In August 2008, Baltimore City Police Maj. Melvin Russell realized he wasn’t going to combat crime and help build sustainable neighborhoods solely through police tactics. “We need a holistic approach and we need help from everyone – the community, faith leaders and the business community,” he said.

His East Baltimore district is the smallest in the city, but it’s one of the most violent.
Russell said he knew several longtime community groups were helping to address the intermingled issues of crime, poverty and joblessness, but efforts were not unified. “There is a lot of good work being done, but it’s done separately,” he said.

“We are not working together so we are not effective and we are not getting it done properly. We have to pull those entities together.”

To encourage that necessary unity, Russell birthed “Days of Hope,” a partnership of faith-based organizations, community groups and business leaders that help foster opportunities for East Baltimore residents.

Russell, who is also an assistant pastor, said he reached out to all 120 churches in his district to participate, but several weren’t interested. “Too many churches don’t care what’s going on outside their four walls,” he said. “You can’t have a blind eye to people dying outside, front of your church.”

Eventually, he did meet faith leaders who shared his vision. Today, close to 20 churches and 70 companies and community organizations are a part of “Days of Hope.”

Contributors work on over half a dozen committees that host events and programs throughout the year. Notable mentions include efforts to help rehabilitate prisoners, aid homeowners as they apply for greening grants and assist in job searches.

On June 25, “Days of Hope” hosted their largest outreach event to date, providing free health screenings, homeownership information, dental cleaning, hair cuts and 40,000 pounds of free groceries to attendees. The affair attracted upwards of 1,480 residents.

Russell says the group will host three more major events this summer. The next will be July 16 at Madison Park. “It’s our way to give back to the citizens of East Baltimore, and let them know we care” he said. “When we continue to offer things like this … crime will take care of itself.”

The importance of the group’s crime prevention endeavors was eerily apparent soon after the June 25 event came to a close. In less than 12 hours, the sanctuary of Greater Paradise Christian Center, a participating church that coordinated the outreach event, was burned to the ground in what police suspect was an attempted burglary.

But group leaders say they are not “set back” by the incident and are even more inspired to continue their mission to aid the community. Pastor Shawn L. Bell of the Greater Paradise Christian Center said the investigation into the fire is still underway and he doesn’t want to label it arson yet. “When a church is at its fullest potential, it’s giving back to the community,” Bell said. “We will continue to do that.”

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO