February 11, 2011

This is a story about right and wrong, need vs. greed, and a reminder that, as the old folks used to lament, evil exists, and justice is a sometimes thing. Those words are true.

At some point during the wee hours of Saturday, Jan. 8, the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, east of the Anacostia River in the 3600 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, was burglarized.

It was an act of meanness that struck at the heart of a school that is trying its best to do some good in a community where good deeds are in short supply. It was also a strike against a champion of social justice, the late Rev. John T. Walker, the first African American bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

There were many ways to honor the memory of Bishop Walker, who died in 1989. In 2005, the diocese chose what I consider the best one: to create a school that addresses the academic and social needs of boys in a chronically underserved section of our city.

The case for such a school in Anacostia was strong. In 2004, 70 percent of the nearly 1,800 boys who took standardized tests in that area's 18 elementary schools were not proficient in reading, the school's Web site says. More than half of the boys weren't proficient in math.

Boys were being suspended from Anacostia schools almost three times more often than girls. What's more, a disproportionate number of the city's dropouts and juvenile offenders lived east of the Anacostia River. And as I have reported, it is a community where teen pregnancies flourish.

The Bishop John T. Walker School offers a tuition-free education to boys of all faiths from low-income families. The aim is simple, if not lofty: to give them structured support in an atmosphere where learning is prized, intellectual curiosity is encouraged and moral character is fostered. A tall order, indeed.

Full disclosure: I was acquainted with Bishop Walker. We served together on Africare's board of directors; he officiated at my children's rites of confirmation. My parish, St. Mary's of Foggy Bottom, also supports the Walker school.

To me and many others, all signs suggest that the school was trying to do what was right and that the students were reaping a reward.

That is, until evil arrived that Saturday night.

Jan. 10 was supposed to be a festive occasion at the school. As part of its toy drive to brighten the holidays for disadvantaged children and teens, St. John's Church in Lafayette Square had prepared gifts for each of the Walker students. Ellen Parke, co-chair of St. John's outreach committee, told me that the gifts were purchased through the generosity of employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The gifts were not toys. St. John's provided each student with a bag of art supplies, which the school thought would be more constructive.

James Woody, the school's executive director, said in an interview that he had planned to distribute the gifts that Monday, but the bags were stolen over the weekend. The burglar made off with more than the gifts, Woody said. The school also lost two laptops, a pair of walkie-talkies used for staff communication, two boom boxes, a guitar and 200 music CDs that were the personal collection of an assistant kindergarten instructor who also teaches movement.

Burglaries are nasty events that don't often get much play in the media. But that doesn't mean they aren't frightening or traumatic, and their damage is not limited to the loss of property.

Burglarizing the Bishop John T. Walker School violated something good and decent east of the river. The perpetrator effectively told the boys of Anacostia that their aspirations matter little, that the streets belong to him, and that he is free to invade and violate their sanctuary.

A school security camera recorded the burglar's face, which I've seen. The police have the burglar's photo, Woody said, but they don't seem optimistic about catching him or recovering the school's belongings.

It's not the face of a white supremacist. The burglar is a man of color, and a traitor to the youth of Anacostia.

We can't let him win. By replacing what was stolen, people who care will teach students at Bishop John T. Walker an important lesson in meeting life's challenges. It is found in Galatians 6:9: "Let's not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary."

John Walker would have it no other way.

kingc@washpost.com

kingc@washpost.com