By K. Faith Morgan
When I was 21, I moved to Baltimore with one suitcase and a journal.
I didn’t know who Christ was, and I never thought I would stay. I was going to come here, work out a one-year contract, fix everything that was wrong with me and then go back to Kansas. But I met Christ here. Then I found the hood, and I never went home.”
That was 16 years ago. Now full-time missionary and church plant team member Colleen Smith makes her home in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation just one door down from Captivate Church’s East Baltimore campus.
“You know, my house has been broken into, my car has been bro – ken into, my tires have been slashed, people have been murdered outside my house, but I stay,” she says. “I earned my street cred the day the police broke into my house during a raid. It’s like you see on TV. The police came in; they destroyed my house; they were standing over my bed at 4:30 in the morning because they had a warrant for someone who was using my address. Some of the boys told me, ‘Ms. Colleen, that’s the day we knew you were real because a normal person would have moved.’ But I don’t leave because I want to be here.”
Splitting her time between a robust program for kids and youth, outreach to prostitutes and homeless and building relationships with the people in her community, Smith never knows what a day will bring.
Her ministry starts on the doorstep. As Smith steps out of her door, she’s immediately greeted by a chorus of “Hi, Miss Colleen” from everyone who passes by. As she locks her door, she asks about siblings and homework and compliments new hairstyles.
Many of these children are members of the G.E.M. (gospel, education, mentoring) program she coordinates at the church.
“I grew up in a very similar environment to these kids’ homes,” she remarks. “An abusive dad, a mom who was absent, grandparents who raised me, three siblings who I had to take care of—and that’s how a lot of my kids are living.”
Four middle-school-age boys dart out of a rowhome and into Smith’s Jeep with so much happy cacophony that neighbors peer out of doors and windows to watch. They insist on a stop at 7-11 on the way to school for snacks. For Smith, this school carpool is a simple task with big implications. It’s time she can use to speak truth and hope into their lives. It’s a time they can feel safe.
“I’ve always said that it’s best if we capture them before 13,” notes Smith. “It’s not hopeless after that, but it becomes harder. The boys will tell you if you make it to 18, you celebrate. If you make it to 21, it’s a milestone. If you make it to 25, you’re old. That’s just how it is here. The dealers try to catch them between 7 and 10 to become drug runners. If you’re a minor, the police can’t really do anything to you. By 13, the pressure is on to choose a drug gang to join. One day, I asked one of the boys, ‘What are you thinking about today?’ He said, ‘I’m thinking about whether I’m going to make it home without dying.’ And that wasn’t a joke—he really was.”
Smith makes her daily stop to hang out with an unlikely group of friends affectionately dubbed The Dunkin Gang—an assembly of men ranging from their 60s to 80s who have met every morning for the past five years to talk about politics and grandchildren, ballroom dancing and military service, dating and aging parents. Smith became an honorary member of the gang in early 2016 when she sat in the last chair left in the store—at their table. Sometimes, they buy Smith’s coffee and a bagel.
“We’re teaching her how to be retired. It’s a five-year program,” they joke. Smith takes some of her G.E.M. boys with her from time to time.
“It’s fun to watch them interact,” Smith notes. “They love my boys and tell them, ‘You know what? You can do this.’ They tell them stories of their experiences and mistakes they’ve made. They’ve been very good about just loving them.”
“She has a passion for this,” the Dunkin Gang says of Smith. “When she talks, you can feel it. She’s sincere.”
Smith drives down a street notorious for prostitution. She’s looking for “my girls.” It’s all part of a ministry she calls Pretty in Pink. She initiates interactions by passing out pink bags filled with toiletries, a journal, candy and a pink Bible.
“I meet them where they are. I build a relationship and walk through life with them until they’re ready to get some help. It’s a long process,” she says.
She not only works with the women themselves, she comes alongside their families—especially the mothers—offering support and help as they work to repair broken relationships.
“One of my first girls asked me to call her mom to see if she could come home. I didn’t know what to expect, but we pulled up to this mini mansion, and my heart broke. I thought, ‘You left this?’ It’s not what you think. A lot of these girls come from wealthy families.”
In six years, Smith has successfully moved 12 girls off the streets permanently. But she has also held girls’ hands while they died of an overdose.
“I had to call the mom of one after she died, and I spoke at her funeral. Between all my ministries, I’ve lost 12, and that’s the hardest thing,” she says as she passes a stoop littered with half-inflated balloons and empty liquor bottles—the remains of mourning for a fallen community member. “I was turning the corner right when he got shot, and I saw it happen. He died here. That’s the night it became real that I could die in my neighborhood, in my city. It’s never easy, and it never will be. The day it becomes easy and my heart doesn’t break is the day that I probably need to find a new job.”
After stopping by an elementary school to check in on some of her kids, Smith settles into her office to tackle the logistical gymnastics associated with all her ministries and the regular short-term mission teams coming from all over the nation to help.
“I look at my life sometimes, and I think, ‘This is not the life I would have planned for myself,’” she says. “I mean, who is this white girl from Kansas in the hood in the middle of Baltimore? I learned very quickly that you don’t make plans; God changes them.”
Soon, she’ll relaunch a successful ministry to the homeless.
“In the summer, we do bingo in the park. We bring food and gift cards for prizes, and we just play bingo for hours,” Smith explains. “It’s not even about the gift cards anymore—it’s about the community. One of the guys said to me, ‘You know what I like about you, Miss Colleen? You don’t just come to the park and drop something off. You get to know us.’ And that’s what you have to do. You have to build relationships.”
At last night’s G.E.M. meeting, Smith invited a few of the kids over for a “family meal,” so she makes a grocery store run and starts to prepare dinner. These dinners are a time when the kids get to experience what many would consider a normal family environment—sitting down together at the end of the day with people you love. It’s also a guaranteed meal—something many of her kids don’t always have. The kids who sell drugs on the streets of this neighborhood usually aren’t looking for extra money to buy designer shoes or electronics; it’s to provide for their families Smith explains.
“When you walk into our neighborhood, that is the only obvious option. They’ll tell you, ‘I’m selling drugs because my family hasn’t eaten today,’ or ‘I started selling drugs because I needed to feed my siblings because my mom wasn’t there.’”
At a corner by the playground, Smith picks up Peter from the bus stop to go shoe shopping—a constant necessity for a growing boy. Smith used to be a foster parent, but that was before Peter. Peter’s mother started bringing him to the G.E.M. program where he flourished. Not long after, his mother died. Then his father called Smith and told her that he is very ill. He asked Smith if she would adopt Peter if something happened to him. Peter has been splitting his time between his dad’s house and Smith’s while the two learn how to live as a family.
“He has a room at my house, and one of our mission teams helped decorate it the way he wants it. He is the child that God chose for me to love and care for in that role,” says Smith. “It’s hard, and we’re learning how to live together and how I fit into his life and how he fits into mine. He’s 11, and he’s already lost his mom. His dad is going to die—it’s just a matter of when at this point, but he has a safe place in my life.”
A few G.E.M. kids arrive at the house with the promise of a hot meal and fellowship. They play basketball, do homework or play card games while Smith cooks. The buzz barely quiets as they sit down for dinner. Between bites of chili dog, the conversation drifts from silly nicknames to deep moral discussions. Every topic is allowed at Smith’s kitchen table— a table the kids helped another church member build for her.
“I think for a long time, my kids had this perception of me because I’m white; I must come from a perfect family and be rich, but they’ve reached a point where they trust me,” says Smith. “They’ll tell me things like, ‘I’m mad that my dad won’t come see me,’ or ‘I’m really upset that my mom sells her body.’ I don’t think even a year ago I would have been at that place with some of these kids. It’s hard to hear those kinds of things, but I have to remind myself that I’m not the savior. I’m just a tool God is using to help redeem their stories.”
Smith loads kids into her car to drive them home. In the morning, the unpredictable chaos will begin again, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I feel God has given me His eyes to see my community, and if you look at things that way, you see beauty and you see hope. I want to love people who other people find hard to love. The homeless person who’s living in a park and the prostitute who’s selling her body and the inner-city kid who doesn’t think there’s hope—all the people others are running from are the people I want to run toward,” she says. “I want to love them the way Jesus loves me. I don’t think they understand how to be loved like that. I want them to see that they can be loved constantly. God loves me without boundaries, and people deserve that kind of love.”
Colleen Smith, missionary and church plant team member, outside her inner-city home in Baltimore.
For Smith, the school carpool is a simple task with big implications. It’s time she can use to speak truth and hope into four boys involved lives. And, it’s a time they can feel safe from the streets.
Smith makes her daily stop to hang out with friends affectionately dubbed The Dunkin Gang—an assembly of men ranging from their 60s to 80s who have met every morning for the past five years to talk about politics and grandchildren, ballroom dancing and military service at the local Dunkin Donuts.
The buzz barely quiets as Smith and her after-school program participants sit down for dinner at her home. Between bites of chili dog, the conversation drifts from silly nicknames to deep moral discussions. Every topic is allowed at Smith’s kitchen table— a table the kids helped another church member build for her.
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Published October 12, 2017