Why is Baltimore Rioting and How Can We Help

Walking near Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue on Monday night, our city was erupting in violence. As an SUV exploded into flames (pictured above) and our CVS was burned around the corner, members of our church stood in utter discouragement. Standing with us were neighbors, some scared and others angry. Why did Baltimore City riot? What went wrong? We can talk about police showing up in riot gear as school let out. That went wrong. We can talk about a young man, Freddie Gray, who received fatal injuries while in police custody. That went wrong. But we need to go back, way back. The older folks in my neighborhood explain that this is the “same stuff” which fueled the 1968 riots, and that stuff goes back to racism and classism in Baltimore City, and many other American cities.

One friend and fellow pastor asked me this morning, “Have you noticed that, right now, everyone wants to come into Baltimore to help, but no one is really asking why many of our citizens want to get out of Baltimore?” We have deep systemic issues of racism and classism, which have been brewing long before I moved here in 2008. Since I’ve been here, I too (as a white man) have been unjustly accused and mistreated by the police. Why? Because I’m in a black neighborhood, therefore, I must be up to no good. Yet the problem is deeper than an unjust wielding of the sword. Our neighborhood elementary school hasn’t had an arts program in years. If it were not for one church member who is currently volunteering thirty hours a week to bring art to the school, it still would not have one today. Is there a school in an affluent white neighborhood around us without an arts program? It would be unacceptable. Students here put up with inadequate school buildings, old books, crowded classrooms, and a lack of money for basic needs. Kids don’t graduate. Why? It’s because some have to work for food. Others have lost value for education as they have lost hope for success in this world. While others consider dropping out, discouraged, simply because they cannot pay their graduation fees.

Billions of dollars have been spent over the past few years in the development and beautification of affluent parts of our city, while the Pennsylvania and North Avenue areas have never recovered from the riots of 1968. As an example of this frustration, our neighborhood groaned on Monday night as they watched the news. Police flooded the downtown district, protecting the “inner harbor” (where little was happening), as rioters destroyed North Ave, 1.5 miles from the “harbor.” It feels, to our community, that Baltimore’s wealthy white face is protected and strengthened, while the “poor black neighborhood” is allowed to destroy itself.

I’m not, in any way, excusing personal responsibility. I could write hundreds of stories of brave men and women who have taken “personal responsibility” and have risen out of poverty. Yet at a systemic level, if you were thirteen years old, lacking basic needs, looking across the city at affluent communities, feeling forgotten, and invited to hang out with the neighborhood hustlers who promise to take care of you, what would you choose?

Why did the rioting happen? It is because these young people, for once, have a feeling of power. As a rock is thrown through a window, as a store is looted, as police cars are kicked: a sense of control and power, for a moment, becomes theirs. For just a moment, they feel the power that many of us take advantage of every day.

So what do we do?

It’s sexy right now to do ministry in the city, isn’t it? Why? Let’s be honest, it’s because middle class white people are moving into cities. Cities are becoming hip and — all of a sudden — we have a new-found love for city ministry and want to plant churches. And praise God for every church planted among new gentrified communities in American cities. Yet, at the ground level, the communities most in need remain untouched and unaffected. These communities believe they have no voice, no control, and will be pushed wherever and whenever those with resources move them. And if we’re not careful, we will be seen in that number pushing.

While temporary aid and assistance helps in the moment and is well-received, a street cleaning when the cameras are present will do nothing long-term for the city. How might the church help? What can we do? How can we make a difference?

  1. Urban pastors, and church members themselves, must move into the communities in which they serve. Urban ministry is not a Sunday affair. It means living among the people more than it does serving the people. It means listening to the people more than it does giving answers. It means joining in their problems more than simply adding a bandaid to temporal problems.
  2. Churches and denominations who have a heart to help urban ministry must embrace a long-term approach. We can no longer set a goal of planting “x” number of churches a year. We cannot demand churches to be self-sustaining in three to five years. We cannot simply roll in, set up shop, and believe we’re going to change years of systemic oppression. Urban churches, currently serving in tough neighborhoods, should be resourced to address systemic issues. They should have the ability to fund students and provide art programs for schools. They should have churches and denominations who say, “We’re here for the long haul and want to help you slowly address the deeper issues.”

In conclusion, to see some real change happen in our cities, we need to count the cost, be honest with our own history, ready to listen, and be looking ten or twenty years out. In an age of metrics, fast-growth and sexy ministry, I’m just not sure if we’re willing to do this.

Joel Kurz
Joel Kurz serves as the pastor of The Garden Church in Baltimore, MD. Holler at him on twitter: @JoelKurz.

C’mon Up!