Dear Beloved Community,
Over the past week, more than 10,000 people have gathered in Baltimore calling for justice for the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year-old black man who died in police custody of severe spinal injuries. Gray’s mother Gloria and his friends and family in the West Baltimore community want answers for why yet another of their loved ones has been killed in an altercation with police.
Freddie was laid to rest Monday at New Shiloh Baptist Church, where he spent his youth singing in the choir and served as a junior usher. Over 3,000 people attended the funeral. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings helped to eulogize Freddie, emphasizing how much he loved his church, filled to capacity with civil rights leaders, media as well as the local community.
Rep. Cummings asked:
“I see all the cameras here. But did you see Freddie Gray when he was alive? Did you see him? Did you see him?”
As a small group of protesters turned violent, I joined you in watching with dismay as Baltimore’s city streets became militarized war zones, aflame with rage and violence. Into the Tuesday early morning hours, Rep. Cummings, local religious leaders and youth protesters, many from rival gangs convened a community meeting back at New Shiloh to organize, calling for “peace, then justice.” In the light of day, Baltimore residents came together to clean up their streets.
Dr. Martin Luther King, always prophetic, once remarked in a 1966 CBS television interview with journalist Mike Wallace:
“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear?”
I join you in struggling to make sense of the images of destruction and violence we are seeing in the media, further revealing the persistent daily violence of poverty and racism in communities like Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City, and Los Angeles. Nearly fifty years after Dr. King’s remarks, following Rep. Cummings’ eulogy for Freddie Gray, we need to ask an additional question:
“What is it that America has failed to see?”
And what is that we have failed to see? This past Saturday, as the fabric of peaceful protesting frayed in Baltimore I sat in the sanctuary of Middle Collegiate Church for their annual conference, this year on Race, Reconciliation and Courage: Creating the World We Want. Progressive faith leaders from around the country joined together for an open hearted dialogue, to charge our congregations as spaces for racial reconciliation and healing and to commission our religious leaders to be of greater service to our communities in ending racism and systemic oppression.
How easy it is not to see the deep suffering, disenfranchisement and despair of our American black youth, the ugliness of violence and destruction. Once we have truly seen it, we can’t turn away. Neighborhood, our nation needs our church to be a place where we practice truly seeing one another’s full humanity. We must commit to building beloved community within and taking what we’ve learned beyond our walls to help heal the racism, poverty and violence America can no longer fail to see. This is isn’t easy work, but it is necessary, and holy work. With the love in your hearts and your commitment to justice, I know we are up for the task together. May this be our prayer today, for Baltimore, and for our nation.