What the clergy in Baltimore can teach the Church everywhere
GROWING IN GRACE
By now, we’ve all seen clips of the ongoing struggles plaguing Baltimore, Maryland following the tragic death and funeral of Freddie Gray. 24-hour news coverage has a way of emotionally wearing viewers out, and maybe that’s why we in South Georgia probably feel a little of the strain of the civil unrest.
Rather than exhausting us more by offering some sort of trite reasons for one “side” or the other, I want to instead point us to one of the many rays of hope that has emerged from the rubble of Baltimore – the sort of stuff cable news won’t focus our attention on.
On Monday morning I saw a video of coverage from a local news station where they followed an outbreak of church happening on the streets of Baltimore. It seems more tha 100 clergy banded together and decided to march in the middle of rioting in order to offer some sort of witness to God’s presence in the midst of civil unrest. For 10+ minutes I watched as this news team followed from a helicopter camera the clergy marching and singing through the streets of Baltimore. Viewers had a chance to see them come to a major intersection and, when seeing a wall of police on the next block, stop to pray before proceeding to march right up to the police as a sign of peace. The clip ended after 10 minutes with the clergy turning the other way and leading the police to another location so they could respond to other needs.
Watching these powerful moments unfold as a local news team covered them made me think: What could such courageous actions on the part of clergy in Baltimore teach the church in other places?
- The Church is always called to reach outside of its walls and into the community. The public witness of faith is always tough because we live in a world of diverse faith traditions. However, we must find ways to faithfully engage our communities because even the most blighted, crime-ridden parts of our world are still part of God’s beloved creation. And I would imagine Jesus himself would probably find himself hanging out on those street corners with the marginalized of our society as much (or even more) than in our beautiful, stain-glassed, state-of-the-art worship facilities. Our churches are not being the Church unless we find ways to get out of our buildings and give of ourselves for the sake of peace and love for all of God’s children.
- The Church should admit that we haven’t always gotten it right. One of the clergy marching was quoted as saying, “We’ve been too guilty of rhetoric. We’ve failed our young people. Now we want to reach out to them on their turf.” We should admit that too often we care about buildings and budgets and statistical reports more than we do the mission of the kingdom of God – or at least admit we’ve distorted the kingdom mission to fit our narrow focus of buildings, statistics, and budgets. Too often we domesticate the gospel to fit an agenda of building church empires. It’s okay to confess these failures because God is a God of mercy who will forgive us. Repentance is something even communities and organizations and denominations need to do sometimes.
- The Church should be a place where bridges are built more and sides are taken less. Clergy were quoted as saying violence is never an acceptable means of protest. They were also quoted as saying there had been a state of emergency in Baltimore long before the Governor of Maryland had instituted it. Systems are broken. People are disenfranchised. Things need to change. Too often we think our role as people of faith is to pick a side of an issue and vehemently fight to defend it. The clergy of Baltimore remind us that maybe God is calling us to be bridge builders instead. God’s shalom is not an easily attainable thing and the Church is called to build bridges and offer witnesses of peace in the pursuit of justice and righteousness. This rarely happens when we allow ourselves to be polarized.
There’s a lot of political and social baggage at play as we continue to watch the unfolding events in Baltimore. And I wouldn’t dare begin to try to explain or sort through it all. However we should all remember that God is calling us, wherever we are, to be a people of peace who give voice to God’s justice of abundant kingdom living for all of God’s children – protesters ... police officers ... everyone. So I thank God for the clergy of Baltimore who stood up and let their prayers be voiced with their lips as well as their feet as they marched for peace and reconciliation. They bore witness to what it truly looks like when disciples, with God’s help, seek to transform the world.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is the senior pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.