“Voices of Local Pastors"
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Jonathan Pitts, a religion and enterprise reporter, has been writing human-interest stories for the Baltimore Sun since 1999. A Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he is the co-author of “You’re Missin’ a Great Game,” a memoir by Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog. His enterprise writing on subjects from oyster shucking and bluegrass music to urban medicine and the U.S. military have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Maryland-DC Press Association, the AP, the National Association of Black Journalists and more.
© Reprinted with permission; The Baltimore Sun. Published April 25, 2015.
“Voices of local pastors shape calls for justice”
The black church has always been on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant says. And it's in that spirit, he says, that he's taken a leading and controversial role in protesting the death of Freddie Gray.
The charismatic local pastor has led rallies, exhorted marchers -- and called for the arrest on murder charges of the six officers involved in Gray's arrest.
Many of Bryant's colleagues have disavowed that demand, but they agree that the city's African-American churches have a special role to play in the search for social justice.
A group of pastors met with the mayor Friday at City Hall to talk about the community's concerns and ways of keeping the city calm. In Northeast Baltimore, a coalition of ministers laid out a seven-point plan advocating change in the Police Department, including the resignation of Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.
Across the city, other members of the clergy led prayer groups, reasoned with out-of-town protesters and prepared Sunday sermons, looking for lessons that could come from such tragic times.
"Jesus said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers.' Our first responsibility is to promote peace," said the Rev. Uriel Castrillon, who works with a congregation on the city's west side.
Bryant's position helped to spark a discussion about how broad the clergy's role might be beyond that.
His words "weighed on me. And I asked myself what earnest pastors and leaders of faith should be doing in such a time," said the Rev. Craig Garriott, co-pastor of Faith Christian Fellowship in Pen-Lucy, where members held prayer services Thursday night. Garriott and his staff also prayed outside City Hall this week.
"We prayed for our mayor and City Council, and the police leadership, and for Freddie Gray's family and friends, and for the city, and those unjustly treated that justice would be done," he said.
No one was questioning the sincerity of Bryant, the influential pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church, who has become synonymous with high-profile civil rights protests and causes.
In 2012, he became nationally known as a supporter and friend of the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida youth who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain.
Bryant spent several weeks in Ferguson, Mo., last year, taking part in demonstrations in the wake of the police-involved shooting death of African-American teenager Michael Brown.
He also works on civic issues in Baltimore, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named him co-chair of a task force that studied the planned use of body cameras by police.
He said he sees his actions in the wake of Gray's arrest and death as being in "those same footsteps" as the civil rights leaders of 50 years ago.
"I think that the role of the pastor ought to be one of lending direction and giving insight to discerning the times," Bryant said. "It's about making sure that we see the larger picture."
But even the civil rights pioneers of the 1960s rarely spoke with one voice.
A few blocks from where Gray was arrested April 12, the Rev. Louis Wilson said a minister should encourage people not to act in haste.
"As Christian leaders, our job is not to rush to judgment. It's to stand up for the truth," said Wilson, pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown-Winchester.
"We can't make assumptions and say, 'Arrest and fire them.' Based on what? On an inconclusive video? Gather the facts, then let the evidence shape what you believe."
The Rev. Alvin J. Gwynn Sr. agreed.
"Those officers are like anybody else: innocent until proven guilty," said Gwynn, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a consortium of pastors representing about 50 Baltimore-area churches.
That viewpoint suggests at least some level of trust in law enforcement and the justice system. It was a leap of faith Bryant was unwilling to make.
He cited the $6.3 million in settlements related to police abuse the city has paid out since 2011, according to a Sun accounting.
"Mr. Gray didn't have due process when they arrested him with no probable cause," Bryant said, noting that police have said they chased and handcuffed Gray because he fled, not because he was doing anything illegal. "How do the police have the covering that citizens don't?"
Some countered that Christ called it his duty to serve both God and the civil authorities.
The "system" is our earthly means of establishing truth, Wilson said, so we're wise to make peace with it and improve it where necessary.
The way to do that, he said, is to keep a Christlike perspective on events, no matter how trying, to refrain from judging others, and to reach out to foster dialogue.
Castrillon and the Rev. Peter Mugweh, knew exactly what he meant.
Both men are volunteer police chaplains. As protesters gathered this week for an evening rally in West Baltimore, the two met with Lt. Col. Melvin Russell of the city police at a makeshift worship space in a recreation center on North Stricker Street.
Russell, a pastor as well as a police officer, commands the relatively new Community Partnership Division, which pairs faith leaders with police on projects such as ride-alongs through the community. Events include the annual Bless Baltimore Motorcade, a gathering of pastors, elected officials and residents who drive to sites in each police district to pray as a group.
At the rec center, the pastors lead a congregation of Baltimore Ablaze, a consortium of inner-city churches that sponsors prayer walks. Members say they have helped reduce crime rates by more than 50 percent in certain blocks.
Russell declined to comment for this article, but Castrillon spoke about a philosophy he says the groups rely on day in and day out, not just when high-profile crises arise.
"We engage in civil dialogue, not attacks on the Police Department," he said. "Otherwise you're compromising the Gospel."
He said that one day this week, as he and about 30 fellow ministers marched with protesters, he heard at least one out-of-town activist urging others to knock over police barricades.
"We engaged them in dialogue," Castrillon said. "We want people to realize the police are not the enemy."
Some acknowledged that point can be a tough sell at time of rising tension. That's no excuse for acting in haste, said Wilson.
A self-described former drug addict, he grew up in gang-infested South Chicago before turning to a life in the church and said he recalls many frustrating run-ins with police. He understands the temptation to become angry but noted that police are human, too.
He said Jesus would probably call a meeting of stakeholders, let them vent, then choose a course of action.
"I've always loved what is said in Ephesians 4: 'Be angry, but sin not,' " he said. "I cannot allow my anger to translate into actions that would not merit the blessings of God."
He plans to preach Sunday on how to process anger and has scheduled a forum for faith and community leaders at New Song on Friday, with the goal of helping strengthen the community in the long run.
Gwynn, who said he has several police officers in his extended family, said he has been preaching about the issue of police brutality and the lack of community policing in Baltimore for a year and a half now.
Two years ago, Rawlings-Blake invited him to speak to a graduating class at the police academy, he said, and he was shocked to learn that only eight of 47 cadets were from Baltimore City.
"Their idea of Baltimore was that it's just like 'The Wire,' " he said.
"How are they going to view the people with empathy?"
On Friday he called for Batts to resign -- one of seven steps he proposed on behalf of the ministers' alliance to reduce homicide and violence in Baltimore.
It's a positive plan, he said, not as "crazy" as saying police should be arrested before investigations are complete.
Oddly enough, when asked what role pastors should play in crises like this one, Gwynn, 69, sounded a lot like the 43-year-old Bryant.
Each said it's his job to serve as "a moral compass" in the community and as a voice for those who lack one -- sentiments one can imagine coming from the mouth of, say, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
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