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Reflections on ministry in a city gripped by the explosive pain of racial injustice

Journey to Baltimore:

Reflections on ministry in a city gripped by the explosive pain of racial injustice

In the aftermath of the tragic death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in April, four seminary alumni commented on the challenges to their respective ministries in the painful days and weeks that have followed.

Bishop Herz-Lane with ecumenical partners“The Freddie Gray case is not the first of its kind in Maryland,” said the Rev. Wolfgang Herz-Lane, bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a 2001 graduate of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) now studying for a DMin at the seminary. “Did you know that in the past three years in Maryland 109 prisoners have died while in police custody, most of them African American males?” He noted that thousands over the years have been rejected “because they were hurt too badly to be placed in prison.” He ventured that the Freddie Gray case simply became “the lightning rod” for escalating tensions over police controversies in Baltimore. Gray was arrested in early April when he ran away after making eye contact with police, Herz-Lane said, noting that Gray had not been committing a crime. He was cuffed and later shackled, the bishop noted, and was not strapped into a seat belt. After a 45-minute ride in a police van, he was found unresponsive with a broken spine and died. Officers have been arrested in the case.

After two weeks of peaceful protests during which “hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators appealed for an investigation and justice in the matter,” Herz-Lane noted that two nights of violence ensued, beginning April 27. Much of the looting and rioting involved high school youth. And investigations into the handling by the state and law enforcement of the disturbing behavior of the youth are ongoing, Herz-Lane said. “Efforts intended to diffuse the situation in fact produced the opposite result,” he said. St. Luke Lutheran Church at 7001 Harford Road in Baltimore’s Parkville and Hamilton communities, was vandalized during the rioting, Herz-Lane’s spouse, the Rev. Margaret Herz-Lane, also an LTSP graduate, is that congregation’s pastor.

“But I must say that the churches of Baltimore enjoyed their finest hours during the peaceful protests that took place before April 27,” Herz-Lane said. “On the night of April 27, 150-200 pastors, rabbis, and Muslim leaders took to the streets to call for peace and to offer pastoral care to all sides, including law enforcement, even as they have been calling police into account.

“An example I offer is the ministry provided by Zion Lutheran Church, which is located next to City Hall,” Herz-Lane said. “During the protests some in the congregation thought the church should be locked down to protect the premises,” but he said after a brief time “they thought better of it, opened their gates and let people on the streets into their peace garden, offered them water and a space for prayer and conversation.” He said more than 600 people used the restrooms of the church. “Someone kept count,” he said. “That is what the church should be, a presence in a time of trouble and deep need.”

Herz-Lane offers leadership to an Ecumenical and Interfaith group in Baltimore that has steadfastly called for peace and justice and also encouraged believers to take part in a “step out” initiative to offer public prayer outside of their buildings on behalf of peace and justice.

Herz-Lane noted that the crisis in Baltimore has brought people together across ecumenical and interfaith lines, “but also laid bare deep divisions (that already existed) among us. We all have a lot of work to do.”

On the morning of May 12, the Maryland Food Pantry was offloading produce and food for the neighborhood food pantry operated by members of Faith Lutheran Church in the South Clifton Park section of East Baltimore.

Pastor Lynell AlJoe-ThurmanThe congregation’s Pastor Lynell AlJoe-Thurman was called to Faith Church a year ago. She is a 2003 graduate of LTSP and a native of Riverside, California.  “We’re a socially active congregation,” she stated. “We run a community kitchen and pantry and the fourth Saturday of each month we serve a meal and offer people a place to come and converse about issues with which they are dealing.” About 70 to 100 area residents showed up. The neighborhood has about 600 homes, many of them boarded up. Gang activity is part of the neighborhood, not far from Johns Hopkins University and Hospital.

Regarding the Freddie Gray episode, AlJoe-Thurman explained, “Whenever we see a male murdered or a child abused in our community we feel it. We grieve for the parents and the city. The church works hard to keep peace and calm and to invite the sides involved to come in and share their stories. We ask them how we can advocate for them,” she said.

“Because people in our neighborhood lack jobs and skills they often experience hopelessness, but here at the church we try to offer signs of hope,” AlJoe-Thurman said.

In a recent sermon, AlJoe-Thurman gave her parishioners a message of hope in the sermon she preached: “Our youth are not thugs,” she said in the wake of the looting the city had experienced a few miles away. “They are misguided. They have witnessed generations experiencing a lack of social opportunities that other communities have. In their schools they have a lack of books. In the winter they wear coats in their classrooms to keep warm. They pass through metal detectors on their way into school. They are profiled. They receive testing for which they are not prepared, and they are frustrated.”

AlJoe-Thurman offers hope of Christ in a variety of ways besides providing nourishing food for neighbors. On Tuesdays the congregation runs a prayer line. “People call in,” she said. “They ask for prayer. They tell us a relative has been shot in the head or a family member is missing. A mother will say her food stamps have been cut off. Families get evicted or experience sudden unemployment or foreclosure. A lot of the homes that are boarded up around here are the result of predatory lending practices,” she said. “We pray openly. We use in our prayers the names of people who have been murdered.”

On Wednesdays, prior to Bible study, parishioners go to the street corner and hand out water. Some passers-by ask about paying for it, but the parishioners say it is free and they add an important message, “Jesus is the living water.” The passers-by include homeless people, addicts who’ve come from the methadone clinic down the street, and city bus drivers. “They stop and ask for prayer,” AlJoe-Thurman said.

On the morning of May 12 during this interview, a man walked by and AlJoe-Thurman invited him to assist in taking food into the church that had been dropped off by the Maryland Food Pantry. The man was eager to comply. As he helped out, he talked about neighborhood challenges.

On one occasion the man said he was accosted by youth who robbed him and tore the wedding band from his finger before running away. On another occasion the man, wearing his security guard uniform, stepped from his car and was held up. “I didn’t have much money, but I gave it to them,” he said. He was shot twice, one bullet piercing his back and coming out through his chest.

Pr. Michael GuyNot that many blocks away in the same neighborhood occupied by Johns Hopkins University and Hospital stands St. Philip’s Lutheran Church, served by alumnus the Rev. Michael Guy. St. Philip’s “is the second oldest African American Lutheran Church in the country, and we’re very proud of that,” Guy explained. The congregation is 125 years old this year.

The church is located about nine blocks from where a senior citizens center was burned during the civil unrest that occurred the night of April 27.

Guy is disturbed by the media coverage of the Gray episode and notes the distinction between local and national television coverage. “When the local media cut away from a news segment, the images they broadcast showed the citizens of Baltimore out there doing corrective work, sweeping up glass, handing out water to firefighters,” Guy said. “When the national media did their cutaways they always seemed to show disturbing images, like the CVS Pharmacy burning.” The local media, he explained “live here and so they handled it differently,” he believes.

Guy explained that his congregation has four police officers who are members. “One of them is a Baltimore city officer who is a wagon driver on the West Side (in the area where Freddie Gray’s arrest took place). His first concern when the unrest was taking place was, ‘We need to protect the senior citizens of the city.’ “But you will never see that reported as part of this story.”He believes the local media should captain any media pool covering such a crisis.

Asked if the seminary sufficiently prepared him for ministry in such a crisis in his community, Guy offered a broad smile.

“My parochial joke is to ask, ‘Is there another seminary?’ I have such an affinity for Philadelphia Seminary. My education allows me to stand with anybody to defend my position because I was so thoroughly taught.”

Guy said simply that a sharp focus on the Gospel and the sacraments “is what drives our ability to handle crises in the church or racial divisions that may occur. Focusing on the Gospel and the sacraments places everyone on common ground. If you lose that focus you will run amok and derail.” In discussing critical concerns such as racism and justice, Guy said he often cites scripture from Hosea and Amos in his conversations on the topics.

The Gray episode was a combination event,” Guy believes. “It was not the first of its kind, and when it happened people were asking, ‘Is there any real justice?’ There is, but at the time it did not appear that way.”

He said some of the root elements leading to the response and unrest “go back 40 years, and people ask what has been done to correct them.”

He said the members of St. Philip’s are conscious about the importance of being law abiding citizens.”They only want to be treated as responsible citizens,” he said.” He pointed out even he has been stopped by authorities on occasion “because I am black. I put my hands on the dashboard.” And he then will show his credentials as a Chaplain for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. “It’s not true of any profession that everyone is a bad guy,” Guy continued. “But in any occupation you can think of there is always a percentage that step outside the boundaries. And it is incumbent upon others in the profession to hold them accountable.”

He, as Dean of the Baltimore City Conference of Lutheran Churches, is working with others to develop a continuing response to the Gray episode. “At times like this leaders have to lead (in churches). They have to step forward and hold everyone accountable to the idea of justice.” He said he has encountered some pastors who are reluctant to speak a view in their congregations that may not be acceptable to some because their livelihood may be in jeopardy. “But that kind of behavior is not keeping a focus on the Gospel and the sacraments,” he said. “It is not being true to a call to serve God.”

Pr. Jacob SimpsonAt South Baltimore’s Salem Lutheran Church, the Rev. Jacob Simpson, LTSP 2011, has been serving for three years as pastor. “I am a white pastor, serving in a mostly white neighborhood in a city that is mostly black,” Simpson said.

“Salem is in a well-off neighborhood that is safe and with amenities that others don’t have.

“I grew up in the Baltimore area and have been aware all along of the racial inequalities here,” Simpson said. “And I have known that we have serious problems with the police and someday they would explode. I can never forget about that young man (Freddie Gray) who never got to live his life and who was killed in that awful way.

“The racism factor really challenges us (the church),” Simpson said. “How do we look at race as a justice and faith issue. How do we do a better job as the church in getting these issues to the table.” Simpson noted that some in his neighborhood of privilege are hoping that “things” will get back to normal. But for African Americans, he noted, normal life may not be a good thing. Simpson said a challenge is to keep his parishioners involved in and thinking about racial injustice. He has been preaching about the issues, but keeping Freddie Gray on the radar screen will not be easy in Salem’s more comfortable environs, he thought. Freddie Gray’s neighborhood is 3.8 miles away from Salem Church and seems like a world away.

“There are two Baltimores,” he said. “Part of it is privileged and the rest of it experiences injustice. It is heartbreaking, but all I ever wanted to do was serve as a parish pastor here, to be called back to the city where I grew up. And now to be here means so much. It is overwhelming, and I am eternally grateful.” Salem Church has a vibrant young adult program, a mission team that continually explores how the congregation should best do service, and among other things sponsors a meal each month for men, many of them in various kinds of transition, and many of them veterans. Simpson said he is especially concerned about the state of education across many city neighborhoods. “Teachers are paying out of their pockets for pencils and paper. Recreation centers are closing so that children have no place to go after school. In some of our neighborhoods people have been dumped on for so long, and then we act surprised when those who have been dumped on act the way they do.”

Across the street from Salem Church sits the Riverside Public Swimming Pool. Simpson noted that these days the pool welcomes swimmers of all kinds and has African American lifeguards, but prior to the mid-1960s it was often the location for racial violence as non-whites sought to make use of the amenity, sometimes staging NAACP-sponsored sit-ins where police intervened. “With the Freddie Gray episode I thought of the history of this pool and wondered how much things have changed,” Simpson said. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 did much to bring about desegregation, he said. “But Baltimore, a city I really love, has a deep legacy of racism that clearly still exists today.”

Simpson is the son of a retired New York City police officer and has a woman parishioner at Salem Church who is engaged to marry a police officer.

“We in the church have a responsibility to pray for the lives of police officers while at the same time holding them to a higher standard,” Simpson said. “We need to do both. I think we have let down police officers in the way they have been trained. We owe them better. Beyond that, it is a shame that a man like Freddie Gray had to die in order for us to be talking in the city about needed reforms.

“It seems like such a tragic death could have been avoided.”

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