Matt Stevens, Director of “Somebody Cares, Baltimore,” stood on the front steps of Grace Beyond the Walls at 2214 E. Oliver Street in East Baltimore. We had just left the tiny storefront church, two seats flanking a narrow aisle about the size of an airplane’s center corridor, and as long as a large living room, where we had assembled to plan the day’s “Peace Walk,” what to do, what to expect.
Matt’s a big guy. Constant twinkle in his eye. A born organizer – no, a born motivator. Matt knows these streets, especially the streets near Grace Beyond the Walls, one of Baltimore’s roughest areas. Having mentored youth, run food drives, put together community celebrations in parks, and, more recently, helped Baltimore with its violence reduction/community building strategies, Matt, organizer of these walks, knew the streets and he knew our concerns.
People kept arriving – a police officer in uniform with her child in a stroller, students, people from different parts of Baltimore, from towns outside of Baltimore, even small faith delegations from Southern Virginia, towns in Northern Maryland and from Pennsylvania, a young couple with an infant in a front pack. There were about 35-40 of us.
“Listen up,” barked Matt who helps organize the Peace Walks, walks hosted by different faith communities from across Baltimore. “I want you to get together with three people you’ve never, ever seen before. Ask them where they’re from, why they’re here and what deodorant they use, if any.” Smiles. A sudden buzz of talk, of surprise – “You drove up from there today?” – and laughter. Never in my experience has a community formed so quickly.
“You are just here to be present,” instructed Matt. “That’s it. You’re not here to convert anyone. Feel free to talk to folks if you’d like. Respond to folks if they want to talk. Yes, there is violent crime here, but remember: 95% of the people aren’t into the life. They’re just trying to make it, raising kids, some holding two jobs. You are safe.”
We walked. The street teemed with kids on bikes, people sitting on stoops, a few knots of people quietly leaving their small groups. I spoke to one young man who followed us with interest. “Join us,” I urged. Turns out he was a floor tiler who had just bought a house “in order to stabilize the neighborhood. I want to start an ownership movement.” A middle-aged frighteningly thin woman with hair dyed purple, asked for a prayer. Four or five “walkers” surrounded her each with hand gently on her head or shoulders, she this clearly broken, sobbing woman being told how precious she is, how wonderful. She didn’t want the hands to leave her.
We stopped by a house recently converted into a shelter for abandoned children, hearing from the director who spoke from a small balcony. He had started the shelter from scratch.
I found myself walking with a woman who worked as a senior administrator in Baltimore’s school system. She told me that she served as a pastor of a small church north of the city.
“But I’m looking for space now. I want to move my church here.”
“Here?” I asked, stunned.
“Yes, look! This is a vineyard. Look at the people. Just look at all the kids!”
Not a place of low income, not a place of concentrated abuse, crime, poverty and poor education. No, a place replete with opportunity. A vineyard!
She gave me new eyes. Throughout my long career I have helped to design and run programs on the local level. I have forged policies on the state and national levels all to deal with the presenting problems of family collapse, unemployment, abuse, crime and lonely, unclaimed kids and more. But not a vineyard.
On the short Amtrak ride home, the “vineyard” comment stayed with me. Such a cry of hope. I reflected that optimism assumes all will go well without our effort. Pessimism assumes that all is irredeemable. Both let us do nothing. It is hope that impels us forward.
Martin Luther King Jr. kept moving even though he had a pretty good sense of what he and his fellow marchers would face on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama:
“If you lose hope,” he said, “Somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving; you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today, I still have a dream… We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
To me, William Sloane Coffin, former head minister at the iconic Riverside Church in New York City, prolific author and former chaplain at Yale nails it:
“Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in doing so has the evidence any chance of changing.”
My take: optimism is an attitude. Hope shows up. Hope is the evidence changer. Hope is seeing the fruit before a single vine has been planted. Hope is the vineyard.