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Baltimore: The real work

The eyes of the world have turned away from Baltimore. The forest of microphones, lights and cameras that grew up in front of city hall overnight two weeks ago has been cut down just as quickly. Soldiers from the National Guard who recently guarded street corners and malls have traded in their fatigues and rifles for the suits and computers of their regular jobs. Police officers no longer stretch across the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenue en mass, but have dispersed throughout the city to investigate crimes and protect the public. For the most part, protestors have returned to their daily routines – getting kids ready for school, going to work, attending classes and serving the city they love. All in all, it seems as though Baltimore City is settling back into its normal routines. Which means that for those of us who live here, the real work is just beginning.

Healing in this city is about far more than an investigation into police brutality or a trial or a civil rights case – as I imagine is also true in Ferguson and New York. There is a tangled web of brokenness that pervades our communal life. Its sticky threads wind through streets lined with long-abandoned houses, through the hallways of crumbling schools, through well-manicured neighborhoods that were once guarded by covenants to keep people of the wrong color or faith out, through over-crowded jails, through under-taxed corporate developments, and through the environments of classrooms and courtrooms and staterooms and living rooms that bring out the worst in us instead of the best. The real work of healing this city encompasses all of this, which begs the question: Where on earth do we begin?

In the aftermath of the unrest on Monday the 27th, I was surprised to find that many of my friends across the country knew nothing about incredible acts of faith that had happened that night. One in particular stands out: In the midst of the worst of the violence, a group of clergy and laity from all different churches in the inner city gathered outside the church where Freddie Gray’s funeral had been. And they marched down the street singing. When they got to the line of police officers, they reached out to them – to offer a word of encouragement, a word of thanksgiving for their presence – and then they knelt and they prayed, right there in the midst of the mayhem. And after that, they stood up and turned back towards their neighbors – the ones who were hurling objects and looting stores – and linked arms, forming a wall of church people in front of the officers. Together, they led the police down the street, reaching out to those who had turned protest to violence, calming them, listening to them, urging them to put down their swords and beat them into plowshares. They could have been injured; they had no riot gear – they could have taken a deadly blow to the head; they could have been beaten as other citizens were that evening. They could have stayed in the safety of their homes or churches. But they didn’t. They laid down their life for their friends – for the police and for the citizens acting destructively.

When I consider how to begin this work of healing in our city, I return again and again to that group of clergy – and to others who were out walking the streets to turn violence to peace that night. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” On Monday the 27th, I watched those words come to life in the actions of those faithful people. And what strikes me even more than their discipleship, even more than their courage, is the fact that they did not take sides – they stood as the reconciling body of Christ between the two sides. For me, as a pastor, as someone who strives to follow Jesus, this is where there real work begins. It will take years to fix our schools, to create more jobs, and to change our pervasive culture of violence, but I think that work starts with individuals, with congregations, with neighborhoods. I think that work starts with us taking seriously Paul’s call to be apostles for reconciliation – forging relationships on both sides of the dividing walls of hostility that are still alive and well in our communities, even when we’d have to risk laying down our lives to do so; even when we’d have to risk taking seriously the line in our constitution that reads, “The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” Because the truth is, this work of faith, the real work that we have to do, it will rub some people the wrong way; it will mean working with neighboring congregations that might ‘steal’ our members; it will mean caring more about the health of our neighborhoods than the health of our church bank accounts.

Of course, that’s what we were always supposed to do, isn’t it? And yet, there are times when I feel I hear far more about declining church attendance, buildings closing and the money running dry than I do about reconciling work like this. Honestly, there are times when I feel that we’re far more adept at building walls and choosing sides than tearing them down and reconciling. I know that I’m guilty of both.   But it’s clear that here in Baltimore the city needs us – the city needs us as the body of Christ, whether its members agree on theology or not, whether its members are thriving or dwindling to extinction, whether its members have a fortune or not a dime to their name – the city needs us, and it needs us together.

And I don’t think that Baltimore is alone.

Jennifer Barchi 2Jennifer Barchi is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.