Two Sundays

Sunday, May 3

From 2005–2009, I walked, bused, and drove up North Charles Street more times than I can remember: past the shiny hotels of the Inner Harbor, celebratory dinners at The Helmand, liquid-fueled dance nights at Red Maple, last minute scrambles to Penn Station for a ride to DC or NYC, site visits to the Head Start office — before returning to the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, green and grand.

With my eyes closed, I can trace the streetfront— the stores and cafes and gas stations, the ebb and flow of each block telling Baltimore’s story of prosperity and poverty, investment and abandonment.

But on this balmy Sunday, my eyes are wide open.

North Charles Street in Baltimore has the names of the dead upon it, written in chalk, going on for several blocks.
The names are starting to fade, under wear and rain, but death is permanent, and the permanence of those dead men, women and children, printed in yellows, pinks and blues, is on the minds of Baltimore, and those thoughts stretch farther than a few blocks on North Charles Street.

We all have our narratives, and this bus tour has been as much about retelling our own as it has been about extracting others’.

My story, the one I tell every day and have been sharing for a decade now, starts in Baltimore.

At 17, I arrived in the city full of hopes and naivete: here I was, in a big East Coast city, pursuing the science-y career I and everyone around me wanted, chasing down new friends and new identities.

On the very first day of orientation, we were told not to venture more than two blocks from campus. To carry mace with us, if we had it. To enjoy the confines of our gated community and to reassure our families that whatever scary stories they had heard, no harm would come to us.

While we were being fed the same story of danger and fear that is used across this country to keep all of us coloring inside the lines, I sat in lecture after lecture where my professors would describe (1) how terrible health outcomes are in Baltimore despite (2) the presence of Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the best healthcare institutions in the world.

Photo by Patrick Bresnan

How can this be? We all know how. We know, academically, what happened when the war ended and the production dropped and the industry left and took its jobs with it and white families fled to the suburbs in earnest.

We know what happens when safety nets are pulled and parents are forced to work three jobs with no benefits so they can put food on the table. We know what happens when whole neighborhoods are systematically neglected, denied of roads and schools and basic trash pickup. We know what happens when segregation by race and class underlies decades of decisions and policies — creating a vice around the city’s viability.

You want to talk about fault? It certainly doesn’t fall on Miss Hattie, the proud grandmother of six who I worked with at the Harriet Lane Clinic during my first days as a Health Leads advocate. Having finally ventured into East Baltimore, having finally gotten off our high, white, air-conditioned Hopkins bus and stepped into the chaos of a busy health clinic, I found myself facing her with no idea what to say.

Photo by Patrick Bresnan

So I listened, instead: to her stories of being ignored at her grandson’s school office, of having to take two buses to get to the clinic, of foregoing her own meals so that the rest of the family could eat, of her fierce pride in her oldest grandchild’s straight A’s, of her distrust of an institution known for rounding up subjects from her neighborhood and studying them, of the old rowhome she had lived in for 50 years but now feared losing.

She is part of my narrative, because this city is where I learned that while hope and mobility may be universal currencies, there are too many places across the United States where the ATM is out of order — or more accurately, was never installed in the first place. My passion for social justice, for addressing patients’ true health needs, for stories — these all come from learning and loving Baltimore and the families who inhabit it.

Photo by Harold O’Neal

Which is why I find myself, 10 years after I landed in Baltimore, standing on the City Hall lawn yet again with nothing to say. I am sad and unsure, watching at the back of a crowd that is peacefully — and interfaithfully — mourning Freddie Gray while also celebrating the work that is to come.

Incredibly, the people of Baltimore are as free as I am locked up, graciously speaking with us and taking us through their pain as my fellow riders Patrick and Harold capture their words and expressions. The true actions, the real narratives — all lightyears away from the empty images and political punditry that has become so damn common lately.

Photo by Patrick Bresnan

How many times will we keep having the surface-level conversations? When will we stop thinking of each other, consciously or subconsciously, in ways that are at once inhuman and inhumane? Why do we get stuck?

And all of a sudden: lively procession begins. Later, I will recount this story and many people will say: a protest? a riot? a rally? Surely, not a parade?

But it is indeed a parade. Big drums beating. Children smiling. Lives healing, a city humming in the heat.


Sunday, May 10

At Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, on Mother’s Day, the conversation is about seeing, and being seen.

So although there are words exchanged — scorching words, from a pastor who toggles beautifully from throwing light shade at himself to excoriating the murders and passings of all those children whose mothers must now celebrate this day in grief ; jokes amongst brothers attempting to make Mom a card filled with hard promises; lilting “good mornings!” as folks pile in — it’s the hugs, the donuts, and the love that emanates from this community to ours, that I will remember. The snapshots of a community living life and celebrating those that gave it to them.

I see you, Ferguson.

Photos by Patrick Bresnan and Harold O’Neal

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Some pieces on Ferguson and Baltimore that have deeply affected me: