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The broken soul of Baltimore

After the rioting, church leaders seek to bring spiritual and social renewal to the city.

BALTIMORE — Derrick Lindsey takes an Amtrak train to work in Washington, D.C.

The federal employee — a member of the Central Church of Christ in Baltimore — couldn’t help but notice the reaction of some passengers after his hometown descended into chaos in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.

“When you ride that train, you can see burned-out houses,” Lindsey said after a recent Sunday worship assembly. “I saw some passengers who were just coming through, and they saw the burned-out houses.”

Riot images fresh in their minds, those passengers linked the burned-out houses to the death of Gray — a 25-year-old black man who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody.

“No,” Lindsey said. “People have ridden past those homes for 40 years, and they’ve been just like that.”

Minister Willie L. Rupert Jr. offers the invitation during a Sunday assembly of the Central Church of Christ, a predominantly black congregation in Baltimore. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Cries for justice in Gray’s case have focused a national spotlight on Baltimore’s long-standing racial and economic disparities.

For Churches of Christ in the Baltimore area, the civil unrest has provided an impetus to seek spiritual and social renewal in a city where roughly 16,000 vacant buildings blight the landscape, leaders told The Christian Chronicle.

Driving through the majority-black city after the rioting, Kevin Bethea, minister for the East Baltimore Church of Christ, passed hundreds of boarded-up row houses.

“Look at that. Sad. Sad,” the Baltimore native said of the dilapidated homes, which he blames on city officials, slum owners and decades of neglect.

“Imagine the mindset of the young people that live in these neighborhoods, and then you’re going to have police drag a guy like they did Freddie Gray,” Bethea added. “They already feel abandoned, frustrated, left behind.”

 

Kevin Bethea, minister for the East Baltimore Church of Christ, discusses recent outreach by Churches of Christ in that city. Video by Bobby Ross Jr.

Posted by The Christian Chronicle on Monday, May 18, 2015

Outside a looted and burned CVS pharmacy, Bethea inhaled a whiff of the smoky air and talked about the need for Christians to step up.

“There’s a lot of hurting people around here that need us, the Lord’s church, to be involved at times that matter most,” the East Baltimore minister said. “We have to be a voice in the community … for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has charged six officers in Gray’s April 19 death,  alleging he endured  “a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside (a Baltimore police) wagon.”

“Jesus is in the streets,” says Lawrence W. Rodgers, ministering evangelist for the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore. Read The Christian Chronicle’s profile of Rodgers.

Mosby has questioned the legality of Gray’s April 12 arrest, claiming officers found a knife clipped inside his pants only after chasing him without cause. The police union has defended the officers and accused the prosecutor of “political opportunism.”

As weeks of peaceful protests gave way to violence after Gray’s April 27 funeral, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a citywide curfew. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan dispatched thousands of National Guard troops and law enforcement officers to the city.

The nation watched as structures such as a high-rise senior housing complex and community resource center under construction by a Southern Baptist church burned. 

But immediately, the Baptist church began rebuilding the $16 million project.

“Why can’t Churches of Christ do that?” Bethea asked as bulldozers cleared broken concrete and other debris at the senior center site. “We have to have 20 business meetings before we can get started.”
‘THE ANSWERS ARE WITH JESUS’

A black police officer who is a Central church member said he couldn’t help but make spiritual applications as he stood with a shield and a helmet, dodging rocks thrown by rioters.

Central members, led by assistant minister John Wilkie, supported police and the National Guard by providing snacks and bottled water, the officer said. A wide range of clergy members helped calm the situation by standing between authorities and demonstrators.

“The church was a big help,” said the officer, who asked that his name not be used. “This is a time that I feel like the church needs to thrive. People are looking for answers, and the answers aren’t always with the media. Sometimes, the answers are with Jesus.”

Members of the Central Church of Christ in Baltimore hold hands as they stand and pray during a Sunday morning worship assembly. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Baltimore, a city of 622,000 residents, is home to six Churches of Christ with a combined membership of less than 1,300, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian. 

The two largest churches — 525-member Central and 350-member East Baltimore — are predominantly black.

Older Christians still recall Baltimore’s deadly 1968 riots, which followed the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Perin Tinsley and Dorothy Williams are longtime members of the Central church. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

 

Central member Dorothy Williams, who graduated from high school in 1962, said she had no problem with the peaceful demonstrations after Gray’s death.

“That’s what helps you politically to be heard and to be understood,” Williams said.

“But the difference was that they had a small group who came in and ruined it,” she said of those who engaged in violence and looting.

Fellow Central member Perin Tinsley agreed: “I don’t believe in the violence. That’s where we needed to pray more. We needed to have raised our children a little better. We needed to take the Word of God to the city a little stronger, a little harder.”

Amid the unrest in Baltimore, the Mid-Atlantic Fellowship of the Churches of Christ convened an emergency meeting.

“The church has a major role,” said Willie L. Rupert Jr., minister for the Central church. “The only one who has the answer and a system that is fair to all men is Jesus.”

The Mid-Atlantic Fellowship is a regional group designed to strengthen ties among congregations. The group hosts meetings of preachers and organizes a lectureship. Participants from Maryland and the District of Columbia urged police to review arrest procedures and adopt a friendlier approach.

On the church side, the leaders discussed the need to become more active and visible, said Bethea, the Mid-Atlantic Fellowship’s secretary.

Residents line up at a soup kitchen in a poor neighborhood in west Baltimore, where high unemployment and poverty are major problems. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

“Right now, most Churches of Christ aren’t even a voice,” Bethea said. “We stay in our four walls and teach and reteach and reteach each other all the time. … Then when this happens, we try to run into the community, and people say, ‘Who are you all?’”

At Central, Lindsey said leaders hope to move beyond an emotional response and confront deeper issues.

Already, the congregation organizes major giveaways of school clothing and educational supplies, he said. Now, the church is expanding its “Learn-n-Fun Summer Camp,” which gets kids off the streets and offers recreational activities and spiritual training.

“The blight, the housing issues, the lack of fathers in the community, all those things need to be systematically addressed,” Lindsey said. “So we are coming up with some sustainable community plans that we can put in place to help address some of the needs of these young men and women.”

 

Singing “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” at the Central Church of Christ in Baltimore. Video by Bobby Ross Jr.

Posted by The Christian Chronicle on Sunday, May 17, 2015

‘WE ALL HAVE FAILED EACH OTHER’

 

To Central church member Charles “Choo” Smith, Freddie Gray isn’t just a name in the news.

A few years ago, Smith — a former Harlem Globetrotter — renovated a basketball court in Sandtown, the poor, drug-infested Baltimore neighborhood where Gray lived.

Former Harlem Globetrotter Charles “Choo” Smith attends the Central Church of Christ. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY CHOO SMITH)Gray took a liking to Smith and protected the court from vandalism, said Smith, who works with thousands of at-risk youths through his Choo Smith Youth Empowerment organization.

“Freddie Gray was an awesome kid who was misguided,” Smith told the Chronicle. “He never disrespected me. He never not showed love to me. There’s so many of them like that. They just want a chance, and that’s what the good Lord gave us — a chance.”

Smith said he refuses to point fingers over Gray’s death.

“I think we all have failed each other,” Smith said. “I just think we have to start loving each other the way we’re supposed to. And some of us who are Christians, we have to stop being in the church and bring the church out into the community.”

 

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