Weeping for Baltimore: A statement by Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton

Weep and pray for Baltimore. Violence never works. Ever.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Weep and pray for Baltimore.  Violence never works.  Ever.

Today we need to mourn. The City of Baltimore in many of its parts is burning. Righteous anger over the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured while in Baltimore City Police custody and later died, has turned into a destructive anger that is destroying the fabric of many of our communities. Schools and businesses have been closed, and many of its citizens are afraid to go out into its neighborhoods. We are in an official State of Emergency, but we are also in an unofficial State of Despair.

Sometimes the most healing thing you can do in a state of despair is to allow yourself the freedom and the dignity to cry. Jesus did. The shortest verse in the New Testament is John 11:35, when our Lord went to the tomb of his good friend Lazarus, the verse says simply, “Jesus wept.” Apparently Jesus did that a lot, weeping not only for human beings, but for whole cities. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37) If our Lord could weep for the city of Jerusalem, then surely we can weep for our beloved city of Baltimore.

Today we also need to remember how we came to this point. Of course, all of us in Baltimore and around the world remember Freddie Gray. And we still remember Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the two unarmed black men killed last year by police officers who were not indicted for their part in their deaths.

We remember Trayvon Martin, who died unarmed from gunshot wounds two years ago. Those of us with longer memories recall Amadou Diallo, the young man immortalized in Bruce Springsteen’s haunting “American Skin (41 Shots).”

But how many of us have ever heard of Patrick Dorismund, Rekia Boyd, Orlando Barlow, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury Jr., Aaron Campbell, James Brissette, Ronald Matison, Travares McGill, Shantel Davis, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Jerrod Miller, Victor Steen, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Steven Eugene Washington, Alonzo Ashley, Wendell Allen, Ramarley Graham, Kendra James, Ervin Jefferson, Kendree McDade or Kimani Gray?  Who were they?  All were shot by police officers or security guards between 2000 and 2013. All were African American men and women, including one child, averaging just 23 years of age, and all were unarmed.

In addition to these, America was also shocked by the shooting deaths of two young African American males, John Crawford (22) and Tamir Rice (12) who were both killed while carrying toy BB guns in Ohio, an “open carry” state, in which the carrying of firearms is legal with or without a license.

“According to data stretching from 1999-2011, African Americans have comprised 26 percent of all police-shooting victims. Overall, young African Americans are killed by cops 4½ times more often than people of other races and ages.” (quote from the Daily Beast, Nov. 26, 2014)

We need to remember these statistics, because each of those black lives mattered – if not to all of us, then at least they mattered to God. Those of us who regularly attend an Episcopal church renew our baptismal vows several times a year. At the renewal, the presider asks this question: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  To which the people respond, “I will, with God’s help.” (Book of Common Prayer, pgs. 292-294) That’s one of the most difficult vows for all of us to keep in a nation that has struggled with the sin of racism since its inception.

“From the 1787 Constitutional ‘Three-fifths Compromise’ – meaning an African American was to be counted as 3/5 of a person in a census – to the legacy of lynching in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, to the continued stereotypes that blacks (especially male blacks) are essentially criminally inclined, beastly aggressive, and lacking fundamental intellectual and social qualities to merit human dignity.” (From a reflection on Ferguson by Bishop Nathan Baxter, 11/26/14)

We all know, of course, of the tragic situation of black on black violence emanating from the political and economic cages we call “inner-city ghettos” in America. In many of our communities, we have reason to be scared of some of our neighbors. But when the police – the very ones who are supposed to protect you from those predators roaming our streets are themselves the ones who are killing you – then that gives rise to rage.

Black and white citizens of good will throughout this nations are outraged that black lives seem to matter less than other lives in our communities.  We are enraged that we have to have rallies and hold signs that say, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

The dream of living in a community where justice and peace prevails has been seriously tested here in Baltimore for the last two weeks, and particularly with yesterday’s violence. That dream has been deferred for far too long. In Langston Hughes’ famous poem, he writes:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Last night, the deferred dream exploded in Baltimore, and it’s going to take a long time to get it back. We need to constantly, diligently and faithfully keep the dream alive, especially for those who cannot see it right now. I want so desperately to say this to all those young people who are wondering whether or not to take to the streets today: “Don’t kindle buildings. Kindle dreams.”

In the final analysis that’s why it’s so important that we gather together. We need to each other in order to make a difference in our city.

Last night I had a long conversation with a reporter who kept asking me this question: “Who is the leader of the black community in Baltimore?  Who’s the one whom angry youth listen to?” The reporter couldn’t understand my reticence to answer her question with one short answer. I gave her names of some prominent pastors in the city, of course, but the point I was trying to get across to her is that there is no single person or one church or one religious group or organization that’s going to get the job done of reaching out and capturing the hearts and minds of all toward healing and peace – thank God.

I told her of the efforts of hundreds of unsung heroes who are leaders in their own right…

…the mother who verbally reprimanded and physically moved her grown up son away from the violence and looting at Mondawmin Mall.

…the small business owner who is determined to rebuild her business from the burnt ashes, not only for herself and her family, but to provide jobs in the community.

…the unnamed woman who at 5:00 am this morning was sweeping up the litter on North Avenue, which sparked others to do the same thing.

…the pastor who chooses to commit himself to serving in an impoverished area to uplift dispirited souls.

…the tiny congregation who feeds many times the number of its members so that poor families can have at least one hot, healthy meal that day.

…the beleaguered police officer under attack for just trying to do his job of protecting innocent people from looters and rioters, and the firefighter who has a brick thrown at her trying to save somebody’s business and somebody’s home.

All unsung, ordinary men and women – and all of them leaders.

My brothers and sisters, don’t expect me or anybody else to be the savior of this situation we find ourselves in today.  I am not a savior…but I serve a Savior.  My Savior is not afraid to weep, not afraid to get angry, not afraid to say and do the right thing because it’s hard, not afraid of anyone or any neighborhood – and not afraid of fear. He is strong to save because he’s strong in love, and my Lord God came down from heaven in human form to show us His children the way.

When Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will rejoice,” he gave us a great gift. Our tears today are going to fuel our tomorrows. Baltimore weeps today, but that’s just a prelude to what we’re going to do tomorrow and every day for the rest of our lives: we are going to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get to the work of striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of EVERY HUMAN BEING.

So, weep, pray for and rebuild Baltimore. Violence never works. Ever. Amen.

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