Will we be who we say we are?

I devoted most of my columns over the last several weeks to the holidays, the memories they invoke and the way they bring people together. But as the year draws to a close, even I am surprised to see that none of the scenes I drew took place in church — not even by way of flashback — because I have learned more on Sunday than on any other day of the week. On Sunday I heard lessons about morality couched in stories, punctuated by dance and song. It's when I felt a visceral connection to God and a community. It's the day I saw how one man with a podium and a book could hold hundreds transfixed while he hovered between this world and the next.

Sundays made me want to live a compassionate, purpose-driven life. So, as I've explained elsewhere, when I grew up and noticed that my church paid far more attention to the needy people who happened to wander in than the even needier people just outside our lobby doors in a troubled section of West Baltimore, I had a problem. One week when I was 21, I realized that the sermon I heard that day was the same message I'd sat through roughly eight years earlier. It was the last straw. I wanted a way of life, but what I saw looked too much like empty ritual. So I decided to look for the type of ambitiously humane community I wanted elsewhere.

A few years later, as I began my career, I discovered I wasn't alone. As it turned out, a lot of people and organizations here, many with no religious affiliation, are committed to something larger than themselves: the public good. Fresh out of graduate school, I saw firsthand the truth of the oft-repeated statement "Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods" as residents filled the room for Planning Commission hearings. During my time with Baltimore City Public Schools, I saw the school system begin to implement some of the education components of the city's first-ever sustainability plan, an effort to balance economic development and environmental protection. As I wrote about local cultural institutions like the American Visionary Art Museum, I was happy to learn that Baltimore is a bastion of "outsider art," a democratic, creative movement that values expression over status, innovation over pedigree. And I've been inspired by civically engaged entrepreneurs, like the founders of the Ignite Baltimore speaker series, who want to use technology to connect Baltimoreans to each other and then to the world.

There are a lot of skilled do-gooders in this town, so I see many features of the type of community to which I have always wanted to belong, but here too there are glaring contradictions. For every one of Baltimore's more than 200 neighborhoods, there are nearly three community associations. Some of our best efforts are fragmented. We have a diverse array of nonprofits but little racial diversity within the circle of nonprofit leaders. With groups that treat poverty too little like a problem to be eradicated and too much like a business model, African-American leadership that says precious little about African-American over-incarceration, an undercurrent of radical social justice that can't break through the political establishment, and local elections that are often a game of musical chairs, not an open, vigorous contest of ideas — we have a long way to go.

And the greatest contradiction is one that this column and my conscience keep bringing me back to, a problem to be read and re-read until it is finally solved like a moral Rosetta Stone: the state's proposed youth jail.

With its own version of the Dream Act giving noncitizens greater access to higher education, and a marriage equality law now on the books, Maryland has bolstered its reputation as a progressive state. But as pundits speculate about a possible presidential campaign, how, I wonder, would Gov. Martin O'Malley explain that the highest-profile "youth development" project in Maryland at the moment is incarceration? When the 2013 General Assembly session opens, this is something he and legislators need to fix.

I'd like the people of Baltimore and residents of Maryland to be the people who we say we are, but to do so, more of us need to wrestle with the questions I asked myself 11 years ago and that anyone with a conscience struggles to answer repeatedly: Who am I, and what do I believe?

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears on Fridays. Email: Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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