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Mobtown Beat

Going On Faith

Decades-Old Mission For Homeless Persists On The Block

Christopher Myers
SERVICE INDUSTRY: (from left) the Grace And Hope Mission; Gunhild Carlson (left) and Helen Meewes.

By Chris Landers | Posted 1/16/2008

The Block is slow on a Monday night. All down East Baltimore Street callers go begging to cajole rare passers-by through the glass doors of the strip clubs that line both sides of the street. Inside the Circus Bar, at the corner of Gay Street and Baltimore, a few bored-looking girls remove their clothes to an earsplitting soundtrack, while others work the bar, trying to cadge overpriced drinks from the few customers who wander inside. Around the corner, down Gay toward the harbor, a line has formed under the brightly lit cross outside the Grace and Hope Mission. Maybe 15 or 20 men and women (but mostly men), some with trash bags or backpacks, put down their loads and lean against the wall. A man named Tony is ushering a young couple around; they say they just came to Baltimore from Ohio, but Tony has been on the streets for years.

At 7 p.m., the doors swing open and people begin to file in. Tony stays outside for a moment. He's a regular at Grace and Hope, which for almost 100 years has been providing food to the poor and homeless in Baltimore in exchange for sitting through an hourlong church service. This is one of the better places, he says. There's little pretense: He and the rest are here for the free food, and maybe a rest for the hour or so it takes to sit through a service. The city has changed, Tony says. It used to be that if someone was passed out on the street, people would stop to ask if he was OK. It's harder now; you're lucky now if you don't get a few kicks or even pissed on. One thing that's stayed the same, though, is the Grace and Hope Mission. Tony throws a bulging trash bag over his shoulder and heads in, taking a songbook from Helen Meewes before taking a seat in the rows of theater chairs inside.

Meewes, 65, came to Baltimore from Grace and Hope's New York mission in December, when it closed down after 77 years in that city. She has been with Grace and Hope, in different cities, for 46 years. The organization, a nondenominational Christian ministry, was formed in Baltimore in 1914 by two women from Ohio who had been preaching on the streets, according to mission lore, when a man who heard them preach on Light Street helped them finance a mission near Camden Yards. When they moved the mission to Gay Street, in 1919, the Block was already bustling with burlesque shows and taverns.

The mission and the bars grew up together; in decades past, the ladies of Grace and Hope would play music and sing hymns on the corner and pass out tracts in the bars, trying to save souls in Baltimore's red-light district. But the bars and the mission are both in decline now. Once a neon strip stretching for three blocks that offered customers the "world's worst show, world's best time," as the ads for the Oasis night club had it (the Block's doings were even chronicled in its own magazine, Playboy Magazine: This Week in Baltimore, that was distributed at hotels where conventioneers were likely to show up), the Block shrank in the 1970s to a single city block, hemmed in by police headquarters. Likewise, Grace and Hope, which once boasted 14 missions nationwide, is now down to six locations.

Meewes is one of three women who now work and live in the mission. Gunhild Carlson, the head of the national organization, has been with Grace and Hope for 70 years, since she was a 16-year-old émigré from Sweden. Carlson has been in Baltimore full-time for 30 years, following stints with the Grace and Hope missions in Norfolk, Va., Philadelphia, and York, Pa., where her older sister, who is also a missionary, recently relocated. She remembers being in Baltimore for a visit in 1944 when the mission paid off its mortgage; she was in charge of dimming the lights while the papers were burned in a pie plate on the oven.

It's tough to get new missionaries, she says: "Young people, they're not interested in doing the Lord's work today." A few younger women joined in the past six or seven years but soon left to get married.

Karen Harp, the youngest of the three Baltimore missionaries, is 53. ("Don't be fooled by the gray hair," she says.) Harp says being a missionary is a full-time job that requires cleaning, cooking, and performing services every day of the week, except for Wednesday and Saturday. The women aren't nuns, but they dedicate themselves to the cause, living together above the mission, unmarried and celibate, supported by donations (as they pass the plate during the service, coins and bills drop into the plate). Harp and Meewes used to play hymns on the streets, Meewes on keyboard and Harp on the trumpet, until an accident in 1994 left Harp with a broken jaw requiring major surgery that ended her trumpet-playing.

There are about 40 people in the seats by 7:30, when the service is scheduled to begin. A few visitors check out a table by the side of the room piled with donated clothing. It's a small crowd, Carlson says. The mission gets more people in the summer when not as many city shelters are open. They sit facing a set of stained-glass windows, lit from behind, and a small stage crowded with musical instruments and microphones. People in the seats grow restless, and a man takes offense when his neighbor blows her nose behind him ("Don't get that stuff on me!"). He gets loud, and Meewes lectures him before kicking him out. He leaves noisily but peacefully. "Sometimes I get rowdy drunks," Meewes says. "Lately I've been putting music on. Music soothes the savage beast, isn't that what they say?"

Meewes and Carlson take to the small stage in front of the room. They are joined by Harp and they are all in their uniforms--black skirt and red shirt, with a blazer bearing the Grace and Hope patch on the shoulder--and all with gray hair, worn short. They are joined by Ben Anderson, from Linthicum, who has been coming here for about 20 years to help out and play his 12-string guitar. He'll give the sermon tonight. Meewes sits down at the piano at stage right, Carlson takes a seat at the keyboards, Harp stands at the podium, and they launch into No. 172 in the hymnal, "The Cross When I First Saw the Light." The crowd--some reluctant, some enthusiastic--sing along.

Harp first encountered Grace and Hope when she was 14, in Norfolk. A friend invited her to a service. She had plans to become a gymnastics teacher but signed up with the mission at 19. She smiles a lot, and speaks for the others when she says, "This is where the Lord wants us to be."

"It just boggles my mind," Harp adds, looking around the room, "that I'm here in the building where our work from 1919 was carried on."

Anderson is wrapping up his sermon at the podium. He is soft-spoken but passionate. A couple of heads nod, and someone in back row snores a little, but after the service is over and the collection plate has been passed, a man comes up to him at the front of the room, holds his hand to his own heart, and says, "You put your hand on my chest," and then queues up to receive a plastic bag with food and hygiene supplies on the way out.

Meewes keeps order in the line as people file out into the night. Whether any souls were saved tonight is almost beside the point. The mission will abide, a counterpoint to the neon lights around the corner.

"Where sin abounds," she says, "grace does much more abound. Some people are open with their sins. Some sins are more hidden."

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