A City Unraveled: The Baltimore Riots and the Response of the Faith Community

[1] The TV reporter couldn’t believe her eyes.

[2] “These are the top leaders of the religious community, putting themselves in harm's way to end the violence,”  WBAL-TV’s Deborah Wiener announced breathlessly as her news helicopter circled over the scene below. “Linked arm in arm … this is something to behold, an army of clergy, doing something they have never done. This is extraordinary and dare I say a beautiful moment.”[1]

[3] It was Monday, April 27, 2015, early evening. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man who died in police custody, had been buried earlier that day. I was in my car, heading back to the city after receiving reports that riots had broken out in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. I was to attend a church council meeting in one of our congregations that evening in nearby Frederick, a meeting I never made.

[4] Earlier that afternoon, I had been in my office in downtown Baltimore. Our synod staff were anxious to get home early, telling me about an alert distributed by the Baltimore Police Department via social media. High school students in West Baltimore, the police alleged, were planning an after-school “purge,” so named after a popular movie in which criminal behavior goes unpunished one day each year in some futuristic society. By the time I was heading back to the city, full-scale rioting and looting had broken out all over town.

A Faith Community’s Finest Moment

5] I followed the news on the car radio when the reporter described this astounding scene, one which I consider the finest moment of the faith community’s involvement in the unfolding drama that was the April 2015 Riots in Baltimore. It did not get a lot of “play” on CNN and national news media despite their wall-to-wall coverage, but the local TV and radio station covered it extensively. More than a hundred local clergy of various denominations and imams of the Nation of Islam had met at the New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore (where I was headed) and were now walking arm in arm through the streets in an attempt to quell the violence. At one point, they knelt at a street corner in prayer. Huffington Post reporter Carol Kuruvilla found this scene to be “a powerful display of interfaith solidarity:”[2]

[6] For more than a week, hundreds of residents had marched peacefully in the streets of this northernmost Southern city following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray. On this night, the protests erupted into a major riot that rocked the city of 620,000. More than 400 businesses were looted or damaged, 19 buildings and 150 vehicles set on fire, more than a hundred police officers injured: A city unraveled.

[7] Unlike other cities such as Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland where law enforcement officers were not held accountable in the deaths of unarmed civilians, the family of Freddie Gray will get its day in court as six police officers have been charged in the case. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the riots, the city continues to be tense and is experiencing a spike in crime, especially homicides. There are new concerns that violent protests might return as we approach the trials of the arresting officers later this year.

[8] The faith community, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, played a major role before, during and especially after the riots. As bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and specifically as the president of the Ecumenical Leaders Council at the time, I was one of the actors in this urban drama, albeit not a major one; nevertheless, my personal experience may be helpful in pointing out some significant contributions that the faith community can make in similar situations.

[9] The civil unrest in Baltimore, in my opinion, brought out both the best and the worst in the faith communities that found themselves caught up in these events. The best: Prominent pastors of large Black churches in the city, most notably the Rev. Jamal Bryant of the Empowerment Temple, an AME congregation, were leaders of the peaceful protests that started soon after Freddie Gray’s death on April 19.

[10] The worst: City clergy of various denominations and faith traditions were by no means unified in their approach, which even meant separate memorial services at different locations. One such service was conducted at the New Psalmist Baptist Church on April 29. Among a crowd of 1,000+ worshippers, I appeared to be the only white person, and I certainly was the only white face among the 50 or so pastors on stage, pointing to the deep chasm between Black and white churches in our city. Divisions among the Black churches also became apparent as Baltimore grappled with the aftermath. 

[11] Despite these shortcomings, I am convinced that people of faith played a mostly positive role. Following the rioting on April 27, there were numerous prayer vigils, peaceful marches, memorial services and clean-up activities sponsored by Baltimore churches, synagogues and mosques.

Three Memorable Events

[12] From a Lutheran perspective, I’d like to highlight three memorable events:

·         [13] On Wednesday, April 29, clergy and lay leaders of the Delaware-Maryland Synod’s Baltimore City Conference gathered at Zion Lutheran Church, our historic German-speaking congregation that is located right next to City Hall. A crowd of about 75 gathered, debriefed, shared communion and then walked across the street to pray for Baltimore in front of City Hall which at the time was surrounded by National Guard soldiers and a threatening array of military hardware.

·         [14] The Delaware-Maryland Synod, in a statement from the Bishop’s Office, asked synod congregations across Maryland and Delaware to observe a moment of silence or to offer prayer at their upcoming Sunday services, and, as an entire congregation, to step out of their sanctuaries in a sign of active solidarity with the people of Baltimore. The “stepping out” activity was later picked up by an ELCA national press release which resulted in hundreds of churches across the country repeating the gesture.[3]

·        ​​ [15] On Saturday, May 2, the day after the six police officers implicated in Freddie Gray’s death were charged, thousands of people converged on City Hall Plaza for yet another demonstration against police brutality. Zion Church, despite deep concerns about the “safety” of their property right across the street from the large-scale protest, opened its prayer garden and its building to those who were seeking a moment of rest, reflection, and prayer … or just needed a bathroom break. Someone actually counted: 617 people came to receive a water bottle or a snack, spend a moment in conversation or use the restroom, providing welcome and hospitality to protesters and law enforcement officers alike.

[16] One other effort that was undertaken early in the crisis came from the ecumenical and interfaith community. The Ecumenical Leaders Council, which I chaired, is sponsored by the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council (CMEC) and includes the bishops, presbyters and judicatory leaders of seven major Christian denominations, i.e. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Christian Scientist, and Episcopalian. The ELG reached out to the Baltimore Interfaith Coalition (BIC), of which the Delaware-Maryland Synod is also a member. This group, in addition to the major Christian churches and groups, also includes the Jewish community and representatives of the Muslim faith. 

[17] ELG and BIC together issued a major statement on April 23, 2015, before the protests erupted into riots. We had invited the media to come to the front steps of the Episcopal Cathedral in Northeast Baltimore to hear our statement which read, in part:

[18] “This latest incident (the death of Freddie Gray) threatens to deepen the divide between the community and law enforcement, and, regardless of the eventual outcome of the current investigations, prompts renewed questions about how the Baltimore City police relates to citizens in certain areas of the city. While deeply troubling and deserving of the increased scrutiny currently taking place, these issues are but symptoms of much larger problems plaguing our City. As faith leaders present with congregations and services that help to anchor the neighborhoods of Baltimore, we fear the other widespread effects of the lack of access to quality education and employment opportunities, as well as to quality health care. The issues before us will not be satisfactorily resolved until every man, woman, and child in our city and nation are treated with the human dignity deserving of all God’s children, and until all vestiges of the sins of discrimination, prejudice and racism are wiped from the face of the earth.”[4]

[19] As one of the co-authors of the ELG/BIC interfaith statement, and as the one who was privileged to read it to the media on April 23, I especially appreciate the statement’s emphasis on the root causes of the rioting, which go far beyond police brutality, and its insistence that discrimination, prejudice and racism need to be addressed if there is ever to be a long-term solution to the problems that the Baltimore Riots of 2015 exposed once more.

[20] The statement also (appropriately, I think) strikes a balance between demands that the police is held accountable and the call for a fair and unbiased inquiry. The Church, I believe, is not called to rush to take sides in a conflict such as this, although, at the same time, the church should not neglect its prophetic duty to denounce injustice in whatever shape it takes, nor should it be shy in its efforts to accompany the victims of injustice however it can. Indeed, the very law enforcement officers who stared down protesters are likely to sit in our pews alongside the demonstrators and those who have suffered under discriminatory policing practices. In the end, both oppressed and oppressors are victims of the same structures of evil, that separate us all from God’s purpose for our lives and for our society; racism is but one expression of such structures of evil. As a community of faith, we are called to balance the outrage against injustice inherent in the prophetic vocation of the Church and the power of compassion and forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel. It is only true and honest love, of the kind revealed on the cross of Christ, that can ultimately dismantle the evil structures of racism and free us all, both victims and victimizers from its grip.

[21] Therein lies our greatest hope. But in truth, our country has not been willing to have the difficult conversation on race, white privilege and systemic racism without which the societal changes we need will not come. Even President Barack Obama, after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, was unable to initiate what he called “a sustained conversation”[5] on the stark divide between racial groups in the U.S.

What We Bring To the Table

[22] This is where we as people of faith can help. We may be in a uniquely qualified position to lead just such a conversation, although, admittedly we still have much to learn. In the ELCA, for example, we have developed resources that help us to have “difficult conversations.” The ELCA Social Statement on Race, Ethnicity and Culture[6] is a good starting point for such discussions. Another resource that can be helpful is the 1999 document, “Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues”[7] which lays out approaches for engagement with any social issue.

[23] Perhaps at its most basic level, the Lutheran insistence on “naming the sin” of racism that is inherent in the ELCA Social Statement becomes the very starting point. Luther himself declared in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 that “a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”[8] Certainly, any conversation on race must start by naming the systemic racism that has plagued the United States since colonial times. This truth-telling is a gift we can bring to the dialogue.

[24] There’s another gift we as Lutherans bring to the table. It is the theological model of accompaniment, a particular approach to global mission that has been used in the ELCA since the 1990s.[9]  In the model of accompaniment:

[25] We learn to see others, not from our human point of view, but from God’s point of view. Our old ways of seeing and relating have passed away. We learn to see and to repudiate all that lies between us and our brothers and sisters, valuing reconciliation and relationship above power and domination. In Christ, we no longer live as the world lives. In mission, we live out reconciliation. In Christ’s reconciliation, we are all in relationship, all part of the body of Christ. We are not just called to love those who love us, who “get” us and understand us because we are very much alike. Rather we are called to love and be loved by those who are not like us, whom we might have to work quite hard to understand, or who may not understand us at all. God’s reconciliation is across borders and boundaries.[10]

[26] Accompaniment emphasizes solidarity, mutuality, trust, accountability and partnership. It moves us away from a system where there are “givers” and “takers” and toward a relationship of equals.  Those are values that may be helpful in the church’s response to the Baltimore Riots of April 2015, as well.

A Robust Interfaith Response Is Needed

[27] Clearly, there is a role to play for the faith community in post-riot Baltimore. It may well be a pivotal role, as the Christian Science Monitor observed in an editorial: “During the riots in Baltimore on Monday, two groups stood up against the violent protesters. There were the police, of course, even though they were the object of resentment for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. And there were a dozen or more local clergy members, both Christian and Muslim. It is hard to know which group had the more calming effect … (T)he public presence of the clergy – despite the danger – only helps to highlight recent reforms in Baltimore that include police working closely with the faith-based community.”[12] The editorial goes on to state that “(i)f Baltimore is to repair its social fabric after the riots, clergy will need to be at the forefront.”[13]

[28] I agree. The faith community in our city – Christians, Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths – will have to work closely with city leaders, the police department and all stakeholders to lead the conversation on race. We are stronger together, and together we can confront the systemic racism that has defined our country for too long.

[33] No one in their right mind would suggest that any one of our churches alone could ever make a significant difference in an issue as complicated and intractable as systemic racism. God, after all, does not call us to save the world; Jesus has done that already. And even if the faith community is able to overcome its internal divisions and act together, there is little chance that we would actually resolve the issues at hand … but by working together, we can make what I believe would be a significant contribution.

[29] Certainly, in the tense city that is Baltimore after the events of April 2015, we have the ingredients needed to craft a robust interfaith response. Efforts are already underway through the Baltimore Interfaith Council to involve more of the faith community in the solutions that will have to be found.

[35] Because the accompaniment model, as practiced in ELCA Global Mission, emphasizes the “walking together” of equal partners in solidarity and mutual respect, it lends itself to the current situation in Baltimore. Too often, we have looked at communities in poverty, such as we find in West Baltimore where the riots were centered, as neighborhoods in need who must “receive” what we as “givers” have to offer. This donor – recipient dynamic is not just the failed model of yesterday’s global mission efforts, it also characterizes much of our urban ministry in this country.

[30] A case in point is the response of some of our suburban congregations to the riots. Within hours, Lutherans began to do what they so like to do: they collected food and clothing and baby diapers to be delivered to their “poor” neighbors in the nearby city. This impulse is not entirely bad, of course, and there is a place for the provision of resources in an emergency. But too often, we as Lutherans set up the proverbial food pantry less because of a perceived need of others and more because we like to feel needed. It makes us feel good!  An example is the suburban church that delivered several trash bags full of used winter (!!) clothing to a congregation in the city the day after the riots – unsolicited, of course.

[31] The accompaniment model helps us to focus on what is important in a true partnership of equals: solidarity with those who are oppressed, trust between partners, accountability that goes both ways, a recognition that this partnership is a two-way street and that all partners are receivers and givers at the same time.

[32] Most importantly, this model calls us to be advocates for justice and to boldly fight for the human rights of those who are being trampled upon. As an interfaith community of faith, it is our responsibility to speak out and to speak up and to call a thing what it is, even if that “thing” is the complicated heritage of America’s racist past and present.

The Rev. Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane is bishop of the Maryland-Delaware Synod of the ELCA


[2]Carol Kuruvilla, “Baltimore Faith Leaders Link Arms In Powerful Display Of Interfaith Solidarity,” The Huffington Post, (April 29, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/29/Baltimore-clergy-march_n_7171828.html (accessed July 25, 2015).

[3] “ELCA Members Called to Pray, Stand in Solidarity with Baltimore Residents,” ELCA Media Office (April 29, 2015), http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7740?_ga=1.171940512.1636041706.1437857802, (accessed July 25, 2015). 

[5] “Obama, Holder, Congressional Black Caucus Address Ferguson,” CNN, (December 2, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/01/politics/obama-ferguson-police-meetings/ (accessed July 26, 2015)

[6] The full text of the Social Statement can be found at http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Race-Ethnicity-and-Culture

[8] Martin Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21, http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php (accessed July 26, 2015).

[9] The concept of accompaniment has its roots in Latin American Liberation Theology that began to be shaped in the pivotal decade of the 1960s by Roman Catholic theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Protestants Rubem Alves and José Míguez Bonino. It found expression at the Latin American bishops’ meeting in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968  where the bishops proclaimed that the church should make a “preferential option for the poor.” These developments had their parallels in the United States Black Liberation Theology and in writers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Cone. Lutheran World Relief picked up on these concepts in part to be better able to respond to the devastating earthquake that had struck Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in 1972. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Division for Global Mission adopted the concept during  the 1990s. The resulting model of acompanimento pastoral, or “pastoral accompaniment,” is contained in the document “Global Mission in the 21th Century: A Vision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” which, ever since its publication in 1999, has provided a missional foundation and direction for the church’s ministry overseas. 

[11] Jerry Aker, Partners with the Poor: An Emerging Approach to Relief and Development. (New York: Friendship Press, 1993).

[12] Editorial Board, “For Baltimore post-riots, a role for clergy,” The Christian Science Monitor, (April 28, 2015), http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/the-monitors-view/2015/0428/For-Baltimore-post-riots-a-role-for-clergy (accessed July 25, 2015).

[13] Ibid.

© October 2015
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 15, Issue 9