- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - The Rev. Lauri Andrews Malawitz grabbed Willie Cannon’s hand and guided him to a new beginning.

They climbed into the baptismal font, singing hymns, reciting Bible verses. Cannon shivered when Malawitz dunked his head under the water. It was cold - water tapped from a garden hose usually is.

It went well with the vessel it filled, an electric-green kiddie pool bought at a BJ’s Wholesale Club. It was decidedly non-traditional, a sight you’d never see inside a church. But Cannon’s baptism wasn’t held inside a church.

Malawitz administered the sacrament June 26 on the baking asphalt of the parking lot at Albany Avenue and Magnolia Street, the same place she’s been holding her weekly Sunday prayer services for the past two years.

Her congregation, Effectual Fervent Prayer Outreach Ministries, isn’t constrained by four walls. It thrives in the open, pulsing with the life of the North End. Malawitz adapts her work to the people she serves, hence Cannon’s kiddie-pool blessing and post-baptism barbecue.

But it’s effective. It works. It draws people in, people who praise it for being authentically Hartford, a mirror held up to the city.

“Other preachers asked to baptize me, but I kept saying no,” Cannon, 59, said after the ceremony, still dripping as he held tight to the towel wrapped around him. “But she convinced me. It was my time, I’ve been on the streets my whole life.”

Cannon wanted to make good after years spent, as he put it, as “a career criminal.” He did it for his son and daughter, to give them good memories to counter the stories they’d heard about him.

And Malawitz met him where he was living. Every Sunday, he walks down Magnolia Street to the folding chairs and amplifier Malawitz sets up on that parking lot, the former home of a police substation.

On the day of Cannon’s baptism, there wasn’t an empty chair to be found. And still more people wandered over, some who were waiting for the service, others who heard Malawitz’s voice rise above the din of the street and came over to investigate.

It was an eclectic crowd: Old, young, male and female. Some took Malawitz up on her offer to testify about their faith, like Aisha, an admitted former member of the 20 Love gang who talked about how she found God in prison.

As they spoke, Malawitz mingled through the crowd, anointing everyone with oil.

“Somebody has to be out there, somebody has to reach them,” she said. “I’ve been touched with that, the infirmities of their weaknesses. I’ve been on drugs, I know about drugs, I sold drugs, I did drugs, I know about the boosting, I know about stealing. All of what they’re going through, I’m not unfamiliar with.”

She doesn’t shy away from her past; it’s part of her sermon. During the prayer service before Cannon’s baptism, she told the crowd that she was “one of the biggest dealers in this area,” slinging crack and marijuana throughout the North End.

But in 1982 she found God, she said. Or he found her. It doesn’t really matter. The end result is the same: She knew it was time to make a change.

“One day I got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said. “I wanted to be free, so I cried out to the Lord, and he freed me.”

For years, she worked with other churches, organizing clothing drives, setting up tables to feed whoever was hungry. In 2013, she was ordained and started her own ministry.

Her work is more than just the weekly prayer service. Malawitz’s home on Edgewood Street reflects that.

Its kitchen is stuffed with donated food for the meals she cooks for the neighborhood after her Sunday services. A spare room is filled with donated clothing that she distributes during the week. And part of its top floor has been converted into the “Upper Throne Room,” a sanctuary where Malawitz offers counseling and private prayer sessions.

But in recent months, her focus has turned to another constant of life in the North End: violence.

Malawitz visited the scene of the shooting June 21 that killed Ashley Spence and Cameron Mounds. She spoke about the fear her neighbors had, the way it gripped their daily lives.

“They’re really scared, they’re afraid. They’re used to the neighborhood, but they’re afraid,” she said. “It’s hard raising children around here. Never mind sitting on the front porch, a bullet could hit you just sitting here, could come through your window. Anything could happen.”

During her prayer services, Malawitz is calling for action, calling for the people of the North End, and all of Hartford, to take back their city.

“We have to start caring about people again. When we hear about these shootings, and we hear about our kids shooting, kids dying, it’s like we’ve become immune to it,” she said. “We have a vigil, but then we keep it moving.”

“But we have to get down to the nitty-gritty. We have to get out here and do something, not just say something.”

___

Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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