As I was standing in a prayer circle with about 25 other members of the clergy, I wondered how well I would do swimming in these theistic seas. I was called to Ethical Culture Leadership as a second career despite my skepticism about traditional religions. I was drawn by both the aching need in the world all around us, and a yearning to embrace more deeply the best in others and myself. I knew that to do this work I would probably have to wade into the religious waters of interfaith work. So I was here as a guest at a late winter Clergy Caucus organized by BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development).
As the prayer concluded, Rob English, director of BUILD introduced Sean Closkey, President of TRF Development Partners. This unassuming but influential developer spoke about how the new City Arts Building came to stand at 440 E. Oliver. This $14 million investment offers affordable housing and arts space as part of a broad strategy to rebuild the inner city a few blocks at a time. By creating “situations of strength” – like this one linking the Johns Hopkins Hospital area development to the railway station – BUILD hopes to offer current residents a safer, affordable alternative to the run down tenements that scar Baltimore.
BUILD is just one of many Industrial Area Foundation groups throughout the country that bring together diverse interests around a common goal: repairing the frayed social fabric of American cities through alliances of voluntary institutions including religious congregations, labor groups, homeowner associations, settlement houses, schools, and more.
These grand goals took on concrete form when I spoke with Rev. Hector Rodriguez, a Episcopal minister with a congregation in southeast Baltimore. A number of families he knew were living in unsustainable situations and he needed a couple of apartments for them. Plans were made to offer them some newly available units. His work, and the Arts building before us, made clear to me that this was a pragmatic group looking to make this life – here and now – more humane.
As we moved back inside to begin the business portion of this clergy caucus, I was even more impressed with the commitment level. Cuts to education being proposed in the Maryland legislature were discussed. “We have to speak for the children,” one member urged. “February 28th we have buses ready. How many from your congregation are you bringing to Annapolis?” As they went around the table, almost every clergy member offered their best guess as to how many congregants or school community members they could convince or cajole into giving up a half-day of their life – “five,” “two,” “ten.” “How many fill a bus?” one asked. “Thirty-six.” “Thirty-six then,” was the reply. Some cheers filled the room.
Since I am a little too young to have been fully engaged in the civil rights movement when it was at its height, I can’t be certain, but it seemed to me that a small piece of history was being replayed. I felt a religious energy that I imagined infused those marching from Selma to Montgomery, or serving time in crowded Birmingham jail cells. Whatever limitations I have for tolerating theistic language, they had faded into the background. While Rob English and his core of BUILD activists might call the energy “the spirit of the lord,” it didn’t matter to me what they called it. I saw in their commitment an ethical compassion that inspired me the rest of the day, and I still feel it today.
I am thrilled that Rob will be able to come speak at BES on Sunday, May 15. Check out their website and learn about the many other programs that I cannot cover here: http://www.buildiaf.org/. I hope we will consider becoming a part of BUILD. I believe BES could be served by getting to know the dedicated group of clergy and educators and activists dedicated to rebuilding Baltimore a block at a time. While I am just beginning to know them, the relationship has brought me vibrant ethical inspiration.