03 May 2015

The Fields of Mondawmin

John 15:1-11

Fifth Sunday after Easter
3rd May 2015

Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

The story goes that one day the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1855) arrived in Baltimore to visit his friend Dr. Patrick Macaulay (1795-1849), physician, city councilman, B & O Railroad director, patron of the arts. He lived on a seventy-three acre plantation, purchased in 1827, situated on the hills above Baltimore harbor.  Dr. Macaulay had yet to come up with a name for his “estate” and so he asked Longfellow to suggest one. Looking around and seeing field upon field of corn growing everywhere, Longfellow replied, “Why not Mondamin, after the Indian corn god?” Mapmakers eventually added a “w” to the name. That’s how we know it today.  After the events of this week in Baltimore, that’s how people all around the nation, indeed the world know it today.  Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mondawmin or never driven past the shopping mall named for the neighborhood or never shopped there (I know it well and shop there often), but we all know where it is now.

Nothing is left of the plantation house, which was known as "the pink house."  As a footnote, Mondawnin was sold, after Macaulay’s death, in 1850, to George Brown (1787-1859), chairman of Alex Brown and Sons, the first investment bank in the United States, who preserved the plantation. He was a Presbyterian.  Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill was dedicated in memory of him in 1870.  The last private owner of the Mondawmin estate was Alexander Brown, who died there in 1949.

Baltimore’s first urban mall opened in Mondawmin in 1956.  Its coffee shop, called The White Coffee Pot, did not serve blacks.[1] By 1957 the area was already changing and after the 1968 riots the neighborhood, along with the mall, seriously declined. 

The Mondawmin neighborhood is bounded by Longwood Street and Hilton Parkway to the west, Liberty Heights Avenue and Druid Park Drive to the north, Druid Hill Park and Fulton Avenue to the east, and North Avenue to the south.  These have become familiar street names to the wider world: Fulton Street, North Avenue.  North Avenue and Pennsylvania, the epicenter of this week’s protests and police presence, is just on the edge of the Mondawmin neighborhood as it flows into the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood to the south. Drive south on Fulton Street and it eventually crosses Presstman Street, the location of the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was arrested.

Longfellow tells us in The Song of Hiawatha that the god Manito was intent on helping Hiawatha care for the needs of his people. And so Manito sent help. “Who are you?” Hiawatha whispered. "I am Mondamin," the young man answered. "Manito has sent me to answer your prayers. He wants you to know your people will always have food. But they must work hard for it. And now you must work. You must wrestle with me."  After wrestling with him seven times Mondamin fell and was buried in the ground.  He became one with the ground and from his ashes new growth, corn stalks rose from the ground to feed the people. Hence, Mondamin became known as the corn god.

It’s there, in the former fields of Mondawmin, that we see the yield of seeds sown by of our racist, segregationist past.  Today, growing in the fields or living in the streets and alleys of Mondawmin, the City of Baltimore is reaping what it has sown for decades, generations. It’s complex, extremely complex. 

There isn’t one core problem, but many, a rat’s nest of problems that seem to coalesce around one central issue: economic disparity.  The deep sin of racism cannot be overlooked. Antero Pietela’s book, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry shaped a Great American City, tells the sordid story of Baltimore’s segregationist and anti-Semitic history (which are linked).  Racism permeates everything, but it doesn’t explain everything that we have witnessed this week.  While we must in no way condone the violence of this week, it is our responsibility as Christians, as people called to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), to act with empathy and compassion as we try to place ourselves in the life of someone who lives in Sandtown in order to understand the rage.

If you’ve never driven through that part of the city, I encourage you to do so—not at this moment, of course, but soon.  There’s block after block of urban blight.  There are “16,000 vacant houses” in Baltimore and “roughly 14,000 empty lots” in the city. “The area that saw the worst rioting this week is far more intact than some neighborhoods, where whole blocks of rowhouses are dead but not gone.”[2]  The families that live there are “trapped…some of the poorest in the country, where low tax revenue means less money for schools, which means poor education, which leads to few or no good jobs, which leads to alternative and often illegal ways to put food on the table, which leads to prison, which leads to broken homes, which begins the cycle of desperation all over again.”  This is how James Parks, vice-moderator of Baltimore Presbytery, very helpfully summarized the situation at the prayer vigil on Friday.

Close to 100 Presbyterians gathered on Friday afternoon, outdoors on an empty lot beside Trinity Presbyterian Church, an African-American church near Walbrook Junction, about a mile west of Mondawmin Mall.  It was a diverse crowd.  We gathered to sing, pray, light candles for justice and peace.  And we prayed for everyone.  Petition after petition was lifted up for everyone: from the innocent children to parents to school teachers to store owners; and we prayed for those now out of work because of the destruction, the poor living conditions in the city, the inequality, the urban blight, the police officers and national guard members, firemen, care providers, the city council, the mayor, the state’s attorney, the governor, victims of violence and brutality, people on the edge of it all who don’t understand or won’t try to understand.  We prayed for justice, peace, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  The presbytery promised that the service on Friday would not be an isolated event. There are churches in the city that have heard all of these prayers and expressions of concern from predominantly white Presbyterians before, for decades. We vowed that this would not be a one-off event, but the start of something new, different.

It was a marvelous expression of the church of Jesus Christ being the church.  We were sowing seeds of hope, I believe, hope for something new to yield in the fields of Mondawmin. Jesus said people will be able to identify his followers by the fruit that they bear, by the yield. We’re supposed to bear fruit, yield something with our lives. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  And God is glorified when we, as God’s children, bear fruit—not some fruit, “much fruit.”  And the essential fruit that we are called to yield is love (John 15:9).  That is the sign that we abide in Jesus and that he abides in us. 

And sometimes for love to be enacted, for a branch to yield new growth it needs to be pruned.  I’m not sure if the actual act of pruning hurts the vine. Can the vine “feel” it?  I don’t know.  It certainly sounds painful.  But, as we all know, there’s no growth without pruning.  I would like to think that the events of this week will become a kind of pruning for all of us, white and black, rich and poor, city and county dweller, most notably the church of Jesus Christ, both the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” church, alike.  It’s been said that one of the roles of the church, one of the tasks of preaching is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”  We’re not called to afflict the comforted just to be mean to them or to judge.  It’s offered in love.  It’s a kind of pruning, which wakes people up, quickens one’s conscience, opens up one’s heart and mind, which then gives us the capacity to listen—really listen—for what the Spirit is calling us to be and do, calling us to really love. We all need pruning at times.

As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, with the images of this past week still fresh and raw, and in light of those events, here are two questions to consider: what fruit will you bear in your personal lives? And as for the church, what will be our yield?

[1] Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 122.
[2] See Eugene Robinson’s opinion piece in The Washington Post, April 30, 2015.

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