I walked through ash and glass as neighbors and community members swept up the remnants of our neighborhood. The night before, flames touched sky in all corners of our city as news and police helicopters hovered overhead. The city was Los Angeles. The year was 1992, and it was the third day after the police who beat Rodney King were acquitted by an overwhelmingly white jury in Simi Valley.
That was the day I was introduced to the words of Jeremiah 29:7: “But seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace.”
On Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a citywide curfew to quell violence that erupted in Monument City following the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Gray died a week after sustaining a nearly severed spinal cord after being detained by police on April 12. The reason for the stop? Gray ran after making eye contact with police. An investigation is ongoing — while the people of Baltimore and beyond demand justice.
The images of fires rising over the Baltimore landscape were eerie, as it was only a few months ago that the nation sat glued to television sets watching the small town of Ferguson, Mo., erupt. And I fear we are becoming numb to it. We turn the TV on to watch our favorite reality show. We see chanting, running black people, and we think: again? Then we turn back to The Voice.
But what if God is trying to get our attention? What if God is seeking the peace of the ones Jesus called “the least of these” in Matthew 25? And what if God is moving videographers into position to record flashpoints of injustice so that we all might be pushed out of our virtual realities to see — finally — that something really is gravely wrong? Black bodies still bear the brunt of structural and systemic oppression.
So, how do we turn off the television and seek the peace of the city?
In a speech, titled “The Other America,” delivered at Grosse Pointe High School in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
I don’t condone violence in any form, but we must understand the source of the riot’s fire this time if we have any hope to dismantle its tinder before the next one.
In a Baltimore Sun report, a common story unfolds. In 2010 the Gray family settled a lawsuit against their landlord who had refused to clean up chipped lead paint that riddled the Gray home. Lead poisoning can cause delayed development in children; Freddie Gray’s blood test showed he exceeded the threshold for lead poisoning.
As Freddie Gray’s story goes on, it reveals other common tinder mounted on the backs of the disenfranchised: a single parent who manages more daily stresses than the average middle class family with a small fraction of the resources; a mother who used heroin to anesthetize her own deep pain; an under-resourced education system; and men and boys, like Freddie, who have seen the insides of jail cells three, four, and five times before their 16th birthday for nonviolent offenses, because of an unspoken societal expectation that law enforcement will contain and control the outcomes of poverty’s chaos while we evade responsibility to end it.
“The voices of poor communities are not taken seriously by city officials,” Pastor Joshua Smith, community activist and intentional living pastor of Gallery Church, told Sojourners. “City officials are building up downtown and Inner Harbor, not poor or mixed income neighborhoods.”
These are the bone-dry logs, twigs, and kindling stacked high in every corner of impoverished neighborhoods.
We must listen to the language of the riot.
In a recent online conversation, Dr. Daniel White Hodge, Director of Center for Youth Ministry Studies and Assistant Professor of Youth Culture at North Park University in Chicago, interpreted the cries of Monday’s riot: “Baltimore reflects the [deep-seated] failure of the system on a people group that has finally said, ‘We can’t take this shit no more!’”
Baltimore’s clergy are listening: Throughout Tuesday and late into the evening, faith communities gathered for town hall meetings and behind-the-scenes strategy sessions. Trainings in nonviolent resistance and voter registration are planned across the city, and Sojourners is facilitating a faith-rooted organizing training for a diverse network of Baltimore clergy this Saturday, hosted by Gallery Church.
A broad interfaith coalition of faith leaders is planning a major march on Sunday. Congregations are designating their spaces as “safe harbor churches.” The church in Baltimore is being the church.
“My hope,” Pastor Smith said, “is that all of this will catalyze grassroots organizers in poor neighborhoods across the city to work toward sustainable change.”
“Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you,” said God through the prophet, Jeremiah.
Then a little later in the text God offers this promise to the people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your peace and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Join us in prayer for Baltimore and every city where the dry logs of injustice continue to mount. May communities of faith seek the peace of their city and may God give our cities, our suburbs, and our nation a future with hope.
Let us pray for the end of the fires, and the end of “next times.”
Lisa Sharon Harper is Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.