Last summer, David Ware and his wife Sarah Hoover answered separate calls to come to Baltimore.
Ware, 54, is the new rector at The Church of the Redeemer, one of the largest churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, on Charles Street in North Homeland. He grew up poor in Little Rock, Arkansas, and his soft Southern accent still has the twang of his native roots. He attended Yale on scholarship and taught in Washington, D.C. for several years before entering the General Theological Seminary in New York.
Hoover had already accepted a job as Special Assistant to the Dean at Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute when Redeemer called her husband. At 51, she could still be mistaken for a Peabody student, with her candid manner and brown ponytail. A major in medieval history at Yale, Sarah earned her doctorate in musical arts from Peabody. She is a singer (soprano), a teacher and a music journalist.
By many measures, the Wares made their decisions to come to Baltimore at a low point in the life of this city. That spring, the death of Freddie Grey had sparked rioting and racial unrest downtown. Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook had resigned after her role in the drunk driving death of a bicyclist. Evidence of decades-long injustice on the streets of Baltimore had created an anemic environment for hope.
From the idyllic town of Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island’s North Shore, the situation in Baltimore must have looked especially bleak. There, Hoover was a music professor at Hofstra University and had recently helped found the Oyster Bay Music Festival. Ware was the popular rector of a large and active congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church. And their daughter Helena, now a junior at Friends, was a rising sophomore in high school. They were leaving a lot behind and heading for an uncertain future.
And yet, they decided to come. As they told the Baltimore Sun last year, “we were drawn to it. We both felt it was really important to come to Baltimore.” The chance to make a difference was compelling. And one year on, they are deep into that undertaking. Baltimore Fishbowl recently talked to David Ware and Sarah Hoover at David’s office at Redeemer.
You both attended Yale, but you didn’t meet there, right?
David: Right, we met in Washington, D.C. We were both teaching. Our first date was attending church together (smiles).
So, Sarah, you knew what you were getting into…
Sarah: Actually, on the night we met, I asked David if he had ever thought of going to Seminary.
What made you ask that?
Sarah: We were both active in the community of St. Columba, an Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., the church I grew up in. It was, and is, a wonderful, vibrant church whose engagement with the city was deep and wide — full of young, committed people. I had very positive associations about what an Episcopal priest could do.
David: D.C. was in a tough place then. This was 1987. The city was divided, demoralized: crime and poverty in some places, and wealth in others. But in many ways, it was wonderful, too. It was affordable, and there was a sense that we could make a difference. The short answer is that I had thought of becoming a priest, but until Sarah asked, I had never spoken about it.
Do you see a parallel between D.C. then and Baltimore now?
Sarah: In Baltimore, there is a sense of promise, hope, and energy. People are so happy to work with you. Young people are founding innovation hubs, starting businesses, everyone wants to help.
Do you (David) have a mandate at Redeemer? Have you come as an agent of change, or to minister to the needs of your congregation?
David: My work is to create a community where people come to be nourished and energized — and also to give them a vision of what life might be. It’s natural to feel comfortable within a homogeneous group. It’s easy to say, “I know what I like.” But not if you haven’t had any other experiences. The life of the church is in the world. And it’s not enough just to open our doors; we need to be going out those doors.
How does that happen?
David: By providing opportunities. Offering concrete experiences that invite people to engage. Maybe you tutor at Govans; maybe you mentor a child through Thread, work at Paul’s Place…Advocacy in leadership is another piece of it. Listening hard to the needs of a community, getting involved, taking what you see and hear to work with you every day. Having conversations can create change — initiate a jobs program, start a foundation. People actually do want to be opened up.
I have heard you give a great sermon. What’s the secret?
David: You know, I didn’t go to church as a kid, but in my neighborhood, there were all these little Pentecostal churches. We’d sit outside on the steps and listen. I would see people going in to get something they needed, and coming out filled. It’s a strong memory for me. Also, I come from a family of storytellers. They would tell the same stories again and again – I’ve got them all inside of me.
Sarah: David is out of sorts when he’s not preaching. Reflecting, composing, refining – it’s such a part of who he is.
David: Yeah, I love the discipline of time and limits in a sermon. I start on Tuesdays and work on it all week. To do it well takes organization and effort.
You’ve described yourself as “a leader who listens.” What are you hearing from your congregation?
David: A desire to engage. Most of us are just afraid to start. What I am always hoping for is some human encounter to spark the notion that we can make the world better. Pathways can be made clear, visible and inviting. Like, we have a relationship with St. James Lafayette Square, an African Episcopal Church. It’s just a book group, we read a book and talk about it together. No agenda, but a chance to build relationships.
Sarah: We’re also hearing that people deeply love Baltimore. Freddie Gray uncovered a pain that has been here for many years. We feel privileged to join such hopeful and committed people who are working to heal Baltimore in so many different ways.
Sarah, you have a very long job title. What does the Special Assistant to the Dean for Innovation, Interdisciplinary Partnerships, and Community Initiatives at Peabody Institute do?
Sarah: (Laughs) A lot! What I am working on can change from hour to hour, but it is not so dissimilar from what David is doing. It is to take the incredible musical talent we have at Peabody and help weave it more deeply into our community, into society at large. We are building interdisciplinary partnerships with other divisions at Hopkins, including a collaboration with Johns Hopkins medicine. We are helping our musicians engage more directly with the city of Baltimore, creating events that will reach new audiences, as well as creating more flexible musicians. Technology is a part of that, naturally. Keeping classical musical relevant.
I went to a Peabody concert this spring with gospel choirs.
Sarah: Yes, Ark Church and New Shiloh Baptist performed with some of our student musicians. It was fantastic. And we have Wendel Patrick teaching a hip-hop class! The Peabody was founded as a gift to the city of Baltimore. What we are doing is just continuing that spirit of democracy, in a meaningful way.
You are a vocalist yourself. Who’s your favorite singer?
Sarah: An impossible question…but right now I listen to a lot of Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive.
Ok, and since you guys are both Episcopalians, so I can ask — what does the afterlife look like to you?
David: Pretty much the same! But with more love, more connection…
Sarah: My favorite image of heaven is called The Heavenly Feast, from Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs. It goes:
I would like to have the men of Heaven in my own house;
with vats of good cheer laid out for them.
I would like to have the three Mary’s,
their fame is so great.
I would like people from every corner of Heaven
I would like them to be cheerful in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus sitting here among them.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
Drinking it through all eternity.
Join David Ware at the Church of the Redeemer for its Early Fall Lecture Series. To learn more, click here.