In West Baltimore, a food desert and also a hope desert

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Pastor Duane Valdon Simmons, who said he has preached 6,000 sermons since he was a boy. Credit: Macon Street Books

Good food — the stuff that isn’t shot through with salt and sugar and starch and sold in plastic — trickles through the West Baltimore food desert at Pennsylvania Avenue and Cumberland Street.

Hot meals are served several times a week from the kitchen of Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, and hundreds more arrive each weekend with volunteers from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City.

Hope, however, is another thing altogether, difficult to find outside of the Gospels preached by Pastor Duane V. Simmons, Narcotics Anonymous meetings held in the church hall and a kind word from the staff.

Along the 2400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in 21217 — where parishioners have heard shots ring out during Sunday morning services, a body on the sidewalk outside the church doors — hope is even more difficult to secure.

“This community represents extreme marginalization, it’s the bottom,” said Simmons, 60, said to have been “preaching prodigy” while growing up on Oswego Avenue near Druid Hill Park. “This neighborhood isn’t just a food desert; it’s a hope desert.”

“But even when we don’t have hope,” he said.  “We have resilience.”

As the pastor spoke before an office window looking out on a noontime NA meeting in the church hall, staff popped every other moment to ask a thousand questions of the chief.
“You got cabbage in there?” asked that day’s cook, one of several who pitch in and maybe get a little gas money in return. Yes, there was cabbage and it was served with roast chicken.

In the parking lot, a young white man in an obvious state of narcotic impairment asked a clean and sober member of the congregation if he had any Narcan. As a matter of fact I do, said Emmanuel Carlos, who does repair work at the church.

Carlos gave the stumbling man three bottles of the nasal spray that has the potential to reverse an opioid overdose. And then a cigarette, no questions asked, no money exchanged. It wasn’t part of the church’s outreach, simply a still using addict helped by someone no longer committing suicide on the installment plan.

Later that day, Carlos had helped carry into the kitchen boxes of apples that Pastor Simmons had picked up at the Maryland Food Bank.

Outside help (or help from anywhere, especially politicians, said Pastor Simmons) has not been able to solve the manifold problems that come with entrenched poverty and generational addiction in Baltimore.

“It’s difficult for someone to be healed in the same area that made them sick,” the pastor said.

But on the weekends — every Saturday and Sunday — temporary balm arrives with suburbanites from SALT — Service and Love Together, a “Salt of the Earth” ministry of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“Those people are literal jewels, they’re here rain, shine or snow,” said Simmons. “The community trusts them and they don’t trust anything.”

The team, mostly white, is led by York Bradshaw, a 61-year-old convert to Catholicism from the West Coast and, among a half-dozen or so other, includes Centennial High School senior Sasha M. Allen and her father Kevin Allen.

“We’ve been close to drug busts, a shooting and occasional ambulance visits for drug overdoses, that unsettled a few of our volunteers who did not want to come back,” said Bradshaw. “But our mission is to feed the hungry. We focus on that.”

On a recent visit — a cold and rainy Sunday in late February — the group also distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, feminine products and dozens of blankets.

SALT began working with Simmons Baptist this past summer as they drove past while heading to another neighborhood. Because of the pandemic, Pastor Simmons was holding services outside, not far from the spot where Bradshaw twice saw the same man going through a dumpster for food. That person, and his son, now get fresh food on weekends.

“We know we’re not fixing the problem of hunger and food insecurity, not by a long shot,” said Bradshaw. “But we hope we can ease the problem for some people and give them encouragement when they’re with us.”

Pastor Simmons and volunteers from Ellicott City. Simmons Baptist Church in West Baltimore was named for a pastor who preceded Simmons decades ago. Credit: Our Lady of Perpetual Hope

For her part, SALT volunteer and aspiring journalist Sasha Allen — an agnostic, age 17 — said she’s never been afraid or threatened while handing out food.

“I had no idea what West Baltimore was like beyond the preconceptions everyone else has whose never spent time there,” said Allen, who, as a writer, is attracted to the diversity of stories in the city.

“I wasn’t expecting the [level] of kindness we’ve been shown. I didn’t think I’d meet web designers [who lost everything] after getting addicted to drugs and are trying to get their families back.”

The experience, said Allen, has also shed light on the privilege in communities like the one where she has lived all her life.

“I work as a server in an ice cream shop where I also deal with a lot of strangers,” she said.

“There’s a drastic difference between what I do there” and her contributions to West Baltimore.

“When I serve [at Simmons], I meet some of the kindest, most resilient people I’ve ever met. Almost every single one of the people we serve thanks us more than once and some share their stories.

“I’ve never received that level of thanks much less personable interaction when I work in my hometown.”

Rafael Alvarez is the author of Crabtown, USA, an anthology of Baltimore stories. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com

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