mylai Harris makes her way through an obstacle course as part of the fun and games during the 2nd annual Dare to Care interfaith summer camp on Harlem Avenue in West Baltimore June 30. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Capuchin Franciscan Father Paul Zaborowski, pastor of St. Ambrose in Park Heights, said there is a mixture of anxiousness and disappointment in the air, especially as the verdicts for the police officers charged in Gray’s death are read.

“They’re disappointed,” he said of his parishioners. “I think, first of all, it’s important to recognize the pain they feel. They’re afraid, they’re angry, and they’re worried, especially if they have boys.”

He noted that the July 10 Gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan, gave his parish an opportunity to reflect on Pope Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy and compassion.

“A lot of young people were saying that the worst thing is to be reactionary,” he said. “It’s best to step back, to know God has this. … This is going to work out; God cares for us.”

Father Zaborowski’s parish has a renewed focus on youth ministry.

“I, as pastor, try to make sure that what they’re feeling and what is in Scripture is connected,” he said.

He observed that trying times can introduce a new resolve into young people, saying, “When people really seek peace, that’s when they become the instruments of it.”

Parish-wide, St. Ambrose is focusing on practicing and supporting the corporal works of mercy – with special presentations by social welfare organizations followed by collections – and broadening its evangelization efforts.

“We’re just taking what we’re doing and opening it up – making sure it’s visible and people are welcomed,” Father Zaborowski said.

The Sept. 11 parish picnic is one example. Previously held offsite, the picnic is now on the St. Ambrose campus and includes “Mass in the grass.”

“Days before, we go knocking on doors in the neighborhood to get community members to participate,” Father Zaborowski said.

Other parishes are similarly renewing their neighborhood commitments. St. Edward was among the faith-based and community organizations that collaborated in late June to host the Dare to Care summer camp. Sponsored by the Harlem Avenue/Rosemont Community Interfaith Coalition, it included a trip to Woodberry Crossing Farm in Parkton and faith- and community-based activities every day.

“We try to keep the kids busy and active in the community,” said Spiritan Father Honest Munishi, pastor of  St. Edward.

The camp benefitted from the volunteer work of a group of high school girls from White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C.

“God is clearly at work here, and it has been a privilege to come and witness and add our gifts to this community,” said Genevieve Brooks, a director of youth ministry for White Memorial.

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Erik Zygmont

Erik Zygmont

A journalist since 2005, Erik wrote for small-town publications in New Hampshire before he left for Germany, where he taught English for two years, starting in 2009. He moved to Baltimore and served as editor of the Baltimore Guide from 2012 to 2015. He then served as a staff writer for Catholic Review until August 2017 when his family made plans to relocate from Maryland. He currently serves as a freelance contributor.

Erik is grateful for the richness of the Catholic faith he has experienced since, owing both to his access as a journalist and the Baltimore Archdiocese being the Premier See.