Five years ago, Gary Gillespie, director of AFSC’s Baltimore Urban Peace Project, helped members of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church plant a peace pole at Amazing Port Street Commons in McElderry Park, as part of an effort to create healing and peace in a community that has been overwhelmed by poverty, violence and pervasive substance abuse. The church, AFSC, Civic Works, the McElderry Park Community and the Grace-full Living Wellness Center all agreed that a collaborative effort was necessary in order to make change.

On a spring morning this May, 30 people gathered two blocks from Port Street at the Amazing Rose Street community garden to plant vegetables that will eventually be distributed through the Grace-full Living Wellness Center Food Pantry. The two events might not seem directly related, but organizers of the project would argue that they are inextricably linked.

Throughout the Middle Atlantic Region of AFSC, staff members work for peace at the local community level through a variety of projects. A common thread is the belief in the power of education as a means of transforming society. Statistically, more than 90 percent of individuals who are arrested for violent acts are unemployed, underemployed, or living below the poverty line. The relationship between limited opportunities and violence is undeniably strong. AFSC believes in empowering individuals to work for justice in their own lives as well as in their greater communities as a pathway to peace.

Jessie Scott, a member of the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, is working to become a Master Gardener. She volunteers her time educating community members about building healthy gardens and hopes that the process will result in a healthy community.

Jessie grew up in South Carolina, where her family always had a garden. She still thanks her grandmother for teaching her about the power of growing vegetables. “There is something special about eating food that has only seen one hand in the transfer from the vine to your mouth,” she said before being pulled aside by a member of the Student Conservation Association who was not burying the roots of a tomato plant deep enough in the ground.

The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is another partner working in the McElderry Park neighborhood. The organization engages young people in hands-on service to the land. City high school students will be employed throughout the summer at Rose Street, learning about green job opportunities by working in the garden. On this particular morning, the SCA youths mixed with graduate students from Johns Hopkins University and community members, all working towards the same goal.

The McElderry Park community is working to create a safe space full of opportunity in order to bring peace to their neighborhood and give youths an opportunity to work for justice. The peace pole represents the vision that McElderry Park community members have for the future, but they plan to get to that place one tomato plant at a time.