Church on the street: New York Times shows ministers trying to calm Baltimore

Church leaders have popped in and out of coverage of the current riots in Baltimore. The New York Times, however, spotlights their brave -- though inconclusive as yet -- efforts to keep a lid on the violence.

The 1,100-word story visits three churches -- Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, nondenominational -- and talks to ministers as well. One of them even claims to be an early member of the Black Guerrilla Family, one of the three gangs -- the others are the Crips and Bloods -- blamed for the violence in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.

The Times quotes a wide range of people, among them a gang member and a local politician. We hear also from the much-quoted Rev. Jamal Bryant on the need to show the world the more peaceful side of Baltimore. They walk the streets to calm crowds and urge them to keep the curfew. A teacher serves snacks in a church basement, while getting children to talk out their feelings about the rioting.  And a pastor brings rival Bloods and Crips into his office to complain of problems and suggest solutions.

Just to have the gangsters sitting down, when they have long shed each other's blood nationwide, must be a major victory in itself. As the story says:

But in a city abuzz with public speeches, meetings and demonstrations, perhaps nothing was more surprising than the outreach to gangs, and some gang members’ positive response. Gang fights accounted for some of violence in a city that recorded 211 homicides last year. Gangs run some of the thriving drug trade, and the Black Guerrilla Family was accused by prosecutors of a virtual takeover of the city’s jail, leading to corruption charges against many correctional officers. And earlier this week, the police warned that the Crips and Bloods were uniting to plan attacks on officers, though members of both gangs have denied any such plans.
That history warranted skepticism about a lasting turnaround by gang members, and there was plenty. But ministers who were involved in the discussions said the turmoil offers an opening that should not go to waste.

"Part of the goal is political" for the activism, the story reports: an attempt to refocus attention away from the street crimes and back onto police conduct. The Times also quotes a minister saying bluntly that he wanted to help the city's prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, who has promised to address the police issue.

But what other goals have been set? Simple calm? Spiritual peace? Reconciliation? The story meanders through other facets but doesn't spell them out as strongly.

I'd also like to know how much the ministers may be coordinating with each other. CNN quotes Jamal Bryant saying that the Nation of Islam was helping Christians form lines across city streets in an effort to contain the rioting.  Would have been interesting to get an interview with the local Nation leader.

The Times doesn't take a blue-sky approach; it admits that success for these street chaplains has been spotty:

Baltimore’s self-appointed peacekeepers were not successful in the initial hours of unrest, when rioters looted stores, burned buildings and injured more than a dozen police officers, some of them seriously. But in the following days, they were more effective in restraining violence than clergy members and civil rights leaders in Ferguson, who had troubles cohering in the first few days and struggled to calm violent demonstrators.

Pictures as well as words tell the story in this account. An evocative photo essay shows nine residents -- mostly black, various ages -- who gathered by that CVS drugstore that was looted. They give various thoughts on the violence:

* "I’m shocked. I lived here all my life. The police stood in a line and let them loot the CVS."

* "I’m a medical student, and we have been organizing to get people out here for medical coverage in case something happens."

* "I’m here to advocate for my students’ rights. I teach at the Baltimore Design School."

* "This my neighborhood. They tore our neighborhood up."

Refreshingly, the Times also quotes one of the volunteer street chaplains: "We’ve come to this corner to stop and pray for this city. We need power beyond us to help, and we believe that only God can do this."

At a time when so many people are pointing fingers and guns alike, clasping hands to pray instead sounds like a great alternative. Kudos to the Times for presenting this other side of the news.

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