Mark Parker Wants to Listen to Your Story

Mark Parker wants to listen to your story. For the Pastor of Highlandtown’s Breath of God Lutheran Church and candidate for Baltimore City Council, listening is a trade, a craft, and a calling.

When asked about the connection between his current gig and the one he’s campaigning for all across Southeast Baltimore, he replied “For me [public service] comes from the same pastoral place of having a deep connection in people’s lives… to be with folks when they’re struggling, whether it’s a family deciding if it’s time for grandma to move to assisted living, a tenant under pressure from her landlord, a pregnant teen searching for an answer, an immigrant kid struggling to learn English, a homeless man asking for a glass of water, or a young couple getting married and wondering whether to raise kids in the City, the question is the same: ‘What’s the path forward?’” Over the next six months, residents of Southeast Baltimore’s 1st District will decide whether Mark’s the one they want to find that path forward with them.

It’s crystal even to the casual observer that Baltimore is at a critical juncture. In the aftermath of the Freddie Gray Uprising — which reminded us all of the power of thousands of outraged people to demand justice with one voice — a new political order is emerging. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced she isn’t running (for mayor, at least) and only four of the Council’s fifteen seats are considered safe. While some political dynasties wither, other stars rise. But for Southeast, autonomous from Baltimore until the City swallowed its suburbs in a 1919 land grab orchestrated in Annapolis against protest from historic Highland Town and Canton, the machinations of City Hall have always been less present than in many other sections of our charming metropolis.

According to Mark, “people down here are issue focused and hyper-local, rather than city-wide in their political orientation.” Despite this inward gaze borne of self-sufficiency, change is sweeping over Southeast Baltimore as fast as anywhere, and so the inescapable energy that bubbled and burst in April is present here, too, desperately searching for an outlet like rainwater surging into the Bay. “Maybe this helps to overcome the barriers to policy change,” Mark says, eyes straining slightly to see through the glare to visualize what he’s thinking.

Mark grew up on the other side of downtown from Southeast, in the Otterbein. His parents were “homesteaders” who participated in the $1 home program and settled in 1975 in the neighborhood now wedged between MLK and Camden Yards. In his early years, Mark “saw a lot of investment in the Harbor and Downtown, but also the fading of South Baltimore’s old blue collar areas.”

In those days, there was a strong sense of purpose in the Otterbein that he attributes to all new residents — the old had been displaced by eminent domain for a highway project — rebuilding a community in both the physical and social sense of the word. Mark took note, always listening, and never forgot where he came from as his studies lead him first to College Park, where he studied Government, History, and Spanish, and then to Philadelphia where he pursued Urban Ministry at the Lutheran Theological Seminary. In August of 2009 he was called as Pastor in Highlandtown.

Mark Parker, Pastor, Breath of God Lutheran Church and Candidate for Baltimore City Council, 1st District

Although he had spent three years working in the Patterson Park and McElderry Park neighborhoods on a research team during his time at UMD, Southeast Baltimore is a big place that takes a lifetime to know fully. As Mark settled into the neighborhood, making a home with his wife Christine Myers Parker, the similarities borne of different histories of South and Southeast Baltimore became evident. “You just listen, listen to people tell their stories. As a pastor, that’s part of the job.” Along with his neighbors on Highland Ave, the first stories Mark heard were those of his congregants, all of whom had grown up in Highlandtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

Mark was taking the helm of Breath of God at a time when it was facing the very real possibility of closure. For decades, the Eastern European immigrants and their children who had built the church had been moving east on Eastern Ave to Dundalk, Essex, and points beyond. The neighborhood was changing, racially and economically, and rather than abandon the impressive stone edifice on the corner of Pratt and Clinton, the congregation put forward a plan for renewed community engagement and a new open identity. To help achieve this, they brought in Pastor Mark. “Everything was on the table. ‘Well, we love our neighborhood and we’re willing to do whatever is needed to reengage with this community’” he recalls of discussions during that first year.

During the first nine months, Pastor Mark walked around meeting people and listening to their stories. During this time he was struck by the strength and diversity, not only of Southeast Baltimoreans themselves, but also of the arts, non-profit, and religious partner organizations, of which S.E.C.O (South East Community Organization) was a trailblazer. From block clean ups, to the ongoing stage by stage restoration of Patterson Park, to a continuous effort to promote community policing, Mark had “never been part of a community that has more people involved in leadership than here.” On every block, there were one or more people residents could turn to in order to get things organized.

These restorative years for Breath of God were also tumultuous ones for the city. Mayor Sheila Dixon was convicted of embezzling gift cards for underprivileged kids and then-City Council President Rawlings-Blake assumed the chair. Gregg Bernstein overthrew longtime State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy, only to be knocked off last year by Marilyn Mosby. Harborplace — which had been inserted on the waterfront in 1980, delivering museums and parks while monopolizing development resources, dislodging communities, and contributing to the Westside’s food desert by destroying the produce market that supplied many Arabbers — set off a development domino effect to the south and east.

In part because of the increase in construction jobs created as hotels and condos rose skyward around the Inner Harbor, the first concentrated movement of immigrants in decades began arriving in East Baltimore, this time not from Central and Eastern Europe, but from Central and South America. Southeast, always one of the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse parts of Baltimore was energized by a wide variety of newcomers, punching above its weight as the city boasted its first population gain in 2012 in over four decades.

The new arrivals — some rebuilding vacants with their own hands and others too busy commuting to DC and pub crawling to even lift a paintbrush, much less a square of sandpaper — hastened the end of East Baltimore’s traditional family and identity-based politics. Though Mimi DiPietro’s name still falls quickly from the lips of old-timers when talk turns political, the days of the Democratic Clubs are long gone. Of the four legislators who represent the 46th district (which also includes South Baltimore) in Annapolis, only Delegate Pete Hammen can be considered an heir to the legacy of Cain, Sfekis, D’Adamo, and Mimi. Delegates Brooke Lierman, Luke Clippinger and State Sen. Bill Ferguson were all born and raised either elsewhere in Baltimore or somewhere else entirely. Although people have been saying “We knew her when” about Barb for a long time now, her retirement from the U.S. Senate next year truly heralds the end of an era.

Who is up to the challenge of breathing possibility into the dreams of more than fifty thousand Southeast Baltimoreans remains to be determined by those dreamers themselves. Luckily for the six aspirants vying for the 1st District Council seat, Mark believes that “people down here are pretty open to what you’re gonna do until you disappoint them or prove otherwise.” The good folks in Southeast are willing to give you a chance, but once you’re out, you’re out — and there’s no coming back. The stakes, heightened all across Baltimore, are especially high in Southeast, the proving ground for whether this can be a city for both the people who’ve been here forever and those arriving every day.

Looking forward into this uncertain future, Mark’s candidacy has highlighted oversight of the $1.5 billion 21st Century Schools capital project as priority number one. He believes the next Councilmember from Southeast must “provide greater oversight for 21st Century Schools and crack open community communication with North Ave.”

Patterson High School and Canton Middle School have both been slated for the final round of school construction but no plan currently exists for either. In conjunction, what’s needed is someone with the patience and fortitude to ensure financial accountability of both special projects like 21st Century Schools and the daily churn of departmental operations. When questioned about the City’s inability to conduct departmental fiscal audits, Parker grimaces a little and replies, “’Oh, this is really hard to do, to come up with these numbers’ — no, not acceptable.”

In addition to bricks and mortar and dollars and cents, the Pastor on Pratt dreams of more ethereal healing on the Eastside. He envisions building community between long-time residents and international refugees. Strained too are relations between police and residents, new and old immigrants, and Cantonites and Middle Easterners. There is much work to be done. Understanding the urgency of this work, Mark Parker has laid the foundation of his run for Council on the notion that intentional, deep listening is the seed of the change needed in Southeast Baltimore.

As a pastor and candidate, Mark says, “I get a chance to be a part of those conversations. ‘What’s your story? How’d you get here? How can we work together to get you where you need to go?”

Southeast Baltimore, like the city as a whole, is caught in a maze of its own history. Only by listening to those who came before and those newly arrived — to ourselves and each other — will we be able to find our way out.

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