At Pax Christi conference, volunteers clean up Baltimore lots

Baltimore — With a heat index of more than 100 degrees, two busloads of a mostly 50-plus-year-old-crowd of Catholic peace activists attending the Pax Christi USA conference Aug. 12-14 left the comfort of a cool hotel near the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to head downtown. They were joining a group of poor folks in the ghetto trying to clean up a couple of overgrown, trash-filled, empty lots to make the neighborhood known as Sandtown-Winchester look just a tad bit neater.

I dreaded this excursion. This was the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. I knew it would be painful to spend a sweltering afternoon in a part of a city where drug dealers rule the streets, where the police department has been deemed brutal by the Department of Justice and where so many people suffer daily under conditions I could not imagine having to face.

When we arrived at the corner of N. Carrollton Ave. and Mosher St., there were gloves, boxes of large garbage bags, a lawn mower (that probably did not work) and various shovels and clippers to get the work started. Immediately I marveled at how well this mostly middle-class, older crowd segued so well into a formidable work crew. Soon, full black bags of trash and clippings were piling up on the sidewalk. 

A dog yelped against the intrusion. The mower was loud and occasionally stalled as it grinded and whirled against the tall weeds and grass, most more than a yard high. Some of us were given new blue T-shirts from the No Boundaries Coalition, the neighborhood nonprofit that Sr. Patty Chappell, Pax Christi USA executive director, contacted to set up the work project. 

I opted to pick up trash in a thicket of thin trees, shrubs and weeds. The overgrowth gave me a little cover from the heat. The clouds were a blessing, keeping most us out of direct sunlight a lot of the time.

At one point I emerged carrying a boot that looked well-made, but was no longer useful due to a prolonged stay in the elements, and a large piece of broken porcelain that I surmised was once a toilet. I loaded up my bag with glass jars, plastic bottles, all things Styrofoam, candy wrappers and dozens of empty chip bags, many filled with standing rainwater. I also came across some clothes, including a lacy blue bra, some single children's socks and a few bags of men's clothes that seemed still useful. I found quite a few balled up, bloated, disposable baby diapers that weighed several pounds apiece, a dog leash, wine bottles and aluminum cans that sadly no one seemed interested in recycling.

I looked at my coworkers, who despite being soaked in sweat and looking haggard, were determined to keep pushing ahead. If 82-year-old Maryknoll Fr. James Noonan could carry on without complaining, so could I. By this point I was also feeling good about my own effort. I had a sense there was something meaningful about a bunch of mostly white people coming to the other side to see what poverty and pain looks like. My pain was caused by a few hours of sweating, being stooped over and lifting heavy bags, but I went back to the hotel. Some of the volunteers, including community organizer and No Boundaries co-director Ray Kelly, had spent all of their lives in Sandtown-Winchester.

The effort, part of the "My Block-My Hood Summer Initiative," recruits volunteers to join local residents in efforts to spruce things up along some of Baltimore's "blocks that are struggling," said Kelly, 45, a divorced father of four who serves on the parish council at the nearby St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, where he was baptized as a child. Kelly, who receives Catholic Campaign for Human Development funding for No Boundaries, made a presentation about the program this spring to the annual gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Just look at this," Kelly said, pointing to the now freshly mowed lot that featured some shade trees and would soon be used for a cookout and mini-music festival for the locals and Pax Christi volunteers. "It was a forest this morning at 9 a.m."

In addition to the clean-up effort, Kelly said filling the street with hard-working volunteers keeps the drug dealers away -- at least for this day.

"That's part of our initiative," Kelly said. "We shut down the open-air drug market. They're not selling drugs out here for a day."

In August, the Department of Justice released a report accusing the Baltimore Police Department of engaging in a "pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law." The report found that African-Americans face "overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters" between police and black residents.

African-Americans account for 86 percent of all criminal offenses charged by the Baltimore Police Department, despite making up only 63 percent of Baltimore residents.

Kelly said he was not surprised that the Baltimore police officers, put on trial for Gray's death, were acquitted.

"Let's go back in the whole history of the country and you pull out five cases where a cop has been convicted of killing a black man; it doesn't happen," Kelly said. "It's not that it rarely happens -- it doesn't happen."

When I asked Kelly if inner city Baltimore is a police state, he replied: "This is a racist state. It's a racist environment. Since my whole life this has always been a community where you have to be conscious of how you interact with the police department. It's always been that way. At least in my 45 years."

Kelly said police violence in Baltimore goes far beyond the standard "one bad apple" analogy.

"When you prove that the barrel is rotten, and you put a hundred good apples in it, how long before they're rotten apples too?" Kelly said. "So you can't put good apples in a rotten barrel. So that's what the report says, the whole damn barrel is rotten."

As our buses headed back to the hotel, residents along N. Carrollton Ave. smiled and waved good-bye. I felt a range of emotions, probably similar to the feelings a missionary experiences when leaving a developing nation to go back to her or his native land. My thought was simply: "But for the grace of God go I."

[Patrick O’Neill is a longtime NCR contributor and cofounder of the Fr. Charles Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, N.C.]

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