The first encounter on the Rev. Ed Hallinan's sunset stroll through North Philadelphia is telling.

Girls playing on a broken sidewalk near trash broiling in the heat greet the priest warmly, in spite of their surroundings.

A young mother sitting on her front steps scowls, as if to say she long ago succumbed to hers.

On these steps, in this African American neighborhood, a white stranger bearing blessings had best keep walking.

That - the anger, suspicion, and resignation that no one, not even men claiming to be sent by God, can change anything - is why Hallinan keeps showing up uninvited.

Yes, some neighbors are dying in the gunfights in the 22d Police District, home of some of the highest shooting rates in the city.

But what about all the people who are alive, if not entirely well?

"We need to be present," says Hallinan, the longtime pastor at St. Martin de Porres Roman Catholic Church at 24th and Lehigh.

"It's easy to be overwhelmed by the problems and withdraw, but in withdrawing, you take away people's human dignity and worth," adds Bishop Joseph McFadden, who likes to join Hallinan for the weekly walks.

One priest and a bishop know they're powerless to stop the shooting and reverse decades of job loss, family dysfunction and poverty.

Men who pray for a living prefer to focus on the "deprivation of spirit" that cloaks their community.

"Laws can help. Police can help," McFadden says. "But peace only comes when you open your heart."

Walking the walk

"Do you think young guys equate faith with weakness?"

Hallinan puts the question to his fellow walkers: McFadden; Msgr. Joe Shields, the archdiocese's vicar for Hispanics; a young deacon; a seminary student; and a parish employee.

The men nod as they pair off and fan out. St. Martin de Porres' boundaries are so wide as a result of controversial church closings in the 1990s, and Hallinan has 72,000 souls on his mind as he drives to the point where he'll begin walking.

Around the corner from the sweet girls and their sour mom, he and Dan Kredensor, the deacon preparing to be ordained, meet a middle-age homeowner tending a community garden bursting with collards and string beans.

"Watering's been a problem," the gardener tells his guests, "because they won't let us use the hydrant anymore."

They meaning the city. Another slight, amid all this blight.

On several blocks, the walkers pass more feral cats than people. The latest decorating trend? Abandoned buildings spray-painted with antiviolence messages.

"No Guns Know Peace," reads one near 24th and Montgomery. A bitter street argument to the left persuades the men to turn right.

Jerry, a 61-year-old contractor, shakes Hallinan's hand and talks about his work. Carol reminds a child to say, "Excuse me," as she pedals past the visitors. Lois proudly shares details about her Jehovah's Witnesses convention.

Block after block, the encounters are brief and seemingly meaningless. Until one isn't.

Waiting to exhale

"Would you come in and bless John?" Sally Hart asks the men she just met outside her house on Ringgold Street.

John is her big brother. He's dying of cancer in her living room.

"I know I smell a little bit of beer," she admits, looking away.

"We were up all night, and it's been a rough day. But then you all were just walking up the street out of nowhere. . . . It's like the Lord knew I needed it."

Hallinan smiles. "The Holy Spirit blew us over here tonight."

He asks the frail, heavily medicated 57-year-old man on the hospital bed if it's OK to touch him.

John nods. They pray.

Sally exhales. "We're just fighting this battle."

She isn't specific, and doesn't need to be. Outside, inside, struggle surrounds.

Up the street, a pair of preteen girls perk up when they see the men in Roman collars approach.

One wants to talk about exorcisms. The other has a more pressing personal question.

"If you have a lot of Jesus pictures in your house," she asks, urgently, "can the devil still come in?"

Hallinan answers them both.

"Sometimes," he says, "evil is one person. But evil is in a society, too.

"We're all a little evil. That's why you have to hold on to your faith."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.