Freddie Gray made eye contact with a Baltimore City police officer. That spring morning, April 12, 2015, Freddie was arrested, subsequently suffering a severe spinal injury in police custody. While he was in a coma, our city erupted in protest: hands up in front of the Western District Police Station. Our residents protested the unnecessary arrest and death of a black man in the hands of Law Enforcement Officers. Freddie was pronounced dead one week later. For the next two weeks, protests turned into unrest which turned into violence. Most people call these the Baltimore Riots. Baltimoreans prefer the name Baltimore Uprising.
Our church sits in the middle of this historic scene. Those nights, I walked with church members through our streets as we witnessed cars set on fire, corner stores looted, a police car burned, and our local CVS in flames. I’m writing this brief article to pastors who currently re-side in cities of unrest. As it so happens, I am white. This article is written as a white pastor (obviously) with other white pastors in mind (written to and from a different context would rightly shift the emphasis). Yet, I hope this word may generally encourage all pastors. From one pastor to another, how might we shepherd our flocks during this time?
1. We Lamented.
We lamented racism and injustice of all kinds. We must not shy from telling our people: racism everywhere is an affront to God’s own image. In this, we lament. Personally, my pastoral prayers those April Sundays were filled with lament. We took time that Sunday evening to lament the death of Freddie Gray. We listened to the cries of our people and our neighborhood. Pastors, lamenting is one Biblical and powerful way to channel our members angst and energy. In lament, we bring our corporate sorrows before the Lord.
This past Sunday, our church lamented the death of George Floyd, the death of black lives lost, the history of racism in America, and the disparities in the judicial system. I asked members to write these prayers and lead our congregation in a time of lament. I commend to you a Service of Lament and you can read the laments our members recently wrote here.
2. We Were Slow to Speak, Quick to Listen.
Voices around the country said, “The death of Freddie Gray is tragic, but rioting isn’t the solution.” Two things were wrong with that statement. First, it felt like a deflection from Freddie’s death. It seemed to miss the greater injustice. Second, in deflection, it felt like an opportunity to ignore racism.
Slow to Speak
I can’t say this clearly enough: This is not the time for a white man to tell a young black man in the community: “Yeah, the Freddie Gray situation was bad, but destroying your own community isn’t the answer.” Yes, I overheard that in 2015. It was entirely unhelpful. White brethren, you might feel that. You might want to say that. For the sake of displaying the light of the Gospel: please don’t say that. Hold your judgements, and listen. In your pastoring, don’t make this season primarily about rioting and looting.
Looting is bad. Murder is worse. In the Bible, God cares less about unrest and more about injustice. Insurance quickly rebuilt our city. Insurance could not bring back Freddie Gray’s life. Five years later, our CVS, Save a Lot, Corner Stores, and liquor stores are all back in operation. Freddie is still gone.
Quick to Listen
In contrast, listen. White pastors, listen to the African American voices in your congregations. I recommend Isaac Adam’s article written in Washington DC not long after the Baltimore Uprising: “Why White Churches Are Hard for Black People.” Maybe you pastor a majority white church, it’s your job to instruct the people: be slow to speak and quick to listen.
3. We Were Slow to Condemn, Quick to Serve.
During the Uprising, I was calling and checking on our own people. I was tracking down my young friends in the neighborhood. As a pastor during those days, I hoped to ensure that they were safe. I hoped to dissuade them from running into the burning CVS. Yet, in the aftermath, I chose not to condemn. I chose to not use the word “thug” for an angry teenager who feels hopeless in this life. As a church, we chose to be slow to condemn and quick to serve.
How did we serve? Early in the morning, our church started cleaning. Day one, we cleaned out a liquor store, corner store, and swept the streets. We gathered at ground zero and prayed with the community. For the next few weeks, our church assessed our own neighborhood, dis-covering a need for groceries and supplies (since our stores had been looted and closed). Particularly hurting were our senior citizen buildings were. For example, we discovered adult diapers were in high demand as our local pharmacies had been closed. We worked with other churches and our denomination and met needs in the name of Jesus. Pastors, serve your cities during this time. It’s not the time for a photo op. Serving doesn’t require blowing our trumpets and announcing your good deeds. Humbly and quietly serve. Spend more time out there than on here––social media and the internet.
4. Weep with those who Weep
In the days leading up to the Uprising, we wept with our community. We listened to their stories of injustice and mourned the death of one of Baltimore’s sons. The morning after the aftermath, we wept with the owner of a liquor store who’s livelihood had been swept away from him and his family (again, I reiterate, the store was quickly rebuilt thanks to paid-up insurance). We wept with the elderly in our neighborhood whose refrigerators were empty and who felt shamed to take a package of diapers. Some of our church members were friends with Fred-die’s family. We wept with them. In Baltimore City, injustice, murder, and pain is always right around the corner. Sometimes if feels all we do is weep. But, pastors, we’re called to weep with those who weep. Brothers, follow our Lord’s example in this. John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.”
5. Educate Yourself on the History
Finally, we must use this as a time to educate ourselves. Read and listen to African American leaders. Learn African American history. Listen to the stories of older African Americans. After the 2015 Uprising, I began intentionally meeting with an African American pastor-friend, David Gaines, at Manna Bible Baptist Church in Baltimore. Including other pastors of various ethnicities in our meetings, Pastor Gaines and I talked about the church. We talked about the history of racism; the history of prejudice. We discussed the problem of sin and the hope of the Gospel. In those days, we sought to build bridges across the divide, and those bridges remain. Pastor, this current unrest will one day be in the past. George Floyd’s name will unfortunately be forgotten by many. Sadly, there will likely be another. Speaking out during these times alone is not enough. Let us listen, learn, converse, and prepare in between these incidents. We and our congregations must prepare to act with or without another national incident.
Five Years Later…
While there’s no quick-fix, progress has been made. As a city and as a church, it’s been a marathon, not a sprint. In recent days, Baltimore City led the way in a demonstration of peaceful protesting. Our Police Department is making strides. The 2015 incident sparked an investigation in the BCPD, uncovering corruption. While work remains, the city is stronger.
By God’s grace, our church enjoys greater unity in diversity today than ever before because the content of our conversations isn’t determined by the the status quo. We continually lament, grieve, confront sin, confront racism, and seek restoration. This happens over dinner tables, on our stoops, and in our services.
What does it look like to pastor in the wake of killings and protests? There is no manual. It is not clean. Ministry is messy. Yet, friend, it is ordinary pastoral work. We preach, teach, pray, disciple, and we evangelize. We protect, lead, and feed the flock God has entrusted to us. We must take each step bathed in earnest prayer: ”Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).