Over the last few weeks, the nation has watched as the uncanny story of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, Md. has unfolded. We looked on in horror as the city went up in flames last Monday night, just a few hours after his funeral. I cried as I watched news and social media reports. This was happening. It was Ferguson all over again or as Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant would later say, it was “Ferguson on steroids.” Later that night, I watched as local clergy along with members of the Nation of Islam, took to the street, marching arm-in-arm in efforts to bring calm to the community. Undoubtedly, it helped.
On Tuesday morning, I arose with an overwhelming feeling of the need to go to Baltimore, not to be a savior of the people, but to be present and to lend a hand wherever I could. As I entered the city and made my way to the ‘Sandtown’ neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, the culture and the spirits of the people overwhelmed me. There were bands marching in the streets, and groups peacefully chanting for justice. Even though signs of the previous night’s “warzone” were clearly visible, there was something about the sense of community among the people that over took me.
An hour later, I found myself at Empowerment Temple for an Emergency Town Hall meeting. Dr. Bryant and some of the local clergy had invited the people to come in off the streets to strategize about next steps and about how to regain and maintain peace in their community. I was astounded by the number of people in attendance. There was standing room only. Young, old, poor or not so poor, churched and un-churched. The people had come seeking answers and guidance. As I listened to some of the community members speak, particularly the young people, it became clearer to me that the church’s approach to the issues in our communities must not just focus on larger responses. Small, intentional steps that ultimately lead to big change must be included.
In this same spirit, I witnessed as a small local church across from the Baltimore Police Depart-ment opened its doors for 45 minutes to sing and pray on the street corner. With that one gesture, they drew 10 un-churched people from the community and gained the respect of the Police Department. The next morning, the police captain called the minister on staff to ask if the troops could enter the church for prayers before they began their patrols for the day. How powerful it was to see the men and women of the police force and National Guard standing at the altar, some with tears in their eyes when just a day before, no relationship existed between the two entities.
The choice by that church to open its doors for prayer and music one time for less than an hour, cost them nothing but a little time—and what a huge change it brought about! As I continue to look for and encourage the Black Church to engage the communities where they are located, I am hopeful that we can move beyond the misguided idea that change and involvement takes large amounts of time, people, and money. This simply is not the case. I have said it over the last few days and I will say it here. I strongly believe that the level of church involvement in Baltimore city made the difference in the calming of the city in the days after the riots. It is my hope that we, the church, can learn from this and find ways to apply it in our own contexts. Until next time…
Rev. Shazetta Thompson-Hill is a wife, mother, pastor, writer and activist based in Jackson, Tennessee. If you have questions or comments, contact her at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Iike her on Facebook @pastorzetty or follow her on twitter @pastorzetty.