City Paper is not for tourists
An autumnal sun struggles through obstinate, gray morning clouds, while a line of rust-colored leaves skitters along 10th Street NW, forming circles near the corner of G Place. The leaves gather around the variously shod feet of a multiracial group of homeless people—mostly men—who stand waiting for the door to Zacchaeus Kitchen to open. Some wear jogging pants and hooded sweat shirts under tattered trench coats, others khaki pants or jeans, weeks from their last washing. A few are neater—clean shirts and knotted ties. A tall, dark-skinned man, swaddled in layers of sweaters, seems to study a landscape that only he sees. Another group of men are more engaging, laughing among themselves as old friends do.
They congregate in front of this gray metal door each morning beginning at 8:30, after sleeping near the concrete barrier adjacent to Martin Luther King Memorial Library. Some spend the night on park benches or heated grates outside government buildings. But most find sleep on army-green cots in city-funded overnight shelters. They are dumped onto the streets just after sunrise.
When the door opens, the men walk over a chipped-beige-tile floor through a short corridor and into the cafeteria in the basement of the building. Volunteers from the Olive Branch, a community of Catholic lay people, have been preparing chicken noodle soup, bologna sandwiches, and juice since 7:30. The men file past a window cut in the wall and gather their individual trays of food. For many, it will be their first and last meal of the day, unless they’re adept at panhandling and can hustle money for a burger or hot dog. Several men eat quickly, then bunker themselves under coats or whatever blankets they’ve managed to collect, falling into a sound sleep on a stage near the front of the room. Around 10:30, a group sitting at a big table enjoys a loud and dramatic game of bid whist. The decibel level runs high; trays accidentally tumble to the ground. A card player or two jump from their chairs to make a point; cigarette bumming goes on unabated, although a sign posted on the wall says, “No Smoking.” Welcome to the other 9:30 Club, the one where 300 men show up rain or shine at First Congregational United Church of Christ in search of a hot meal.
The 100-year-old church is a nexus, a place where faith and hopelessness come together. The Rev. John Mack, First Congregational’s pastor for the past 11 years, alternates as bridge and sentry between his congregation and its poor clients. He guides and translates, representing both sides. For the most part, their worlds parallel each other, intersecting only at the point of social need and the requisites of urban ministry. Sometimes the interactions occur smoothly. Other times the tracks converge and the trains collide.
This morning is without mishap: One level up from the 9:30 Club, Mack quietly places the church bulletin for next week onto a small copy machine. South American art decorates his paneled walls; an inset bookcase holds pictures of Mack’s two adopted children and his wife. A large Bible is open, as if it were a frequently used dictionary. There are no trappings of wealth, although a brown leather sofa graces the left side of the room. The standard office chairs just near the wood executive desk are circa 1970s. Gray iron security bars strapped against Mack’s window insinuate that the church hosted its measure of problems in the past.
Mack sits in the chair before his wooden desk. His eyes roam about the tiny garden outside the window. A circular planter, sprinkled with azaleas determined not to be bullied by the cold, dominates the center of the garden. In the summer, the foliage—small trees and bushes—is an urban oasis, a refuge from the grime of city living, and a welcoming entry on Sundays to the church’s sanctuary. A few days before, a bereft man outfitted in a simulated army camouflage suit slept on the garden steps while a group of homeless men and women stood near, chatting to make the time pass. Today, however, the garden is empty, its quiet expanse broken by the bars over the window. Although the iron strips blend with the color of the window frame, Mack doesn’t like them; “too much like prison,” he says. They also evoke a time when the church was being victimized by those it sought to help.
On several mornings in 1989 or 1990—Mack can’t remember the specific year—he unlocked his office door at 10th and G Streets NW and stepped onto the beige carpet only to discover shattered glass: “It may have been the same guy coming in,” Mack says in a voice that is a curious mixture of deadpan and soothingly ministerial. Glancing back out the window, Mack half chuckles. “It was three times in two weeks.”
Each time the church was broken into, Mack replaced the window. The process and cost burdened his congregation, which eventually voted—over Mack’s objections—to install the security bars.
The thieves were equally resolute: After installation of the first-floor bars, they simply began climbing into the church using a second-floor window. One night, as they made their way inside, a homeless person dropped a quarter in a nearby telephone, dialed 911, and alerted the police that First Congregational was being attacked: “We had a practice of hiring homeless people, and we found out that one of them was helping his buddy break into the church at night. Of course he doesn’t work here anymore,” says Mack.
It wasn’t the last time that practical considerations superseded compassion at the church. Before the 53-year-old pastor arrived at First Congregational in 1984, the church routinely kept its bathrooms open. For many homeless people, having a lavatory and a place to wash up is a godsend—few downtown establishments are open to homeless folks looking for quick relief. First Congregational’s hassle-free bathroom policy was a major perk, but some of the homeless simply pissed away the church’s hospitality.
“A sexton went into the bathroom and found drugs,” says Mack, restraining his anger about the episode. “I told him to lock ’em.”
Today, the bathroom doors only remain open during the 9:30 Club’s hours and in the evening from 4:00 through 8:00 p.m., when First Congregational, joined by the Metropolitan Community Church, sponsors a meals program for approximately 200 homeless women and their children.
Then there are the stories about the bathrooms being a venue for prostitution. And the time Mack discovered a few people actually living on the third floor of the church. Somehow they had crept past security and made it to the roof. Then they had climbed a railing, crossed over to the stairwell and gained entry through a door just under the steps. But that nook is no longer accessible.
“The poor community functions as any other community,” Mack says, switching to the role of translator for the homeless and explaining that a small minority cause the greatest damage.
“There are 10 percent that irritate [the poor] more than they irritate us,” he continues. “They want protection from them,” as much as we do, Mack explains.
The church has fought a battle of inches, closing a door here, putting bars over a window there. But it refuses to flee or hide.
In some respects, First Congregational United Church of Christ is an anomaly. It admits it’s suffering—strapped for funds, overwhelmed by the homeless, and frequently assaulted by some of the same people to whom it lends a hand—but it refuses to surrender. Confronted by similar challenges, many churches have conceded defeat, fleeing to the suburbs or surrounding their buildings with expensive wrought-iron fences, which serve as proverbial white handkerchiefs.
The conflict spreads among varying denominations and geographic locations. Most of the churches under siege are in inner-city neighborhoods and are trafficked by increasing numbers of vagrants—the homeless, substance abusers, or people suffering mental disabilities. All Souls’ Church; Meridian Hill Baptist Church; Sacred Heart Catholic Church; and First Church of Christ, Scientist are among the growing number with elaborate fences wrapping their facilities. A black fence also encloses the sanctuary of New York Avenue Presbyterian.
Until recently, First Church of Christ, Scientist in Adams Morgan hosted a variety of street life on its steps, including chronically intoxicated Latino males. Ironically, the church recently hired a Latino contractor to put up a massive black fence, but members say it’s really crime that built the fence. The black iron not only encapsulates the church’s sanctuary, but its business offices also are wrapped in a double layer of metal—first the large fence, then an inner set of bars that covers the door. Even postal workers are forbidden entry. The church constructed a black mailbox with a gold-plated slot and perched it up against the fence.
But First Church, unlike the downtown First Congregational, doesn’t sponsor a meals program. Its reading room on Columbia Road is the only facility regularly open to the public. The church doesn’t provide any other outreach services. Still, members claim the church was “under siege.”
“It’s been that way for a long time,” says one member interviewed at the reading room who requested that his name not be used.
For years, the church struggled against the onslaught of alcoholics and drug addicts who arrived like locusts on the front of its building. Acting out of concern for its workers, the church initially plastered the ground-level windows with security bars and skirted the yard with a short chain-link fence. But the epidemic of vagrants seeking refuge on the 17 concrete steps and in the alcove of the church was relentless. The building began to bear the visual imprint and smell of hosting so much humanity. Nearby trash bins went unused, and the steps had to be regularly hosed down with Lysol. Still, the vagrants hung on. Finally, three weeks ago, First Church gave up, constructing an elaborate iron fence with locked, arched gates. The fence breaks the 17 steps in two—five in front of the fence and 12 behind it.
The fence worked. Now, homeless men hang out in the park across the street or along the walls of retail buildings in the neighborhood. No one comes to the steps—not even the five rows unobstructed by the fence. Truth is, even the leaves seem reluctant to tip too far inside the fence.
“We felt we needed to do this,” explains Jane Lingo, the church spokesperson. “We came to the conclusion we needed to protect the church. The church is for everybody and everybody is welcomed. But we do not welcome misdirected, wrong behavior.”
Once the steps at First Christ were a yuppie haven; people would kick back and slurp Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cones with toddlers in tow. Occasionally, others would cradle Popeye’s fried chicken containers in their laps, licking their fingers and relaxing on the lower stairs, shaded by huge trees. But those idyllic urban scenes gave way to vagrants drinking from plastic cups or paper-wrapped bottles. They talked among themselves, venturing out toward pedestrians only when their money got low. They had lunch on the steps, or when the spot grew too hot, they retreated to the side of the church—along the concrete ledges that poke out from the yard just above the sidewalk. They often left their bags or chicken bones on the ground; sometimes they simply tossed them into the church’s yard. At night, some slept or had sex within the alcove, using the huge columns as protection from curious eyes.
“We were told there was drug-dealing around the church,” adds Lingo.
Initially, First Church reached out to its Latin neighbors, appealing to them with Spanish services: “In the early 1980s, we instituted a service in Spanish. I was the reader for that for a while. We had limited response in terms of numbers to that. Then we started giving lectures in Spanish. We offered a tape in Spanish of the lesson sermon.”
The church also sells Spanish Bibles in its reading room. Lingo says First Church doesn’t sponsor any meals programs, “although there have been individual cases when someone will say they’re hungry, and one of us will take them to McDonald’s.” There aren’t any clothing giveaways or other social service programs sponsored at the building. It’s hard to understand how the church became such a magnet for the homeless and for drug addicts, except that it offers a rare commodity—a place to sit, or even sleep, without fear of rousting by police. And when it rains or snows, the alcove is shield enough from nature.
But Lingo thinks the church’s fight and the assault from without represent America’s inability to satisfy immigrant expectations: “They come here with high expectations and are disappointed. They get to drinking and doing other things, and then it’s sort of a downward spiral.”
“Pais [country] of tormenting residence,” reads a stenciled sign on a Columbia Road sidewalk not far from First Church. There are others: “Binational tears, bilingual anger, bilateral fear.” The signs offer testimony to the accuracy of Lingo’s analysis. The words, encased in irregular circles, are refrains in the songs of the disenfranchised: a funeral dirge for lost hope.
The Rev. Faye Codding, of First Congregational, stands at the lectern in the church’s sanctuary. Stained-glass windows line each side of the room, illustrating eight of the parables of Jesus—the Good Samaritan, New Wine in Old Vessels, the Prodigal Son, the Mustard Seed, the Good Shepherd, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Sower, and the House Built on a Rock. Huge organ pipes spit from behind Codding. A small but intensely engaged congregation of over 100 sit in smooth oak pews. Mack and his minister wife, Barbara Gerlach, are in the front pew—in the tradition of the Congregational Church, the pastor sits with the members, for he or she is called from among them. Codding is preaching about angels in the Bible. Under the title “The Children of the Resurrection,” she’s trying to dissect the notion of messengers of God from within the community.
In her message, Codding recalls visiting a friend out West in a town where the temperature did not go above 40 below zero for an entire week. Codding’s friend works in a church. Codding explains that on Sunday morning, her friend awakes early to heat up the building. The friend puts on layer after layer of clothing. “It looked like every piece she had in her closet,” Codding says. Then the friend pulls out a huge, old key—the kind the evil person uses to lock up the innocent young girl stored away in an attic. Codding’s friend holds the key over a flame on the stove; it needs to be hot to melt the ice on the lock. Watching all of this, Codding finally asks the seminal question: “Gail, why do you lock the church?” Codding thinks it’s not worth the trouble; besides, with the temperatures, “some poor soul might be thankful to be able to come in out of the cold.”
“So I can have something warm in my pocket,” Codding recalls her friend telling her. The friend’s words hint that she knows she holds the power in her pocket. Codding passes over this and continues her dissection. I linger on the question of who should have the keys for the House of the Lord.
The government and an uninterested business community make churches and their wards double victims. They consistently fail to live up to their part of the social contract, say activists.
“Every time there is a budget cut, it ends up being another wave of need that the church has to handle,” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “The more it tries to do, the more it is overwhelmed.”
Congress—particularly the Republicans who have led the budget-reduction charge—suggest there are all sorts of generous Americans willing to replace the money snatched back by a frugal federal government. But charities and the private sector—the likely suspects for sewing up the holes in the safety net for the poor—have yet to demonstrate the capacity to repair the rip. Consequently, churches are left to jury-rig some kind of effort to halt the free fall of the disenfranchised. But they, too, are failing. The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Conference of Bishops, the American Friends Service Committee, and 44 other religious groups have told Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole that current welfare reform proposals would “completely overwhelm our resources for serving the needy.”
“What the Republican majority is pushing for is really going to hurt poor people—it’s hard for us to remain balanced,” David Beckmann—whose Bread for the World group represents 45 Christian denominations—told the Journal.
Beckmann figures the average church would have to raise an additional $200,000 yearly to match the cuts in projected spending in the Senate version of the welfare-reform package; $300,000 per church would be needed to compensate for the more severe cuts proposed by the House. The Journal also reported that overall giving patterns have not changed during the last few decades, refuting Congress’ notion that tax rates affect Americans’ willingness to be charitable.
In the District, churches and nonprofit organizations are feeling particularly vulnerable. In the city’s fiscal year 1995, the Department of Human Services (DHS) took a $68-million hit in its $2-billion budget, and the agency expects an even larger reduction as the city government struggles to meet newly mandated cuts from Congress.
D.C. Councilmember Linda Cropp admits the cuts are devastating. Cropp, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, which oversees DHS, suggests nonprofit service providers like churches will confront an enormous burden as D.C. becomes less and less able to meet the basic needs of its citizens.
Last month, a group of nonprofit organizations and churches calling itself the Fair Budget Coalition argued in favor of declaring the District a “modified emergency” area. The group says the city’s rate of poverty, spreading infectious diseases such as AIDS, high unemployment, increasing homelessness, and a failing health care network qualify the District for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It’s doubtful that FEMA will respond favorably to the maneuver. A yes would mean the federal agency would invite an avalanche of similar calls for help from other major urban centers wracked by poverty and too few dollars for social programs. The ongoing disaster in the District will undoubtedly land in the churches’ backyards.
But many urban churches are watching their congregations flee to the suburbs—fewer members means reduced tithes and resources for outreach to the poor. At the same time, remaining members become frustrated by their inability to stem the tide of homeless people flooding their buildings. Or worse, they risk becoming victims of crime perpetrated by the people the churches are trying to help. Calvary Baptist Church at 8th and H Streets NW saw one of its members’ purse snatched during a service. Graffiti races across the façades of several churches, like the National Baptist Memorial Church.
The Rev. Alpha Estes Brown recalls the problems he had at Brightwood Park United Methodist Church in Ward 4 when he first arrived as its pastor: “I was confronted with a huge building that was decaying, declining congregation, and the church didn’t own its office equipment. People were sitting on walls, most of them were drug addicts, and there were back taxes. I was juggling and working around all of this.”
Brown says he invited the drug addicts to join the congregation and convinced his small congregation to begin to minister to the community at large. (The church now leads a major campaign to halt tobacco and liquor advertising in public spaces where children travel. Last month, seven of the city’s 13 councilmembers introduced legislation that would prohibit such advertisement, including billboards and signs on taxicabs.) At the same time, Brown also had the windows of the church bricked up to secure the building.
“With the declining tithes base for city churches,” explains Brown, “the first response is to save the physical plant.”
The Downtown Cluster’s Terry Lynch defends efforts to protect church buildings and workers: “They can’t be naive to think that sometimes difficult situations won’t occur. Random acts of crime can occur.”
“Churches have to take reasonable precautions,” continues Lynch. “Most downtown churches have been burglarized. I can’t tell you how many times the video has been stolen from New York Presbyterian.”
Martin Mallett, secretary for social concerns of the Archdiocese of Washington, says inner-city Catholic churches and many schools are not exempted from robberies. Earlier this year, someone completely knocked down the steel door at the McKenna Center, located inside St. Aloysius on North Capital Street; replacing it was not cheap, he says.
“Some of our churches have bars,” says Mallett, “but we struggle to keep our doors open.”
I place my small hands in the winged angel’s bowl of water and make the sign of the cross, genuflecting alongside my grandfather. When I was a child, these unscheduled encounters taught me that spirituality was as integral to daily life as drinking water and working.
The doors were never locked at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church whenever my grandfather went to perform what seemed a strange ritual: He climbed the 100 steps at St. Jude Chapel on his knees. He made the novena, hoping to seek assistance for some relative facing the challenges of living. Sometimes, he simply wanted to give thanks for his blessings. Only once did I hazard to imitate his ordeal. My spindly legs and bony knees couldn’t bear the pressure—I found a less demanding novena to make. I admired my grandfather’s commitment, his devotion. I took solace in the fact that the church was there, open whenever my grandfather needed it.
My family and other families used the churches that dotted New Orleans not just as spiritual temples but also as places of refuge—shelter from the noise of the city or those infamous sudden midday thunderstorms. Regardless of the hour, there was always someone there—lighting a candle for the soul of a dead relative or praying for assistance with some challenge they faced.
My mother, now in her mid-60s, remembers finding the same sanctuary as a young girl. “Even when the churches were segregated, the doors of Sacred Heart were open,” she recalls. “I made daily confession. Sometimes I went just to sit. I was there every day.”
But now, to pray in the District you must make an appointment—near the scheduled time for Mass, a Sunday church service, or a weekday religious gathering. An ill-timed visit might result in facing a closed and locked door, or worse, an impenetrable fence. Spontaneous dialogue between sinner and God no longer has a place among the pews. Sometimes, I want to find a church door open after 9:00 p.m. or before 8:00 a.m. It’s nearly impossible.
Unfortunately, it’s not much different in New Orleans, where churches and religion are as critical to the vitality of the city as its famous cuisine. Last year, it struck me that gates now cross the entrance of the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. The doors to the church, like many here in the District, are locked at dark. My mother is bothered by this phenomenon. How did it come to this? “When prayers are taken away, then there is only crime,” she says, her voice a picture of regret.
But First Congregational United Church of Christ never let a few crimes close its door or build fences between it and the community it serves. The two—community and church—have been inseparable since the church was founded by abolitionists and later propped up from bankruptcy by a predominantly African-American university.
The affair between the church and its community began in 1865, when First Congregational started the first integrated church in the city. And then even before it had raised all the funds for a new building, members served on a mission committee to create a school for freed blacks and former slaves. The group received assistance from Freedmen’s Bureau head Gen. O.O. Howard, a founder of First Congregational, and Howard University came into being. Two years later, the church had its own crisis. According to church documents, it ran into financial trouble and stood to lose its building to foreclosure. Howard University came to the rescue. The school bought the church’s mortgage note.
Building on its abolitionist past and the egalitarian traditions of the United Church of Christ, First Congregational members opened their doors to community groups during the 1960s’ civil rights movement. These days, an institutional commitment to social justice is expressed in two meal programs for the homeless, hosting eight other congregations including one of gays and lesbians, and a bevy of other organizations that find shelter at the church.
First Congregational is exactly the kind of church Mack—a Vietnam veteran and Union Theological Seminary graduate—went looking for when he decided he wanted to lead his own flock. He was looking for a church in the inner city with fewer than 400 members. Mack was hoping he could land in a place that had already effectively dealt with race-relations issues and had an open and affirming attitude toward gays and lesbians: “I had fought those issues so long ago,” he explains in his usual somber tone, one that relaxes for a momentary smile and returns to dead serious. He sits in his first-floor office, jacketless but still formally dressed in a yellow and black polka-dot tie.
“The church profile was the most significant thing that sold me,” he continues. “It made the decision to be integrated when founded in 1865. It decided to stay in the city when a new church was built; that was sometime in the late 1950s. And it joined with the Metropolitan Community Church [a gay and lesbian congregation] in 1973.”
Mack says that when he came to First Congregational in 1984, he was given “the mandate to maximize use of the space in the building so we could share expenses but also share our ministries.”
That order from the congregation led him to call the Olive Branch community back in the late 1980s. Back then, the meals programs for men was located in a building on 14th and Church Streets NW, which the Unification Church had recently bought. The new landlords invited the meals program to leave. First Congregational came to the rescue, providing a space for the Zacchaeus Kitchen to operate five days a week—Tuesday through Saturday. (On Mondays, meals are provided by volunteers from Blessed Sacrament Church in Ward 3.) Adding Zacchaeus meant the church had two meals programs—one in the morning and one in the evening—with nearly 500 people coming through its facility on an average day.
“It’s a unique community,” explains effusive church member Byron Adams, who recites church history from memory. “It believes very much in being a downtown church and ministering to downtown. There have been some struggles, but if people didn’t want to be involved, they wouldn’t stay.”
Adams, who publishes an international trade newsletter, runs his operation out of a second-floor office at First Congregational. It’s convenient, since he’s treasurer of the church. He calls the money he pays for his office “a covenant—not rent.” He’s been a First Congregational member for 11 years and says the last time people left because of the church’s aggressive outreach was in the late 1950s.
Harold Moss of Olive Branch thinks Mack has “done an excellent job in opening the church,” but he doesn’t hesitate to add that the group pays its way. “We probably represent the biggest part of his budget.”
As is often the case, the folks being ministered to bring a skepticism to the table in addition to their needs. Andrew, a 38-year-old homeless man, says, “Some of the people who work in the church take the good stuff,” and claims the best food gets eaten or taken away by the volunteers. The only time the food meets his standards is on Mondays, when the folks from Blessed Sacrament come down from Ward 3. In general, he says, “They treat people like dogs.”
Bob, an occasionally employed printer and a client of the meals program, says the church is making people too dependent. It should encourage them to be more creative about their survival. Bob believes the homeless should be prepared to survive by any means necessary.
Mack is shocked to hear some of the comments. He thinks the food served in the morning is nutritious. He admits that Blessed Sacrament does better, but adds that the burden of serving meals five times a week is great. As for the economics of ministering to the poor, he isn’t sure how much money the church collects from Olive Branch and other groups. Mack is beginning to look more closely at the financial dynamics and says he is developing a formula that will be used to determine contributions. For the present, he believes everyone pays an equal amount. And he doesn’t hesitate to add that if those groups weren’t around, “we couldn’t afford to remain in this building.”
Even with near-empty coffers, when big money came courting, First Congregational never wavered.
A developer wanted to build a major office complex on the church’s current site. The church would have been relocated to a basement with a corner entrance. “The church got very enamored with the proposal,” recalls Mack, who pins the moment as a turning point in the institution’s history. Several members formed a committee and investigated the developer’s offer, checking with other real estate moguls to discern whether the church was getting a good deal. The developer would have owned the new building, while the church retained possession of the land and simply leased it to the real estate company.
“When push came to shove, they wanted us to relocate the meals programs to another site. The church kicked [the developers] out the door,” continues Mack. “We’re like the goose that lays the golden egg, and what they wanted to do was going to kill the goose.”
Some of the church’s neighbors don’t see anything golden in First Congregational’s mission of feeding the poor, which brings hundreds of homeless people into the area every day. The church’s trouble actually began six years ago with the huge fountain that dominates the pedestrian plaza on G Street between 9th and 10th Streets NW. A monstrosity, it once spouted water into the air from three different locations. Recalls Mack: “When it worked it only stayed clean for about five days. Then the water slowly turned brown, and then it became filled with cans. When it wasn’t filled with trash, it leaked into the Metro.
“Whoever designed it had this lovely idea of a flowing river through the heart of a city,” Mack continues. “But you put that much water surface at ground level in an urban environment and you’re just going to get it filled with trash. There’s no way you can keep it up.”
Still, Mack’s neighbors—the D.C. Public Library, St. Patrick’s Church, St. Paul’s Institute for the Arts, and the YWCA—all blamed First Congregational for creating a slum in the plaza area surrounding the fountain. In 1988, they all met to figure out what to do about the problem. Instead of bickering among themselves, each organization donated about $500 to a common fund. The group eventually spent about $10,000 of its money and grant funds on keeping the fountain and the plaza clean.
But eventually, several members grew tired of paying and decided the city should be carrying the burden of keeping the plaza clean; they stopped donating to the fund. Earlier this year, First Congregational voted to spend $2,000 of its own money to fill in the fountain with soil. (The city turned it off years ago, drained all the water, and simply left the basins empty.) The church also planted a few small bushes and posted a “Park Closed After Dark ” sign. And during the summer, it offered space to the Metropolitan Police Department to conduct surveillance; several drug arrests were made, says Mack.
“I think this end looks nice now,” says Mack, talking about the planters just outside the church. It’s hard to see what he is seeing when you look at the graffiti-defaced walls. The scene is remarkably bleak.
It rained and snowed last night; the ground is still damp, with blobs of white here and there. It’s nearly 9:00 a.m., and only a handful of men stand outside the metal door this morning. Glover has been to early Mass at St. Patrick’s. He wears a blue plaid jacket. A gray jacket covers the plaid one and a knit skullcap hugs his head. He smiles a lot and talks about becoming a priest. For some reason he thinks the pope will be in Baltimore this Friday. When he’s corrected, he becomes more vehement about the date: “Yeah, that’s right. This Friday should be Dec. 1. Right? The pope is going to be in Baltimore.”
I suddenly realize Glover will always believe the pope is coming on Friday; I can’t change that. I edge away—first in small steps, then more obviously—until I am on the sidewalk. I wonder where to go from here.
Everyone knows dealing with the homeless is risky business. But maybe because Mack and the folks at Olive Branch deal with these men and women every day, they are flabbergasted that churches are building fences to keep them out.
“There is some risk doing ministry to these people,” says the archdiocese’s Mallett. Keeping doors locked or building fences may simply be a practical matter for some churches. He says some churches are more confident about their neighborhoods. Others must keep the doors locked, or sacraments will be stolen. But he adds,“We don’t want to flee.”
“We don’t want crime to determine where and when we do ministry,” Mallett continues. “We have to get beyond the crisis and find out what drives people to desecrate the church.”
Mack doesn’t like to dwell on the few perpetrators among those his church serves: the ones who scrawl on walls, break windows, and make a mess on the plaza. He believes the congregation’s steady focus on meeting needs has served the community and enriched his congregation. And he understands the risks. “If you have to die as an institution, die for the right things, not because you just gave up.”
But as the government continues its assault on programs for the poor, some inner-city churches will find themselves unable to shoulder the burden and unwilling to become victims of those seeking desperately to survive by any means necessary. It may mean more and more churches will simply throw up their hands, put up a fence, and pray.