Just hours before Baltimore went upside down, the Rev. Lisa Weah prayed at Freddie Gray’s funeral “that Baltimore will be a model of how to move forward and to be better than what we’ve been.” After many more rich words that fed the soul and fired the resolve Monday, we went out into the great unknown hoping for a miracle.
But a nightmare had been unfolding even as we heard such inspiring words from the Rev. Jamal Bryant, who was anointed by no less than the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. as a worthy standard bearer in these times; from Billy Murphy, the lawyer who claimed he did not know how to preach but set the house afire anyway; from Rep. Elijah Cummings; and from Jackson himself. The Baltimore Police Department had sent word out that law enforcement personnel were being threatened by a frightening coalition of Crips, Bloods and the Black Guerrilla Family. About the same time, someone sent word out to school-age Baltimoreans to meet at the Mondawmin Mall for a “purge.”
So even before Freddie Gray’s casket was lowered into the ground at Woodlawn, we were upside down. Not only was Freddie dead, but so, too, were hopes for the miracle of peace before justice. The prophetic words of so many speakers did come true, though for reasons unwanted.
“The eyes of this country are all upon us because they want to see whether we’ve got the stuff to make this right,” Murphy said. “The whole world is watching,” Jackson echoed.
Indeed Baltimore is in the spotlight, but because of mindless marauders who struck in the hours after Freddie Gray’s funeral, diverting attention from what should be the focus. As Jackson said in calling a new generation to the way of nonviolence: “Violence distracts, divides and there is no remedy in violence.” Rather than jobs and justice, he said, the focus becomes brick and window.
But those in the purging mood were obviously not in the pews of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, where the rich words of Bryant depicted a too-heroic Freddie Gray, unfortunately signaling that the real Freddie may be replaced by a more perfect Maumau warrior image. We don’t need to go that far in the service of a social justice movement. As Murphy said in his sermonette before the eulogy: “Most of us are not here because we knew Freddie Gray. But we all are here because we know lots of Freddie Grays.” We don’t need a perfect Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. to sustain demands for answers in his case and so many others. We must not be distracted by attempts to drag up every unwise decision he made in his too-short life. Nor by the misdirected anger of the marauders.
While an immediate issue is reclaiming this city from the rioters and the cavalry sent in by Gov. Hogan, early signs of cooperation among clergy of many faiths, politicians and even gang members is promising. And after that? What is the road ahead? Murphy has a list of reforms that include body cameras for police officers, the establishment of a permanent special prosecutor for police matters and recruitment of more Black and Brown police officers who live in the city. Michael Eric Dyson, the Georgetown University professor and author, is among those who point to political involvement. “This is not a passive act,” he told Sean Yoes of WEAA-88.9 FM after the funeral. “Politics is an extremely and aggressively engaged performance of our citizenship identity. So folks have got to see: This ain’t something we do every four years or every off year. This is something we’ve got to be involved in daily. If we do that, we can alter the trajectory of justice for us in the cities.”
Being a man of the cloth, he would no doubt add prayer, as Murphy did.
Some nights before, at a gathering at the Sharon Baptist Church, not too far from where Freddie Gray spent his last moments of freedom, many prayers were lifted heavenward on the wings of a secular action plan in the making. One not yet finalized but likely to include what Murphy and Dyson are saying. They had come “not to protest but to have prayer,” as the Rev. Errol Gilliard said. But make no mistake: the anger and frustration in the church was no less palpable if more subtly conveyed than that being articulated by the marchers in the streets. In their prayers, however, they snuck in subtle digs at others not present who they thought were hogging the limelight.
Herding sixth grade boys is probably easier than reining the egos of a city full of ministers of the gospel. But since the infrastructure for leadership among Black Baltimoreans lies in the gazillion houses of worship this city has, someone must at least try. And that sleeping giant — the faith community — must sync its efforts with secular players in politics, academe and the financial world, as well as with the legacy civil rights organizations and the relative newcomers whose flyers are popping up at prayer vigils and rallies.
After Monday’s mayhem, there’s a whole lot of talking going on.
“We will get through this mess,” the dean of preachers in Baltimore, the Rev. A.C.D. Vaughn has assured.
But that was days before the rich words spoken over the casket of Freddie Gray at New Shiloh and before Baltimore turned upside down when kids began to “purge” us of our hopes for peace before justice.
E.R. Shipp is associate professor and journalist in residence of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication