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Religious Leaders Go to Bat for Social Services

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page C05

Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposed financing package for a $440 million baseball park in Southeast Washington includes a bond issue, a sales tax on in-stadium purchases and a new tax on city businesses that take in $3 million or more a year.

The proposal is controversial to those who know the city's human needs firsthand: leaders of the faith community. Most are happy to see baseball coming to the nation's capital. But they don't want resources diverted from the city's other responsibilities, such as educating its young, caring for its sick and uplifting its needy.

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"If you're going to put $500 million into baseball, you're going to put $500 million into neighborhoods. . . . There ought to be a dollar-for-dollar match," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Northwest.

Edmonds, president of the Washington Interfaith Network, said the group is "in the middle of conversations with [D.C. Council] people to ensure that there is an equal investment in neighborhood funding compared with the baseball stadium."

The Rev. Joseph Wayne Daniels, senior pastor at Emory United Methodist in Northwest, said that although "there is a lot of excitement" about baseball's arrival, "we got schools falling apart . . . we got marching bands in high schools that can't even afford new uniforms . . . and here we are investing $400 million in a baseball team. . . . There is great anger in churches that our values are misplaced, our priorities are misplaced."

The Rev. Roger Gench, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Northwest and a Baltimore Orioles loyalist, saw two stadiums go up during the 12 years he lived in that team's home town.

"I just really don't believe that public funds should be spent for that," Gench said. "On the other hand, look, I love baseball . . . so it's going to cause a real tension for me."

Like other pastors, Gench wants equivalency. "If the mayor can propose a tax on business to go for a stadium, why couldn't he do the same thing for low-income housing?" he asked. The bottom line, he said, is how the economic perks get spread around: "Baseball is a great thing, but it's got to benefit everyone, not just a few people."

The pastor of 19th Street Baptist Church in Northwest, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, said that the city must look ahead to ensure that it has a strong economy when it comes time to pay off the matured bonds. That means investing in human capital, he said, by funding education, street safety and health care.

"I've just never seen from the mayor's office or, for that matter, the business community . . . the collective will to address those issues," Harkins said. "If you had said you're going to infuse the public school system with $400 million, just imagine what you could begin to talk about."

The Rev. Michael Jones is pastor of two Catholic parishes likely to be much affected by baseball's arrival: St. Vincent de Paul in Southeast, just north of the proposed stadium site, and St. Benedict's, near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the relocated Montreal Expos are to play until the new stadium is built.

"I'm going to be the chaplain to the Expos," Jones joked.

The pastor said he shared his peers' concerns. "I'd like to hear more details when the council starts discussing" the financial package, Jones said. "And what I've been telling people in my parishes is that we've got to be involved" in those discussions. "If you don't attend, you don't get to complain later."

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