The Rev. Louis Wilson, who grew up in the Chicago area, rioted as a teenager during the protests around the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Now he serves as a pastor of New Song Community Church, a Presbyterian Church of America congregation about two blocks from where Freddie Gray arrest site. He spoke to The Post on whether Baltimore’s religious leaders have influence and how Christians can navigate the tension between justice and peace. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about the influence that the religious community has in Baltimore?
I don’t think we have the influence that we think we do or that we had historically as an African American community. Someone might contest that. I remember a time that if the church had stood up and said peace, that’s what the community would have done. In that sense, we have not done justice towards reaching our young men in the last 20 years, so we don’t have authority over them.
Overall, the church in America doesn’t have the influence it had 20 years ago or 10 years ago. In that sense, it’s no different than any other community. The church has done a poor job in reaching people.
Who do you think has the potential to create change?
A lot of people who are getting attention don’t live here, and their churches aren’t here. When a lot of meetings are called, I can count on my hand people who live here who have invested their life in the community.
I think we need to reclaim the “moral high ground” in our community. Once the verdict is in and the media is gone, the people who are here will still have to deal with the problems. Later this week, we will host a small group to start an enduring community, a civic and community partnership that strives to have workable, sustainable solutions to address the issues of Baltimore.
We need an ongoing effort to be proactive before these events occur to frame a relationship. There has been negligence. There also needs to be a transformation in those systems and in our community. It takes respect and relationships. That’s basic marriage counseling. When you have mutual respect, you have relationships that lead to restoration. You have to have all three of those — respect, relationships and restoration — working together.
How do you see Baltimore’s religious leadership compare to other cities?
I was born and raised in Englewood on the streets in Chicago. Every city’s religious community is different because it has its own culture. It has its own way of doing things. I would think Chicago has a little more ministers who are rational in their thinking and tend to have powerful voices that still speak to the community at large. They have more seasoned voices who have been through things.
I’m 61 years old. I was out there during the King riots. I knew when I was breaking the window and getting the watch, I just wanted the watch. I took the opportunity to do that. I was about 14 then. I broke windows and got away. I knew that wasn’t justice. That was wrong. Taking from someone is not justice. That’s anger. That’s vengeance.
When you don’t have that senior leadership to convey a message of peace and respect, that doesn’t demonize an institution: I can’t demonize you and still have a conversation. Chicago and New York have those preachers who have relationships with the powers that be and knew how to have a good conversation that knew how to promote a message of substantive change. I’m new, so I’m still getting a read on what the church does in any city and how effective it is.
How do you think the religious leaders have been doing to address change?
I think they are trying. The methods might be a little different. I tend not to be as visceral. I want to facilitate dialogue. I know many ministers are doing the same. There are some that tend to take a slightly different approach, that we need to indict before we dialogue. There are surely injustices and they need to be addressed. How we do that, we have to be very careful.
There are denominational and interdenominational coalitions here. I’m always reticent of being part of one. They tend to have politicized agendas. My quest, my challenge, my desire, is to see a systematic moral change within a community. I understand that we’re political beings, but at the end of the day, I need people to work out of a moral frame of reference. I don’t think it has to be a Christian frame of justice. They have to be a sense of right and wrong, whether they be Jewish or Pentecostal, whatever denominational flavor you want, if there’s a spiritual entity, hopefully it has a moral frame of reference that follows that particular group that follows them to offer to people.
How as a pastor do you consider the tension between justice and peace?
If you look at it theologically and biblically, God is a God of justice, but he’s also the prince of peace. Where there needs to be consequences, God is a God who forgives us for our sins. He has us suffer consequences for our sin. If people need to be indicted, that’s justice. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just because I practice justice, I can still practice justice in a peaceful way. Hitting me on the side of the head is not justice. Hopefully there are avenues I can take. Does that mean the law is always fair? No. in the context of that, I can’t hit you upside the head and say no I’ve got justice. That’s vengeance. I can pursue justice very aggressively and still pursue peace just as aggressively. “No justice, no peace” is not a biblical idea when we serve a God of peace and justice.