Viewpoints

Michael Gerson: A pastor’s faith in Baltimore

BALTIMORE – Upstairs in the church office of Bethel A.M.E. Church, located several blocks from recent rioting, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake waits for a news conference to begin. She vents about the self-destructive nature of the violence – attacks on businesses that were hard to attract to low-income neighborhoods and the sad irony that many of the places targeted were frequented by Freddie Gray. She rehearses for me the difficult choices involved in an appropriate but not overmilitarized police response. Pressures come from every side. The state government, she says, denies needed education funding while watching over her shoulder on law and order. The schools were closed that day, in part, because teachers were refusing to come to work.

Down in the sanctuary, to the accompaniment of helicopter noise and sirens, Christian and Jewish leaders announce an effort to help feed poor children that won’t be getting meals at school that day. Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Frank Reid III, adds a mild corrective for the mayor, who is standing beside him. Early in the crisis, Rawlings-Blake had referred to those involved in violence as “thugs.” “There are no thugs in Baltimore,” says Reid. “There are abused children” who “become abusers.”

After the news conference ends, I sit with Reid in the front pew. Now 63, he has seen or participated in almost every stage of the civil rights struggle, becoming one of the most respected religious figures in Baltimore and an important leader of the broader movement.

Reid is tired from the exertions of the late night before. After Gray’s funeral Monday at New Shiloh Baptist Church, hundreds of pastors marched in the midst of violence, in what Reid called “a demonstration of love and fearlessness.” Returning to the church, religious leaders held a two-hour dialogue with gang leaders.

“One young man said to me, ‘You Frank Reid. My grandma made me go to your church when I was little.’ I felt like a failure. How did I let this brother get away? But then it hit me. He remembered, and it was a positive memory.” Reid continues: “There is an opening in many young lives. There is an opportunity to touch a new generation – not to use them for church purposes, but to empower them to fulfill their purpose in life. That’s exciting. Is it dangerous? What isn’t dangerous?”

This is one of the most distinctive contributions of faith-based institutions to discussions on poverty and crime. Their vision of social healing is required to include the victimizers as well, who will remain in communities, or return from prison, after the cameras leave. “Everyone should have a second chance, even a third chance,” says Reid.

He locates the Baltimore violence in a broader context, quoting sociologist Robert Putnam on a growing “opportunity gap” in American life. “When the opportunity gap gets as vast as it is,” he says, “it is filled with frustration, fear, powerlessness.” Reid is hoping for political leaders with the ambition of Lyndon Johnson “on the big issues of education, housing and the redistribution of wealth.” But he is not hopeful about the state of American politics. “Left and right have put on blinders and ear plugs. They are not listening to each other. Everything reaffirms a pre-existing policy position.” Public discourse, he says, has become “violence without a gun.”

Reid, in obvious frustration, raises some uncomfortable questions. “If the marchers here had gone to the Inner Harbor, would we have seen that looting? The police would have prevented it.” The Inner Harbor is the tourist district. Some communities seem more expendable than others.

And Reid poses “a question for the black community.” “Do we now have a black political class,” he asks, “out of contact with the personal needs of the people they serve? In the white community, there is an attitude of ‘you people.’ Is there a ‘you people’ idea in the black political class? I don’t know.”

Our conversation loops back to hope. “We need to turn to each other, not on each other,” he says. “A moment can become a tipping point, and it doesn’t always tip to the negative. The funeral yesterday was a positive tipping point, a foundation for the future. Romans Chapter 8 says that creation is moaning, groaning, giving birth. What we are seeing in urban neighborhoods is groaning and pain. If we stay focused, we can give birth to something positive and powerful.”

Such optimism is not self-evident in Baltimore. It requires some faith.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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