Some urban churches are virtual community service centers. In these churches civic advocacy, promotion of education and health, and neighborhood partnerships couple with spiritual services and worship. Amazing Grace Lutheran Church on McElderry Street is one of these power houses. Its bulletin board testifies to all the on-going activities: Client Choice Food Pantry, Habitat for Humanity workshop, Panera Bread Share, garden club for children, spiritual healing Bible study, as well as, massage therapy. Above the bulletin board is the poster for Safe Streets program: “Stop Shooting. Start Living.” Another poster of a child with puckered lips, beseeching eyes, and the words: “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.”
During the spring I had a chance to visit Amazing Grace several times. I saw the church’s meditation garden burst in bloom and talked to Pastor Gary Dittman about upcoming projects such as Breezeway Café, an alleyway turned into a forum of music and conversation around colorfully painted tables. It’s a sort of home-made Starbuck’s made from scratch, with an odd assortment of tables and chairs. I offered a helping hand to Morgan Blizzard, food ministry coordinator, at one of the church and Maryland Food Bank’s joint Produce Drops, a give-away of fresh produce and artisan breads. Amazing Grace’s stately brick exterior, three arched glass doors, and stained-glass windows tell the story of the time when East Baltimore was the landing ground for immigrants from Europe and elsewhere around the world. Today the area’s newcomers are often non-residential investors who buy vacant houses with a hope that the expansion of the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital will turn the boarded-up properties into respectable investments. Baltimore City Neighborhood Health Profiles reminds us that more than one in five houses in the area are currently vacant. Some time may pass before this part of the town transforms.
There is no doubt that life can get tough in McElderry. Serious conversations and civic advocacy are certainly needed, as Pastor Gary points out. For this reason the church is involved in promoting the economic opportunities of the area’s neighbors, including the proposed light rail transit (Red Line) that would better connect East Baltimore with the western parts of the city. Yet, spiritual care and promotion of well-being also require a sense of more immediate joy, and, simply, good times. That might be why Pastor Gary seems to sprinkle his conversation with a large dose of comic relief.
So let’s focus on what it means to have a good time in Amazing Grace and why that is important to understand what might be required for holistic wellness for all people. The color green is certainly part of the equation – be that in the church’s garden or in the veggies of the Produce Drop. The day I served Produce Drop there were crusty artisan breads, potatoes, grapefruit, and cabbage heads. This delighted the over hundred people who showed up to be served that day. One woman quickly reached out to collect all extra leaves at the bottom of the boxes, declaring: “These are for my black-and-white rabbit. She just loves this crunchy stuff.”
Morgan Blizzard and community gardener, Jessie Scott, educate children from Tench Tilghman Elementary School in ecological awareness. In a spring Garden Club day the children gathered around stacks of crayons and paper to color tags for rows of parsley, cilantro, kale, and other produce in the church’s garden. The church is also involved in other green projects, such as the Trees for Public Health Campaign. Trees are more than flag-bearers of shade and fresh air. A recent study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning linked urban leaf canopy to less crime. While it is hard to prove cause and effect between trees and reduction of crime, the study shows that neighborhoods barren devoid of trees are not good for anybody.
Visual arts and music inspire the mind, but they also bring an opportunity for healing and enrichment. Pastor Gary and Dennis Sherman, a local bass player, were engaged in a lively conversation about music one day when I dropped by to pick-up some forgotten items. Music is part of the congregation’s life, but also a way to reach out. The people at Amazing Grace are fortunate also to have children among their artists. Their little hands have shaped the paper mass into globes and colored in continents; another afterschool project has involved colorful paper lanterns that now decorate the windowsill of the common area. The Viewfinders, students from East Baltimore schools and their organizers from MICA, have brought their colorful photos of urban life to the church. Beauty is never effortless – fostering it in all kinds of settings carries with it the message of equality, solidarity, and hope. All these are building blocks of shared wellness.