Chapter 1 of West Baltimore: Rebuilding Mode
When people hear I live in West Baltimore…
It was poverty, crime, and beautiful things that attracted Jeff Thompson to one of the most challenging communities in America.
Every time his phone rings, Jeff Thompson has to be ready for anything. “The other day, one of our kids had guys who were outside shooting into his house at his family,” Jeff remembers. “He called me as it was happening. I’m thinking, ‘Ok, let me talk him through it.’ But he said, ‘I just called you to pray. I want to pray.’”
Because Jeff Thompson knows the names and life stories of most every kid in his league, he has multiple opportunities to pray for and with them.
Ever since he started 10:12 Sports, a church-based kid’s football league in the inner-city community of West Baltimore, Jeff has fielded dozens of unexpected, life-and-death calls. In an area where the crime rate is four times the national average, it sometimes seems West Baltimore residents, like Jeff, will never be able to shake their community’s troubled and dangerous reputation. “When people hear I live in West Baltimore, they think of a drug-ridden place. They think of a place where you don’t want to live. And they think about Freddie Gray. That’s one of the biggest things that defines us.”
Protests continued for two weeks following the death of Freddie Gray.
In April, 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year old African-American man, was arrested in West Baltimore for possessing what police said was an illegal knife. While in police custody, Gray fell into a coma and one week later, died. Many residents believed police misconduct played a role in Gray’s death, and they took to the streets to protest. For Jeff and other residents of West Baltimore, news coverage of the demonstrations was painful to watch. “Negative stereotypes were put on West Baltimore,” says Jeff. “That is devastating. Because the great, positive, Godly stuff is not highlighted.”
There are an estimated 16,000 abandoned houses in Baltimore.
In West Baltimore, it’s easy to focus on the negative. Here, 37.8% of households receive food stamps. That’s triple the national average. And 29.6% of adults don’t have a high school diploma. That’s more than double the national average. In the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, 49.3% of teenagers are “chronically absent” from school. These statistics suggest a dramatic and relatively sudden fall from grace for a community that just 50 years ago was home to musicians Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, and the birthplace of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
Jeff Thompson is a football coach, not a sociologist. But when he thinks about what West Baltimore was and sees what it is now, he’s identified a societal shift few others recognize. “From the 1900’s until even the early ‘90’s, our rich history has a tie-in to the Church,” he says. “From Civil Rights, to support of schools, to the feeding of the homeless, that all stemmed from the Church. And now, we see the Church not being the hub of the community.” That’s partly why Jeff helped plant Gallery Church Sowebo. He recognized if West Baltimore was ever going to change, the inner-city would need churches to reassert their historic role as community influencers. “10:12 Sports was birthed out of that,” he says. “It’s essentially an arm of the church.”
After playing fullback at the University of Delaware, Jeff Thompson is well-equipped to offer tips to young players.
The Eagles practice after school every Friday afternoon. 4p.m. Carroll Park. This is not Jeff’s team, but he comes to watch whenever he can. As a former fullback at the University of Delaware, Jeff speed-walks up and down the sideline like an ex-player who’s fighting the temptation to run onto the field and compete with kids half his age. “Sometimes the talkers, they’re like ‘Can’t nobody stop me,’” Jeff laughs. “And I’m like, ‘Man, let me out there. I just want to humble you.’” He smiles, then watches from a distance as a friend from Gallery Church preaches to the kids on the fine art of running a curl route. “I love football,” he says. “But this is not really about football.” Jeff and everyone who’s a part of 10:12 Sports knows that in this community, football is a means to an end. God is using the game to build witnessing relationships and as He does, He’s healing the most painful and destructive hurt people in West Baltimore experience.