Washington was designed to send a message to the world. The architectural grandeur of its public buildings and monuments speaks of the democratic ideals of a nation fashioned on the great civilizations of Athens and Rome. Many people come to Washington and see only the side of the city that is reserved for the powerful and privileged -- the White House, the Capitol and embassies. But what message does the rest of Washington send to the world?

Statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month show that as of 2002 the District had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, 13.5 deaths per 1,000 live births. In second place was Mississippi at 10.4 deaths per 1,000 live births. Of the 855 infant deaths in the District, 748 were listed as "non-Hispanic, black," yielding a rate of 17.2 -- again the highest in the nation. Among whites, the highest infant mortality rate, 7.8 per 1,000, was in West Virginia.

These statistics send the message that the United States tolerates vast disparities between rich and poor, black and white. We seem bent on having first-class sports palaces and third-rate public schools. Citizens of ancient Greece would have cast a curious eye on a national capital that exports democratic ideals while denying its citizens full political participation.

Would Jesus have wept over Washington as he did over Jerusalem, asking those who claim to follow him whether the richest, most powerful nation on Earth could not have done better by its capital?

TOM HOWARTH

Director

Father McKenna Center

Saint Aloysius Catholic Church

Washington