I've best experienced the richness of two major cities — temperamental New York and sunny Los Angeles.
My visits to Baltimore were often limited to cruising the Inner Harbor during late summers. The view of the seaport-nestled area is in a lovely part of town — but the same can't be said of the neighborhoods just outside the harbor. As a result, I've always been left with an ambivalent view of Maryland in general.
On the drive down to the Helping Up Mission on April 4, I saw a vivid yellow and red sign tacked onto a beat up store that read La Roca. A few miles further, I saw an isolated adult video store — XXX and open 24/7. I didn't realize such stores still existed. The world-renowned John Hopkins Hospital was a small city of elaborate architecture, crafted from fine glass and brown brick that sang testament to its prestige. Yet surrounding the hospital were broken neighborhoods with homes steeped in peeling paint and cracks. The sheer state of their condition made me want to believe that no one could possibly be residing in those homes. I was wrong — the small groupings of people gathered outside doors and on stoops proved otherwise.
The reality of low-income housing was bleak.
The outside of the Helping Up Mission was unremarkable, yet fascinating at the same time. I wasn't sure what to expect outside of poverty and sadness. Homeless shelters were the societal rock bottom, and I had never encountered a pleasant one in my life. I was far more used to homeless men sleeping within the underground belly of subways in New York, and homeless men sitting in the streets of south Los Angeles, crumpled, thin and begging for change.
The outside of the Mission.
The Mission was founded in the late 19th century. A part of the chapel from where the Mission was born remains secluded in a small area within the lobby, a piece of religious history. The Mission is a non-denominational Christian organization, its cause dedicated to helping the poor, homeless people, addicts, and former criminals start anew as both a homeless shelter and rehabilitation center. It caters specifically to male residents, though a version of the Mission for women has been green-lit by the board of directions. It will be a 16 year process and start off serving 100 women.
The religious service area of the Mission.
Everything a resident could ever want was available at the Mission — from new clothes to a surround-sound movie theater, education services, visits from Superbowl MVP Joe Flacco, and laser surgery by the very man who invented the technique over at John Hopkins. All any man had to do, our tour guide said, was walk through the Mission's doors and they would be taken care of. Their sexual orientation or religious affiliation did not matter.
For all intent and purposes, these men lead more luxurious lives than myself — and I've never seen the inside of a jail cell. In some respects, it felt unfair. At the same time, if the Mission wasn't there to save them, then who would?
The tour guide for our University of Delaware students was a man by the name of Frank Moses. A former resident of the Mission, he now led the Friday morning church services.
"The lifestyle of addiction does not discriminate," Frank said, a truth often lost to us all, even myself.
Moses speaking to our group in the clothing room.
"This program has to be the number one program in the state," he noted with pride. He thanked God that in his time at the Mission, he had never encountered a weapon, stabbing, or death — unlike other shelters.
Lunchtime was the interlude of our little tour.
Art located within the dining area.
After help serve several hundred men their meals, and after giving my ice cream to a fellow resident in exchange for small talk (he was eating oatmeal — doctor's orders after a recent dental surgery) I joined in an extended conversion my colleagues were having with a man by the name of Michael Sampery. Jabbing a fork into the air as he spoke, he exuded a youth and vigor that barely reflected his true age, 55. Showing our group the picture on his badge ID when he first entered the Mission, he offered a crooked smile.
"I look like a criminal, don’t I?" He did, but that man in the photo was nothing like the man sitting front of me.
Michael Sampery, Mission resident.
None of the men I had encountered that day looked like former criminals or addicts. Some of these men even fell into their addictions and vices through something as innocuous as a sports injury that lead to pain medication followed by the inability to quit the pain meds when the time came.
Rather, they were all humble and grateful — even charming.
If lunch was the interlude to my journey, then surely reaching the recreational rooftop spot of the Mission's building was the climax. Clouds marred the sky, but this time I saw the entirety of Baltimore (through black bars). I saw one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in America. I saw the Phoenix Shot Tower, a national landmark. I saw Little Italy, City Hall, and where the Chesapeake Bay began to flow into the city.
The Lloyd Street Synagogue, the shot tower, and a snapshot of Baltimore from above.
Much like my preconceived notions about Baltimore, Baltimore's destitute, and the destitute at large, all I needed in the end was a change in perspective. It was a breathtaking experience to see hope shine bright in the most unexpected place.