One Sunday in February my mom telephones at eight in the morning to remind me that the bishop of Maryland is coming to Saint James at Lafayette Square, the African American Episcopal church where I was baptized and confirmed. There will be a single service at nine thirty. I debate the shower and then don the uniform that hangs on the back of the chair: pants and a sweater with a shirt inside it. My boy Nathaniel rises easily, despite having even less reason to be keen than I had at his age. In my high school class there were a dozen regulars; younger children were taught in the basement of the church, and the upper grades were instructed in a row house on Lafayette Avenue, on the border of Sandtown. Today, he is often the lone Sunday school student in his grade. Most of the time, he sits by my side for the service.
My younger son, Mitchell, remained with his mother in Georgia when I returned to Baltimore with Nathaniel after our divorce. Our new life is in a stone cottage in Homeland, one of the city’s prestige neighborhoods, which was carved out of the estate of a slaveholding family named Perine in 1922 by the Roland Park Company. Homeland’s quarter-acre lots and neo-Georgian houses were near the top of the market even before the company fortified the neighborhood with racially exclusive covenants. My son, studying at the Jesuit high school I attended thirty-five years ago at the dawn of racial integration for my family, lives near white classmates he has known since middle school, and is connected to extracurricular life in a way that I had half desired but had not imagined possible for myself. He casually accompanies young women who are not African American to weekend events, which often require being chauffeured from a pre-party to a dance, and even to an after-party in a hotel ballroom with a DJ and games involving glow sticks. And where in my experience tobacco, beer, and wine were always in a trunk or a pack, his cohort seems in loose confederation with every “mothers against” group.
A couple of times a year I load up my station wagon and take him to clean the street outside the church. Perhaps, as a resident of Homeland, I notice the litter more now? I am not sure that what I am feeling could be called survivor’s guilt, since my current assignment is not so secure. I strive to donate to the church a tenth of my income, which is used to run the building, the weekly food pantry, and the after-school program. The tithe essentially demands austerity in my household. The fact that I am in control of where I live, where one of my sons is educated, and maybe what the two of us eat also insists upon quite a bit of prayer.
Part of me is inclined to believe that I clean the street simply because I have the right equipment for the job. In the late nineties, I returned to Baltimore from graduate school, living on Pimlico Road, in a neighborhood the news portrayed as undesirable. I had mainly my childhood memories to guide my sense of things beyond the house I was painting and hammering to make livable, and what I tended to recall of the area from the seventies left me feeling guarded. As a boy I had taken a few lumps from the Sumter Avenue toughs. I had to prove myself against a big kid at the church camp, run by a neighbor, where the counselors shared street-corner jokes and got high on park trips.
One Labor Day the city declared, with T-shirts and bunting and a whole lot of talk about what might be done, that it would clean up. To the credit of the public sanitation department, they donated brooms and other tools to the residents, and I took a flat-edged shovel to war against a generation’s worth of garbage and overgrowth. The day of shared purpose brought the neighbors together: Mac, the retired postman, a dutiful father of a full-time hustler; and Sheila, a mother who lived with her parents. Although we are often enough told that our democracy doesn’t work because it has narrowed the electorate and silenced certain voices, I think it works better with fewer voices and more dustpans to tidy up the commons.
The questions of what is owned and what is shared are as vexed as the concept of property itself. Conceiving of the ordinary natural right to land was not just a feat of the English political theorist John Locke but also of the original theologian, Saint Augustine. The African bishop thought Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden transferred divine right to humanity, in the form of earthly aristocratic power. While it may be that the same earth supports the rich and poor alike, “God has distributed to mankind these very human rights through the emperors and kings of this world,” he observed. “Take away rights derived from the emperor,” he continued, “and then who dares say, ‘That estate is mine, or that slave mine, or this house mine’?” There was a time when the house was one, and belonged to us all.
Between the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama’s final days in office, my parents’ drive to church was a descent from East Arlington, one of Baltimore’s modest but sturdy black neighborhoods, through parts of the city that were unrepaired from the riots of 1968. By the time I was a teenager attending school on the outskirts of the city, I chafed at the mandatory attendance. My family belonged to a denomination that had outlived its heyday. As the AMEs and Baptists were building stadium sanctuaries for their congregations in the suburbs, we were still driving past the winos and junkies on the corners.
Now the pilgrim’s Sunday-morning duty shoots me down the Jones Falls Expressway to exit at Mount Royal and North Avenue. If we catch a crowded light and a boy comes to the window with a squeegee in his hand, I decline the windshield wash and press coins into his palm. My dad’s voice comes back to me, speaking about the intrinsic value of hard work that he called hustling. I can be fearful of strangers, but even when my purse is empty, the Sunday Boys strike me as somber and reflective, eager to share a prayer. Baltimoreans today rarely recall that George Herman Ruth was such a boy.
I drive creatively, the way I would dance, taking the road less traveled, the alley and the ditched gully, over the surface road with its stoplight. Maintaining velocity is my favorite brand of success. It’s Ellisonian moving without moving. Although we get the car on the road after nine twenty, we make the most of our lights, and, after I cut the red at North Avenue, I am angling onto Gold Street and then coasting the speed bumps on Division Street in fine time. A lean, short man in an undershirt, an Italian designer belt keeping his jeans from bunching at his knees, counts a sheaf of bills in the middle of the block. I observe a wayfarer in a heavy, butter-colored sheep’s-wool-lined leather jacket of the type that was in vogue when Ill Al Skratch was bard. I wonder what this betokens: men of my vintage out on the corners again. It has been a little while since Nathaniel and I have policed the trash on Arlington, and I still feel like those squares of Sandtown are my personal responsibility. But the sidewalk is pristine on the south side of the street and the alley is clear.
Saint James African Protestant Episcopal Church, the first black-run congregation of any major denomination below the Mason-Dixon Line, was founded in 1824 by a priest and New Yorker trained in Philadelphia named William Levington. To be ordained, he had to have learned a good deal of Latin and perhaps a smattering of Greek and Hebrew. While such skills would have made him oracular to a learned few, they were no guarantors of popular appeal. “The colored congregation of this city are or stood Accused of [being] indisposed to him, but support him for his Piety & good conduct,” the bishop of Pennsylvania wrote shortly before his black acolyte received approval to preach in Baltimore. Philadelphia whites, meanwhile, considered Levington “unfortunate in Point of utterances”—whether he was loose in doctrine, overfond of black idiom, or an open abolitionist is not known. Many of the white slaveholders on the vestry at Saint Paul’s of Baltimore, like the man who founded my neighborhood of Homeland, were latching on to the dream that the free blacks who were flocking to Baltimore might emigrate to Cape Palmas, West Africa, south of Monrovia, but Levington somehow managed to win their favor. Soon after his arrival, he obtained a gift deed and five thousand bricks to build a church at Saratoga and North Street, four miles from Lafayette Square and just up the road from city hall. The lot was a couple hundred feet from its grantor, Old Saint Paul’s. In short order, the new priest opened a free school out of the church, teaching about sixty primary school pupils. By 1829, Levington was in his prime, leading his black church a block downhill from where the town’s blue bloods worshipped.
The Episcopal Church, founded on the right to divorce, was established after the War of Independence to distinguish Americans fully from the Church of England. It differs from Catholicism by dispensing with private confession and having no special place for the intercessional Mother of the Savior. Like all Protestant denominations, it will offer Communion, the host, to anyone at all. The church doctrine proclaims it unnecessary to do good works, receive signs of your destiny, read the Bible, or choose immersion baptism as a conscious act in order to reach paradise. All you must do is accept God’s grace. We use Scripture, tradition, and reason to guide an individual up the rungs of salvation’s ladder. The perfection of the soul is a private affair—as Queen Elizabeth, the founder of the Church of England, reputedly said, “I would not open windows to men’s souls.” The service, while only rarely performed in Latin, prides itself on a crisp, uniform liturgy, with many oblations to piety: nodding, bowing, cross-making with the hands and fingers, genuflecting and kneeling. The priests wear elaborate robes and shawls and head coverings on feast days, but during typical business hours they wear black, with white collars. The service privileges quiet reflection; there are also creeds, prayers, and psalms read aloud, sometimes in unison.