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Altars in the Streets

Pastor Karen shares the experience of presenting her book of poetry along with artist Emily C-D in Clifton Park, Baltimore.

On Friday evening May 20, we drove into Clifton Park in Baltimore and parked by the Clifton Mansion. This house was constructed by Henry Thompson between 1790 and 1801, and it was later extensively enlarged by Johns Hopkins. By 1852, Hopkins added the mansion’s distinctive tower and many of its 20-something rooms. Hopkins also had a taste for florid Victorian decorative scenes and murals.

A $7 million renovation was just completed, stabilizing the structure and addressing the interior decoration’s decay and the results make this a good space for an event.

Civic Works, a non-profit engaged in multiple ways with young people in Baltimore (, has made its home in the Clifton Mansion since 1993. Ed Miller worked for Civic Works for over 15 years, and most of those years his team worked out of this location.

FullSizeRender (00000008)It was through Civic Works generosity that we were able to publish our book of poetry and art.

The large open room was being prepared for our talk. Ed and his friends had created a display of stones, wood and plants centered around a narrow table. As a pastor who serves in a liturgical church, I have the reference point of the table as an altar — and this looked to me like an altar that might be in a vacant lot.

And of course that makes sense in light of Ed’s vocation as a Lutheran pastor prior to Civic Works. In the introduction to the book we explain:

“The shift from presiding at the communion table to transforming vacant lots may seem unlikely, or even profane. Yet in faith-filled fashion, Ed Miller sets up altars in the streets and alleys, connecting people and place in a manner that honors the gifts of an ever-creating God, for the people of God.”

FullSizeRender (00000007)A small crowd gathered as it got close to our time to present. There were gardeners from one of the East Baltimore projects that Ed worked on. There were artists who knew Emily C-D and her work. There were Civic Works corps members, and friends who worked at other non-profits along with some of our family. And there was a small group of people from my own work of pastoring in Baltimore for 18 years.

This was an assembly of people who welcomed us into vacant lots and who joined with us in transforming forsaken places into spaces of beauty and delight.

Between the altar, the original paintings, our stories and the people, it seemed as if for a little while that grace presided over us all, transforming us into a gathering where sorrow was named — and where hope prevailed.

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