About the ”Baltimore Divided: How Historically Neglected Neighborhoods Are Rising Up” series: Capital News Service journalists sought to understand how wealth inequality was changing in Baltimore after the last census. They compared neighborhood-by-neighborhood income data and then set out to speak to residents about the changes they were experiencing. These stories were produced by the Urban Affairs Reporting class at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Rev. Dr. Derrick DeWitt Sr. is not a typical pastor.

That’s because DeWitt, 55, pastor of the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church, wears many different hats as a business owner, community leader and social services coordinator as he aims to revive the economy and culture of West Baltimore.

The First Mount Calvary Baptist Church lies in Sandtown-Winchester, an area DeWitt describes as one of the most economically underserved communities in America.

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There’s another title DeWitt can claim: farmer. One of DeWitt’s newest ventures has been assisting in the creation of a 1½-acre urban organic farm called Strength to Love II to give citizens access to fresh, organic produce.

One part of the Strength to Love II farm.
One part of the Strength to Love II farm. (Esther Frances/Capital News Service)

“I sat down with people within the community and I asked them, ‘What are your priorities?’ " DeWitt said. “They said crime, they said drugs, they said unemployment, they said blight. So I said, ‘Well, what can we do to combat all of that with one swoop?’ "

More than 10,000 people live in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, but there are no grocery stores with fresh produce or meat within a mile of the area, according to The Baltimore Sun.

DeWitt, working with a coalition called Clergy United for the Transformation of Sandtown (CUTS), saw Strength to Love II as the answer. They started with a small greenhouse and hired people recently released from incarceration, whom DeWitt called “returning citizens.” The project now provides vegetables and fruit to a community that struggles as a food desert.

Bernard Warren, executive director of CUTS, said working with DeWitt has been “eye-opening.”

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“I think that overall it’s not only just his knowledge, but it’s also his leadership and the fact that he’s connected to various different politicians and leaders within the community,” said Warren, 51.

DeWitt is also director of the Maryland Baptist Aged Home, the only nursing home in the country to have had zero COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic, according to DeWitt.

The 29-bed facility didn’t take any risks when the pandemic began in 2020. DeWitt imposed a lockdown, and collected plenty of personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies for the staff. “We were excessive, we were extreme, we were emotional,” DeWitt said.

Founded in 1924, the Maryland Baptist Aged Home was originally called the Maryland Baptist Aged Home for Colored People because DeWitt said people of color did not have any other option in the 1920s. The nursing home has struggled in the past and people once avoided it unless there was no other option, DeWitt said. There were financial struggles.

“We couldn’t cash our payroll checks in Walmart even because we had bounced so many payroll checks,” DeWitt said. “Fast forward now, we’re one of the top 10 nursing homes in the entire state. We have a waiting list to get in.” The Maryland Aged Baptist Home leads a state health department ranking because 100% of its staff is vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Two miles from the nursing home is the Intersection of Change, a triangle park with a fountain bordered by Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues and Presstman Street. Next to this small park is an addiction rehabilitation center for women called Martha’s Place and the Harris-Marcus Center art gallery.

A mural outside Martha’s Place, a recovery program for women in West Baltimore
A mural outside Martha’s Place, a recovery program for women in West Baltimore. (Esther Frances/Capital News Service)

DeWitt said the fountain was a focal point for a large open-air drug market until he and fellow clergy held regular vigils to reclaim the space and raised money to provide needed services. At Martha’s Place, for example, women who successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program can move to an independent living area for a short time while they seek employment and try to reunite with their children, he said.

Amelia Harris, one of the co-founders of the Intersection of Change, said she admires DeWitt’s enthusiasm and energy in the organization.

“He’s taken on the burden of our community and working alongside the other partners in helping to eradicate and change some of the systems that’s been in place here in Sandtown,” Harris said.

Some have asked DeWitt how he can wear so many hats. He said the answer is simple.

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“Well, I have one head, so I wear one hat at a time,” DeWitt said. “And it’s just really an exercise in compartmentalization…the other thing is you build a coalition. You build people of vision who can carry out what it is that you’re thinking about.”