Karen Brau: Pastoral ministry and the power of destruction

When a pastor and her congregation built a labyrinth in the tough streets of East Baltimore, she began to understand the second half of Jeremiah's call. Sometimes you can't 'build and plant' until you 'pluck up and pull down.'

For a brand-new pastor, a middle-class white woman who grew up in the suburbs of New York City, it was the unlikeliest place I could have been sent. In 1990, I was ordained into a small Lutheran congregation in East Baltimore, Maryland, the inner-city neighborhood that would later become familiar to the rest of America in the HBO television series “The Wire.”

Among the readings at my ordination service was Jeremiah 1:4-10 -- the call of Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5 NRSV).

The words about Jeremiah being young and trusting God resonated with me that day. But only later did I think about the second set of words, when a friend told me how difficult it was for her to hear them:

“I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).

I understood the “build and plant” part. But what did pulling down and destroying have to do with pastoral ministry? I learned -- or at least had read -- in seminary that the prophetic is not smooth and easy. But I wondered what role these very different forces, building and destroying, would have as I tried to respond to my call to be a transforming leader in East Baltimore.

In the 1990s, East Baltimore was feeling the devastating effects of poverty, unemployment and drug-related violence. Early on, I learned what the church and the neighborhood were up against.

One morning, I was outside the row house where I had my office, watering marigolds in a big barrel, when I heard a loud “whoosh” followed by a stampede of people. From every direction, people came running, streaming into the trash-strewn alley across the street. As the noise grew louder, I jumped up the stairs into the row house and slammed the door.

I peeked out a small window to see what was going on. Like Elijah, I was full of fear, hiding out in a cave.

As I later learned, I had just witnessed “testers” -- free samples handed out by drug dealers to develop market share. As I watched it that day -- the first of many such gatherings I would see -- I felt there was nothing I could do to resist the assembling powers.

But I had not yet learned what it means “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

In my first years as pastor, I worked with three struggling congregations, consolidating them and reopening as a new congregation, Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, located on the corner of McElderry Street and North Port Street, a few blocks away from my first office.

By the late 1990s, our block of Port Street was all but abandoned. Most of the narrow row houses were empty and in disrepair. A couple of families still lived on the street behind the church, but otherwise the entire block was vacant. Day and night, people staggered in and out of the buildings, part of the heavy crack and heroin trade in the neighborhood.

The congregation owned one vacant house on the block, and soon the City of Baltimore notified us that the house was going to be demolished. We went downtown, met our city planner and heard more about this demolition and others.

Once the buildings were torn down, we asked, what would happen with the vacant lots? When city officials told us they had no plans, we asked if we could do something with the space, assuming we came up with a plan and some money.

The planner didn’t say no.

I learned at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary that prophetic ministry and community organizing go together. So I prayed about our place for ministry and recruited others into the effort. I met with everyone I knew in East Baltimore, plus everyone I wanted to know.

Working with people from throughout the neighborhood, we eventually came up with a vision to use the vacant land for a sacred commons that we would later name “Amazing Port Street.” It would include a garden and a labyrinth, a very old spiritual-practice space that facilitates a journey to the divine.

Might this unusual feature be the anchor for an oasis of beauty and delight on Port Street? We envisioned a labyrinth as a meditation path and a peace walk for reconciling and healing with God and neighbor, neighborhood and self.

But how, in a hard place like East Baltimore, do you share a new way of thinking about sacred space, and a thing called a labyrinth?

We taught neighborhood children in the church’s after-school program how to draw a labyrinth, and then had them paint one on the bare ground. We had a scavenger hunt to find rubble from the demolished buildings to mark the labyrinth’s circular path. Soon we had a team of local children who not only knew what a labyrinth was but were committed to making sure no one messed with it once it was built.

By the spring of 2002 we began building the labyrinth. It was like making a layer cake, starting below ground with stone dust and gravel and wire mesh. We had drainage issues, and we worried about how we would secure the cobblestones in the ground and how we would move a large boulder to the center.

But every time we got stuck and frustrated, people showed up. An engineer from Australia helped with the drainage, and a crane operator from Baltimore helped placed the 2-ton center boulder. At the labyrinth dedication, we all laid our hands on the boulder and promised each other and the community that no matter what swirled around us, the center would hold.

Months later, the center held for a group of teens who rode their bikes to the labyrinth after one of their friends was shot. They parked their bikes and sat in silence. Although they might never have come into the church for healing, the teens let the labyrinth hold their sorrow that day.

Sometimes as church we shy away from plucking up and pulling down, because we seek more gentle ways to move change. I know I prefer transformation without disruption.

But as I learned in East Baltimore, sometimes we can’t build and plant until after we pluck up and pull down.

What needs to be plucked up or pulled down in your place? Are you ready to build and plant?