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Riots about more than Gray’s death, pastors say

BALTIMORE (BP) — As Baltimore experiences the first calm after the April 27 funeral of an unarmed black man who died of injuries sustained when police arrested him, local black Southern Baptist pastor Ryan Palmer recalls the moment he first understood the heart of rioters whose violence he can’t condone.

Two days before the victim Freddie Gray was buried, the Baltimore Orioles were set to break a five-game losing streak as they played the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. In the backdrop of exuberant fans, a discontented crowd gathered on the streets.

“It was a unique dynamic to watch this unfold on the television, that you had one group primarily African American protesting in the streets, and you had another group primarily Anglo enjoying the baseball game just a few blocks away,” Palmer told Baptist Press April 28. “In the darkness of the street on the news media coverage, you could see the light from the stadium; they were that close. So we knew that as the day began to wind down, these two groups of people were becoming more and more likely to interact.”

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the baseball fans to remain in the stadium to allow police to push back the looters.

“The people in the stadium, a large number of them became so irate that they could not leave and do as they wanted to, that they began a protest in the stadium — and I haven’t seen any of this covered nationally — but it, their chant was most troubling,” Palmer said. “They were chanting the name of the young man who died in police custody, Freddie Gray, but they put a four-letter verb in front of his name … [expletive] Freddie Gray. And for me, at that moment, I got insight to what some of these young folk were protesting.

“There is a latent racism and a sense of frustration that grows and flows out of being ignored. As someone aptly put it in one of my conversations I had with a friend, ‘Anger and lack of education [are] a dangerous combination.’ And so while they were yet still peaceful, and not doing the violence, the other group was shouting [expletives] to the deceased.”

Palmer, pastor of Seventh Metro Church, is among Southern Baptist pastors serving in the city that has been under a state of emergency since April 27, when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called in more than 2,000 national guardsmen to help policemen, and Rawlings-Blake imposed a 10 p.m.–5 a.m. curfew that remains in effect. On the most violent day, looters burned at least 15 buildings and 144 vehicles, injured more than 20 police officers — some critically — and accounted for nearly 250 arrests, according to news reports.

Southern Baptist pastors and other clergy have been busy praying and meeting across denominational lines with politicians and community leaders. At some meetings, pastors prayed with gang members who have been accused of joining hands to kill police.

David Gaines, an African American Southern Baptist pastor of the Baltimore inner-city Manna Bible Baptist Church, described the violence as the “opportunistic” work of those who are more concerned with destruction than justice.

Gaines has moved the church’s Wednesday (April 29) evening prayer meeting and Bible study up an hour to 6 p.m., planning to devote the entire session to prayer until 8:30 p.m., allowing his congregation to make it home before curfew. The church will be in prayer essentially all day Wednesday, he said, including the noon-2 p.m. prayer time.

Gaines hopes to meet Friday (May 1) with other Christian pastors in his community. They will devise a strategy to minister amid the turmoil, and Gaines plans to be more intentional in reaching the young men in the community who are suffering from a broken family structure, addressing their needs of education, employment, healthcare and salvation.

“I think what we want to be doing now, particularly after what we saw yesterday (April 27), is be more strategic and intentional about reaching African American young men, millennials. The father is absent in their lives,” Gaines said. “We’re going to go after every aspect of a man’s life and have a voice as the church to speak into these young men the truth as it relates to Jesus Christ. That’s our intention and we want to be very strategic.”

Developing a strategy with politicians, policemen, educators and other city leaders is also important to Gaines, who believes the rioting has opened a unique door for progress. Among African American Southern Baptist pastors strategizing with Gaines are Steven Hardnett, pastor of Full Circle Community Outreach; Joe Bearnwell, pastor of Gethsemane Bible Baptist Church, and Ray Thornton, pastor of Pilgrim’s Way Baptist Church.

“What we’d like to do is set an agenda that we’re in control of. And we’re going to ask them to help us in our effort to reach the community the way we want to reach them. Now if they want to participate, we’ll be glad to have them bring their resources. But if they’d rather not, then that’s their choice,” Gaines said. “But I think we’re right at a precipice now where I think the government, Baltimore city in particular, they are open to anybody … anything … they’re desperate, which is excellent. They are at a place now where I think they’ll listen, so we’re going to take full advantage of that, and the timing couldn’t be any better.

“Not that I’m glad to see what’s happening. My heart broke, my wife and I sat there on the verge of tears as we watched the city just come unraveled right before our eyes — helpless to do anything — to see that kind of mayhem all around us. But at the same time, it has really ignited a fervor on our parts to pray, to be more intentional about praying and be more intentional about getting that Gospel out into the community.”

While Gaines and Palmer agree that Gray’s death is not the cause of the violence, the two men view the rioting from different vantage points. For Gaines, it stems from an inability among young African American men to take responsibility for their lives and livelihood.

“I’m really bothered every time I hear a number of pastors and community leaders redirect the problem as if the problem is race, as if the white man or the police, or the governor or whomever, is the problem. And it’s so unfortunate because the real problem is … ‘We have met the enemy and the enemy is us,'” he said, paraphrasing a quote from 19th century naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry. “Internally we are imploding on ourselves simply because we lack biblical male leadership in our communities and in our homes. That’s the messaging I want to promote through our church.”

For Palmer, the enemy is external.

“We are not our own enemy. The enemy shows himself in lack of education. And what I mean by that is uneducated people struggle to find diverse ways to communicate. One thing education helps you to do is to kind of pick cultural locks by metaphor and analogies to build bridges to people who may not think like you, look like you or have experiences similar to you,” Palmer said. “When you have a lack of education and then, you frustrate that with anger. So the enemy is lack of education, the enemy is intolerance, the enemy is our own personal biases.”

For rioters, “this is the opportunity to express a frustration,” Palmer said. “[Such as] ‘Hey, I’ve got three or four children from different mothers and no real relationship with any of them.’ ‘I have dropped out of high school, so therefore, going to college is not real for me, and I’m unemployable.’ ‘I’ve made some bad decisions in my life, for diverse reasons, and now I’m not going to have the opportunity to live the life that I dreamt about when I was 7 years old, 8 years old. And there are a group of people who are not only insensitive, but don’t care.'”

Palmer gives God credit for protecting his church campus, located on North Avenue near one of the rioting hot spots.

“God’s word is true. A thousand may fall to your left, and thousands to your right,” Palmer said, referencing Psalm 91:7. “Literally, the violence was a few blocks west and a few blocks east. In both cases, you could see the steeple of our church from the locations, but they did not come into our block. They have not come into our block yet. We’re giving God praise and thanks for that.”

Palmer planned to teach evening discipleship classes via SKYPE or Google Chat to keep his small membership out of harm’s way and allow them to abide by the curfew. On the first day of the state of emergency, Palmer was busy helping his members navigate the city as traffic was blocked by rioters who caused traffic jams and immobilized parts of the city.

“What I was doing was just trying to meet that immediate need of getting those folks that you have charge over, those folks who look to you for leadership, to a safe place,” Palmer said. He planned to attend meetings with politicians and members of the Baltimore Ministerial Alliance in the coming days.

Southern Baptist pastors are active across the city, ministering to those in need, blogged Joel Rainey, a missionary with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. Outreaches have included free lunches to children since schools were not in session, ministry to police officers, firefighters and National Guard personnel patrolling the city, and churches opened to offer refuge for frightened citizens.

Pastors point to the Gospel as the only answer for the troubled city.

“I’m sure the only solution for this problem as well as any other cultural, social or personal problem is Jesus Christ,” Gaines said. “The only thing that’s going to change that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ changing hearts so that when I changed, I now see every man in the light of who God is. That the image of God is stamped on the Korean, the Japanese, the Caucasian, and I just can’t hate anyone, I can’t.”