The small, unusual congregation that met in Bethel AME Church’s grand sanctuary Wednesday night held hands and locked arms tightly as they prayed. Their own survival, it seemed, was at stake.
The pews of the stately, 235-year-old Marble Hill church held clusters of people who normally never come together. Middle-aged and senior Bethel members in one row. Christian clergy from other parts of Baltimore in another. Nation of Islam members in another. Rows of young gang members seated along the side.
The Rev. Frank Reid III, Bethel’s pastor and the son and grandson of AME bishops, had called the service and meeting of about 60 people. “I want,” he said from the front of the sanctuary, “to start a dialogue.”
The night embodied a painful truth about one of American Christianity’s most historically rich cities: To some residents, Baltimore’s churches have lost their place.
It’s said that Baltimore is a city with a church on every corner. But in some neighborhoods today — including the one at the epicenter of recent protests and rioting — many of those churches have been boarded up. Some say they feel church leaders stay inside their buildings too much, focused on internal affairs, even as desperate residents pace the sidewalks outside.
But with agonizing poverty, crime and hopelessness in parts of Baltimore broadcast to the world in recent weeks through protests and violent riots after the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, who had been injured in police custody, some see fuel for rebirth in the city’s faith foundation.
“These are the first candid conversations clergy in Baltimore have had together in years. In years,” Jules Dunham-Howie, an elder at Bethel, said earlier Wednesday as she sat on the white marble steps of her rowhouse. Beside her, her neighbor, a lifelong resident of the block, nodded. “I believe these clergy are starting to open their eyes.”
At town hall meetings, protest sites and in public and private conversations in recent weeks, many have described city churches as too often absent from the front lines of poverty in recent years. Young people, they say, see many clergy as corrupt and lacking credibility.
Longtime residents, clergy and academic scholars of the city say the church’s authority has been harmed by several factors. They include the suburban exodus in the 1980s and 1990s of many middle-class and more educated residents, a general national secularization and a longtime culture of tribalism that flared when Baltimore’s economy fell on hard times.
It’s not clear that Baltimore youths are less affiliated or less religious than youths elsewhere; data on that is unavailable. Overall, Baltimore is religiously diverse, with large black Protestant, Catholic and Jewish populations.
Many residents were moved Monday night, after violent protests, to see dozens of clergy locking arms and marching, then dropping to their knees amid broken glass with gang members and praying.
“They were highly credible Monday,” Dunham-Howie said.
In Bible study class earlier Wednesday, Dunham-Howie recalled, Reid told the story of how, after Monday’s violence, a few clergy and gang members who appeared to be strangers stayed together for hours, talking. Reid realized that he had baptized one of them as a child — but they hadn’t seen one another since.
“I felt like a failure. We had this young man! How did we lose him?” Reid said in an interview in his study Wednesday. “But then I realized: It wasn’t my failure, or the church’s. It was the failure of the institutions in the United States and in Baltimore. Poor education, no jobs, family issues. It is the failure of the institutions in this city and in this nation to provide opportunities for people who have done nothing wrong but having had the misfortune of being born in the wrong Zip code.”
However the feeling that institutional religion has often failed the disenfranchised has spawned a movement of start-up churches, mostly evangelical, whose pastors see U.S. cities as a mission field.
Baltimore has attracted many like this, among them Joel Kurz, a white Southern Baptist pastor from Akron who in 2008 moved with his wife to Upton, a struggling neighborhood near the scene of Monday’s rioting. Their Garden Church has about 80 members, no building and a focus on “relationship” rather than programs.
Kurz and other church leaders this week walked around the rioting area, helping to clean up damaged businesses and striking up conversations with the hundreds of people hanging around the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues.
“Baltimore is a really ‘churched’ city — everyone was in a church at some point, but now many people are embittered. Not to God, but to the church,” he said.
If some see the institutional church as too absent on Baltimore’s streets, God certainly wasn’t this week.
By Wednesday, the intersection of Pennsylvania and North — the epicenter of the protests this week — looked like a spiritual bazaar. Multiple street preachers with electrical amplification competed for audience. On one corner Salvation Army ministers in crisp uniforms passed out sandwiches and water. On another sat the huge, gleaming black truck of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, which housed 11 blue-windbreakered chaplains from around the country.
“Civil unrest is a new area for us,” said Mike Mattingly of Charlotte, who had just come from Illinois where he ministered to people whose area had been hit by a tornado.
People in crisis are more receptive to the Gospel, he said.
“They’re hurt. They’re looking for something,” he said. In Baltimore, he’s hearing “the frustration: No jobs. People don’t listen to us. People don’t care about us.”
A man in tears walked past the trailer, supported on either side by two chaplains.
A few minutes later, Montrel Haygood, a 27-year-old seminarian from Atlanta who works with Kurz, met and immediately began ministering to a tall, 30-something man who looked devastated and told Haygood he was despondent because of family and economic problems. The men spoke with their faces very close under the awning of a closed-down beauty supply shop, across the street from a CVS that was torched Monday. The words of the street preachers boomed and overlapped nearby.
“I just tried to encourage him,” Haygood said.
In the mix on the street Wednesday was Nathan Lee, a 27-year-old pastor who grew up in the same housing project as Gray and now preaches a few blocks from the CVS intersection. The church has failed the city “because of sin,” he said.
“We’ve stayed to ourselves because nobody wanted to confront one another honestly about what has been happening” in recent years. “Young people don’t want to hear about God because they see [pastors] only there for the TV or for the money. They see the church not speaking out, they see the sin in not confronting. It takes something like this to wake us up.”