The Saints of the Streets
When the city has forgotten, when others have turned their backs, these are the ones who are not afraid, the ones who never give up.
Words by Salma Warshanna-Sparklin
Photos by Robert Houston
“East Baltimore is filled with people who give profoundly of themselves, because the needs are profound,” says Urban Health Institute (UHI) director Robert Wm. Blum, MD, PhD, MPH. As part of its 15th anniversary, UHI is honoring East Baltimore’s “unsung heroes”—tenacious residents who selflessly share their time and talents with the community. Their volunteer spirit vitalizes the city and fuels efforts like the cleanup after late April's unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
The story’s genesis traces to last fall when Blum told the magazine team about the amazing people UHI had come across in a recent community survey. After some brainstorming, he proposed asking people in the community to nominate their “unsung heroes” to be recognized at a UHI 15th anniversary celebration on May 5 and to be profiled in the magazine.
This is an advance look at "The Saints of the Streets" article that will appear in the Summer 2015 issue of Johns Hopkins Public Health.
Bertha Queen and Tonya Johnson, Founder and Co-Director, Beginning Effective Recovery Together (BERT)
Bertha Queen’s cell phone rings nonstop. Often it’s someone wanting to kick a drug habit. Queen has the heart to help and Tonya Johnson, a mind for business. The pair runs BERT, giving a second chance to drug abusers since 1993.
“I’m the hands-on person,” Queen says. She arranges for clients—mostly young women—to go to detox facilities. Once clean, they come back to free beds, meals and clothes. Tenants earn their keep by doing chores and staying clean.
“When each person walks in, they have to learn responsibility,” says Johnson. It is a lesson she herself learned as a BERT client almost two decades ago.
Queen tears up when she recalls her own days in and out of detox. “People never gave up on me,” she says. “I don’t want to give up on anyone.”
Once, 10 BERT houses served Baltimore. Tight finances have forced the closure of all but two. But Queen’s greatest hope is undiminished: “When someone gets clean, they just keep reachin’ back, helpin’ the one behind them.”
Elroy & Cleo Christopher, Founders, Covenant Community Association
Cleo and Elroy Christopher never heard birds chirp when they moved to Luzerne Avenue 24 years ago. The hostile stretch of concrete and brick echoed only noises of street crime.
The family came to a conclusion: “We didn’t create the problems, but if we ignore it, then we become part of it,” says Elroy. They launched the Covenant Community Association to cultivate a family atmosphere and provide fun opportunities for youth.
Summer camps and afterschool programs give kids a chance to wield hammers and nails, garden shovels and paintbrushes—tools that help teach life skills and teamwork, not to mention renovate vacant properties. They are even trusted with tech like tablets and laptops. Young adults play basketball with Baltimore police and line up to ride Cleo’s bicycles.
“A child might need you right then and there, and if you put it off, you might lose that child,” says Cleo.
The neighborhood food pantry the couple maintains speaks to the need that still exists. But residents no longer live in—to borrow from the kids’ vocabulary list—constant “trepidation.”
Naon Locust, Board Member, Berea-Eastside Neighborhood Community Association
If streetlights go dark or crimes occur in Berea, residents seek out Naon Locust. For 30 years, she’s been an ambassador of the people; one who works hand-in-hand with city officials.
Locust doesn’t wait for others to ask for help. She feeds the lonely in nursing homes and picks up trash off the sidewalks. Through her community association, she has organized volunteers to help the needy by filling holiday baskets and paying energy bills.
“I love the fact that Berea is not just a neighborhood,” Locust says. “We are a community. There’s a difference.”
Newcomers receive her welcome and an invitation to civic meetings. As Locust nears 80, she encourages others to spread the community spirit.
“You’re retired, why don’t you get busy?” she tells fellow seniors. “There’s so much that needs to be done!”
Sabrina Zeredith McCray, Former Senior Counselor, The Moore Clinic for HIV Care
No one in Sabrina McCray’s Latino community held her hand when she was diagnosed with HIV in 1993. To take control of her life, McCray educated herself about the disease.
A single mother, McCray became a beacon of hope for those who sought help at the Johns Hopkins Moore Clinic for HIV Care. For 13 years she guided immigrants through treatments and counseled them on safe sex.
When women confided in her, she told them, “Look, it happened to me. But guess what? I overcame it. I’m here to make sure that you will overcome.”
She worked tirelessly, taking pamphlets to birthday parties and speaking at support groups. When an HIV-positive mother in labor called in the middle of the night, she rolled out of bed.
“These were the best years of my life,” says McCray, who now works in elementary education.
John Murdock, Human Services Worker, Mayor’s Office of Human Services
In his black tracksuit and white Nikes, John Murdock fancies himself the Lone Ranger of East Baltimore. For years, he has corralled youth onto sports fields and into gyms, engaging them in track, soccer, lacrosse and basketball. His mission: reining them in with sports to keep them away from gangs.
“I come into a neighborhood and don’t leave ‘til I’m done,” he says.
When Coach Murdock ambles block to block, he approaches parents and chats with teachers; sometimes he interrupts a corner drug deal. Weeknights his voice booms throughout the Oliver Recreation Center as he drills his players. He has paid out-of-pocket for jerseys, transportation and referees—anything to keep the games going.
“It ain’t just about basketball, it’s about them makin’ somethin’ of themselves,” he says. His proudest memory: Taking a team to Russia in 1989 for a youth basketball tournament. They won 4 of 5 games.
Murdock now is studying law in his quest to keep kids out of jail. “People need to go back to that sayin’—it takes a village to raise children.”
Mary Humes, Disciple, Zion Baptist Church
Mary Humes can’t keep track of all the family, friends and strangers she has provided food and shelter for—those in the Oliver community who might call her a “lifesaver.”
She, in turn, praises God for lifesaving grace and mercy.
“I’ve always believed that without Him, I can’t do anything,” says Humes.
She was not one to stand idly by when bedpans needed emptying or school supplies needed collecting—nor was she intimidated by dope dealers and addicts wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. The desire to keep streets safe for children propelled her to the sidewalks.
“You can stay, but your drug dealin’ has to go!” she would chant with fellow Zion disciples. Another strategy she used to push the drugs out was bringing beauty in. Thanks to Humes’s efforts as a board member of the Oliver Community Association, street sweeping and flower planting projects are now regular neighborhood activities.
Health challenges have limited her volunteer work as she has aged, but Humes continues ringing up the sick and the elderly who need a lifeline.
Beatrice Bastiany, Volunteer Computer Lab Coordinator, Fort Worthington Recreation Center
Tall and fast-talking, Beatrice Bastiany had planned only to write policies for the new computer lab at Fort Worthington Recreation Center. Then, when the pastor agreed to monitor the kids’ Web use for homework or games after school, she met 11-year-olds who couldn’t perform simple arithmetic.
“Some of the kids do have special needs,” says “Ms. Bea,” the nickname kids gave her. “But for most students, no one had taken the time to help them learn the basics.”
Ms. Bea’s Club was born. Having raised seven children, the retired nurse has natural command of a classroom, whether she’s orchestrating recitations of multiplication tables or divvying up a pizza to reward kids for answering brainteasers.
“I just grew to love ‘em,” says Ms. Bea. The feeling is mutual: Within months of its start in January 2014, the club doubled in size.
Baltimore City’s plan to demolish the Center has Ms. Bea rallying the Berea neighborhood to protect it. She is busier than she ever imagined in what she refers to as her “sensational 60s.”
Robert Houston, a former Life photographer, is best known for documenting The Civil Rights Movement and The Poor People’s Campaign. Over his 50-year career, the self-taught professional has risked his life to capture powerful black-and-white portraits of history. He lives in his hometown East Baltimore with his wife Greta.