A Jesuit’s love letter to Baltimore
When our current president began his reign on Pennsylvania Avenue, I promised that I would not spend my time engaged in exegesis on his early-morning tweets. How could one begin to refute this overflowing cauldron of ignorance, prejudice, obscenity, xenophobia, misogyny, narcissism, deceit, fantasy, invective, scapegoating, rage, threats, braggadocio and bottomless egomania? Doesn’t the critique of these rants only highlight and normalize the venom? How does one rebut a high-tech tantrum?
But the current occupant of the White House has now turned his rage on you, my adopted city. He asks why anyone would want to live here. (I do wonder why anyone would want to live in the vermin-infested apartment buildings in Baltimore owned by the president’s family.) I think it is time for a valentine for a troubled city I have come to love.
It takes time to learn the code that opens the door to the mysterious world of attics and basements that make up your burning creative heart.
You have often asked me how Baltimore differs from New York City, where I had spent the previous 20 years. In New York, you can take a helicopter ride and point out the discrete sections of Manhattan. There is the Financial District, the Garment District, the Theater District. But in Baltimore the cultural treasures are hidden. I slowly discovered the city’s thriving theater scene in an ancient hotel basement, a firehouse, a barn, a car-repair shop and an old fortune-teller’s studio, where the ghost of a murdered medium promptly appears on Saturday at midnight. I have often walked up the winding, creaky staircase to the tattered ballroom of An Die Musik, where I have heard Chopin, Gershwin, an Elvis imitator and something called “white hip hop.” The stately Pratt, the city’s municipal library, boasts a fine Poe collection, but the most interesting section is an unmarked alcove where an eternal chess game is playing, complete with speed timers. (Confession: I once won $2.50 on a match.)
The other day I stopped into a vegan restaurant near the medical building where I picked up new eyeglasses. A banner over the counter announced that this was the place where “Soul Food goes Vegan.” After a lunch of lentil burgers, kale soaked in a spicy carrot sauce and a glass of even spicier ginger tea, the owner (who also manned the counter) tried to sell me the restaurant’s latest T-shirt: “Deport White Supremacy.” Racial anguish is never far from your surface.
I love your eccentricity, but I have discovered that it is a studied eccentricity, like the calculated madness of the movies of John Waters, our pre-eminent film director. It takes time to learn the code that opens the door to the mysterious world of attics and basements that make up your burning creative heart.
The Gospel preached here is the unvarnished one of fall, redemption and repentance. Your honest streets would tolerate no counterfeit.
But I do agree with our president on one point: You are corrupt. And the corruption is destroying you. Our most recently elected mayor was hounded from office after it was reported that she had netted hundreds of thousands of dollars from a bogus book deal with special interests dependent on city contracts and city regulators. The mayor before her was forced out after she was convicted of stealing hundreds of gift cards that were supposed to go to the city’s homeless at Christmas. I could go on. One-party rule, in this case by the Democrats, always corrupts. Any city needs a solid loyal opposition and a combative, adversarial press. But you have neither.
You, dear Baltimore, deserve better.
You are a creative, beautiful city, full of countless examples of strength and faith. You are an old “city of churches,” where soaring spires still define neighborhoods. As we struggle with violence and the drug epidemic, your citizens turn to God’s mercy in search of strength. Your religion is not the creation spirituality or the self-esteem therapy of leafy suburban megachurches. It is all about redemption. Raw. Desperate. Immediate. It is about freedom from the despair rooted in the addict’s needle and the parentless home.
One of your great religious rites occurs on New Year’s Eve at our downtown Jesuit parish, Saint Ignatius. Church and state are in vigil. The governor, the mayor, the police commissioner and the fire commissioner join the bishop, the rabbi, the imam, the Buddhist monk and a phalanx of Protestant ministers in the sanctuary. The service might appear to be just another exercise in civil religion, one that breaches the wall between church and state. But the earnest vigil intercedes for our murder victims and our addicts in a plea for God’s liberating grace and for the courage to serve you, our city, with hope. The Gospel preached here is the unvarnished one of fall, redemption and repentance. Your honest streets would tolerate no counterfeit.
Dear Baltimore, God bless.