“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” –Psalm 133:1
Not long ago, Dr. Terris A. King, senior pastor of Ashburton’s Liberty Grace Church of God, reached out to Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. The two clergymen never previously met, but Dr. King had just finished reading the book “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by former Sun reporter Antero Pietila and wanted to make a connection with the Jewish community.
In particular, he was seeking guidance on implementing outreach programs in the Ashburton neighborhood. And to paraphrase the classic line from “Casablanca,” it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“I wanted to learn from him,” Dr. King says of Rabbi Wohlberg. “I’d never seen someone with a yarmulke sleeping on a park bench. I wanted to see how he takes care of his people, and now I see that it is because to him everyone is family.”
That bond and friendship will be celebrated on Nov. 18 at Liberty Grace Church of God’s 40th annual “Day of Unity” gathering.
For many years, Ashburton – which is now a predominantly African-American neighborhood — was home to whites and blacks, as well as Jews who were excluded from other Baltimore neighborhoods. But in the late 1950s, much of the Jewish population began streaming out of the city. Meanwhile, neighborhoods like Ashburton were plagued by such problems as crime, a lack of educational resources, declining real estate values and health care woes.
At one point in its history, Dr. King’s church, which is located at 3400 Copley Rd., was the neighborhood bowling alley and informal community center of Ashburton.
“When I first met Rabbi Wohlberg, I told him, ‘Your folks were in my church,’” says Dr. King, alluding to Beth Tfiloh’s former shul in nearby Forest Park until the congregation moved to Pikesville in 1966.
Rabbi Wohlberg, who came to Beth Tfiloh in 1978, says getting to know Dr. King has been an incredibly inspirational and educational experience.
“This guy is the real thing,” he says. “If our communities are going to heal themselves, it will be because of men like him. …
“For us to be disconnected, as if we live in two different worlds, is not healthy for anyone.”
Health care is a top priority for the Ashburton community, says Dr. King, who spent three decades in the health care industry and recently completed his doctoral studies in occupational therapy.
With Rabbi Wohlberg’s mentorship and assistance, Dr. King says he was able to secure grant funding from the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center for outreach services to Ashburton. The funding is provided through partnerships with the Maryland Food Bank, LifeBridge Health and the Dr. Nathan A. Pitts-Ashburton Elementary/Middle School.
The net results are providing health and nutritional education and food distribution opportunities annually to the neighborhood’s 5,000-plus residents. Rabbi Wohlberg and Dr. King say they have plans to create more services and resources for Ashburton residents in the future.
Rabbi Wohlberg says his involvement in the project has been highly gratifying and rewarding. “I’m not a social activist,” he says. “I’ve never been involved in anything like this before. It took the right person at the right time to make me do the right thing.”
Says Dr. King: “We want to do right with what we didn’t do in 1959 when our two communities went their separate ways. My relationship with Rabbi Wohlberg is not based on race or social economy. It’s love that has drawn us together and is the glue that keeps us together. Our people have too much in common for us to be apart.”
At the Nov. 18 event, Dr. King and Rabbi Wohlberg will celebrate their friendship and unique partnership. Dr. King will speak about his church’s impact on the Ashburton neighborhood through community action and service, while Rabbi Wohlberg will discuss why a modern Orthodox congregation in Pikesville cares about a church community in the city.
The two will also describe how their mentoring relationship inspired the church’s community outreach programs that are not only filling urgent needs but also teaching critical life skills to improve the community’s safety, health and educational resources.
Also scheduled to attend the celebration – which begins at 11 a.m. — will be Mayor Catherine E. Pugh; Gary Tuggle, interim city police commissioner; Pietila; and community partnership representatives from the Ashburton Neighborhood Association, the Pitts-Ashburton Elementary/Middle School, Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Maryland Food Bank, BGE and LifeBridge Health.
For information about the event, contact Rina Goloskov at 410-413-2369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.