BALTIMORE — The mysterious death of Freddie Gray due to spine and throat injuries allegedly sustained while in police custody has roiled the city of Baltimore. A week of peaceful protests since the 25-year-old black man’s April 19 death were followed by the first outbreak of riots since 1968 on the afternoon of Gray’s funeral — a day that protest leaders and Gray’s family had called to be demonstration-free.
The outrage surrounding Gray’s death has laid bare festering wounds suffered by the African-American community, ranging from crushing poverty and fatherlessness (according to Forbes, in the area of West Baltimore, where the riots took place, median household incomes hug the poverty line, and 78% of births are to unmarried mothers), gang violence and other crime, as well as recent police brutality cases, for which the city has paid out nearly $6 million over the past four years in compensation. But unlike Ferguson, Mo., where similar riots took place, Baltimore’s city leadership is largely African-American and so is close to half the police force.
In the middle of the volatile situation, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori has called for the nation’s Catholics to pray the Rosary for the beleaguered city. In this interview with the Register, he explains that, for peace to happen, bridges must be built, problems must be courageously examined and addressed in their entirety, and the religious leaders of Baltimore must have a seat at the table.
Archbishop Lori, what do you think of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore and send in the National Guard?
It’s really not for me to second-guess all of these decisions. It seems to me that it is very important that order be restored. I think about the people, who are residents of Baltimore, who have suffered physical harm, have lost their homes and businesses, their cars and other possessions. It is really hard to have a constructive dialogue when chaos and disorder reigns in the streets.
Certainly, we can understand there may be people who feel that is the only avenue left; that no one has listened to them for a long, long time. But at the same time, in order to have that dialogue — and we do need to have it — it is important that public safety be maintained.
What actions has the archdiocese taken to intervene in the situation? Have Catholic pastors and churches been joining other religious leaders in taking action to restore calm and call for justice?
Very much so. We have a lot of parishes in the city. The pastors live in the city and are very much of the community — they have been involved in ecumenical and interfaith calls for calm and for dialogue. They’ve been involved in the early efforts to clean up in the aftermath of the violence over the weekend and [Monday] night. They are, of course, all over the city having prayer services and Masses — I’ll be celebrating Mass at St. Peter Claver Church this coming Sunday at 10:30. It is the mother church of the African-American community in Baltimore.
In addition to that, our Catholic social services have a massive presence in the city, and that has not closed. It has been working right through all of this. So there have been many, many forms of outreach. There’s always been a big presence, but it really has intensified.
Does the city’s African-American community have legitimate grievances with policing in Baltimore?
That’s probably a complex question, but I think, certainly, the relationship has been strained and difficult for many, many years. … I think there are legitimate grievances, and it is important that they be addressed. There are systemic problems that need to be addressed.
African-Americans have noted with frustration that it seems only when violence erupts that significant attention gets paid to police brutality in their communities. What can be done nonviolently to keep the attention focused on this issue?
Well, back in January, there was an interfaith prayer service, and the mayor was there, and the outgoing governor was there. And it fell to me to be the homilist; and on that occasion, I spoke of building relationships, building bridges — it is absolutely important that we build relationships between the police and local communities. Baltimore is very much a city of neighborhoods, and so is the epicenter here known as Sandtown-Winchester: That includes folks who are community organizers, pastors, businesspeople, those who provide social services, educators and a good spot for those who are just trying to raise their families there.
We also have to do things such as are being done in places like Brooklyn, where we reach out to the leaders of the gangs. There are a lot of gangs, a lot of drugs in Baltimore, and it is very important that we try to do that. It is difficult — I’m not an expert in how to do it; I just know it needs to be done.
The third thing is getting young people back into families. It’s very, very important. The youth of Baltimore are being raised by grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who are heroic. But it is so important to have a family structure and to build bridges there; and to build bridges to bridge families with educators, coaches and people like that. I think it is important for political leaders as well to be engaged, not just when there are difficulties, or when there’s a ribbon to be cut or a new center to be opened: It is important that conversation be going on constantly.
Media accounts suggest Freddie Gray’s death was a consequence of unjustifiable police violence. How disturbing is it to you that an incident of this nature has occurred within your own archdiocese, in the wake of earlier events that took place in Ferguson, North Charleston and elsewhere in the nation?
As I watched the events in Ferguson unfold, I couldn’t help but think that we were a candidate for that very thing. I talked about it a lot with folks in the community, and so it is very disturbing. It is very disturbing that, in 2015, race, skin color is still a factor here — and yet it is, it undeniably is, even though the leadership of the city is African-American. Nonetheless, that in and of itself does not bring justice deep into the community. So I think it is important to realize we have a long way to go there.
How can there be hope for peace and justice in Baltimore if the community, particularly the African-American community, has no confidence that the police are able to keep the peace?
First of all, in this case — and I don’t want to contradict the Gospel — but in this case, “seeing is believing.” And it seems to me that if we restore order, and start to construct a dialogue, that would be welcome in a lot of quarters, and that could be the best possible outcome of this otherwise tragic event. Building bridges takes time and patience. It doesn’t work the first few times you do it, but I think we have to be a lot more persistent — and we have been — in building these bridges. I think they have to span the ecumenical and interfaith divide, and they have to include all the stakeholders in our community.
Let me also say this: At this tragic hour, the role of religious communities in achieving and working together for the common good could not have been clearer. Where would Baltimore be without its religious communities right now? And what a leaven it is for reasonableness and for peace, and it seems to me to be an argument in and of itself for letting churches and religious institutions to have the freedoms to do their ministries.
What are some of the other underlying issues behind the recent outbreak of violence that the Church is able to address?
A lot of things. Certainly, one of them, is, in spite of all the money being spent on education, many of our schools remain underperforming. There is a lack of school choice, being blocked by one or two very powerful people in the state. It has broad, broad support in Baltimore City: Parents would really love to have educational choice, but it is being blocked by special interests.
There is also the lack of adequate housing. If you drive through some of our neighborhoods, as I do often in West Baltimore and East Baltimore, it breaks your heart to see these row houses that “must be held up by hand,” I think. Another thing to think about is drugs and gangs, which are huge, huge problems in the city.
So there are multiple problems, and no amount of grandstanding and political posturing is going to take care of this. It requires people who have been around the table, who have good will and competencies, and are willing to take the risk to build bridges and begin pushing back the frontiers of evil.
How does the Church plan in Baltimore to act and refocus the conversation, so that the discussion does not end up being about the riots and nothing else?
The Church is a catalyst. We are not the government; we are not the police; we are not a political organization. We are Church: Our job is to bear witness to the Gospel and the beatitudes. Our job is to bear witness to Christ and to bring forth his holiness and to help our congregations to be that leaven in society. Pope Benedict stressed that, Pope Francis stresses it, and I’m stressing it. That is first and foremost our job. And, secondly, because we’re raising up communities that are filled with Gospel values and strengthened by the sacraments, we ought to be equipped to be a catalyst in our community to help encourage and foment these kinds of constructive conversations and projects that are going to make a difference.
Let me also say this: We don’t just take policy positions. We don’t take political positions; we take Gospel positions, and we back them up with action. We’re educating kids successfully who come from disadvantaged neighborhoods, and we’re doing social services on a massive scale in the city far greater than what our numbers suggest. It is not enough to say, “Oh, human dignity, peace, love” — we’re working out in that community every day, whether it is Head Start after school or community schools; whether it is counseling, drugs, immigration services, family services — we’re out there doing our best every day. I think that gives us a seat at the table, don’t you?
What is the Church calling for when it calls for peace and justice in Baltimore?
We are calling for a lot of things at once: We’re calling for a much better and more just relationship between the police and the community. We’re also calling for an end to violence within the community itself. We’re also calling for an end to the conditions that foment violence, and we’re also calling to an end to the hostilities that are producing injustice in our community that is just heartbreaking.
What can Catholics do in this situation? How can we all respond to what the Church of Baltimore needs from all of us during this time?
Let me suggest one thing that all of your readers can do: And that is to say a Rosary for peace and justice in Baltimore. What could be more simple? The Rosary has done wonders throughout Christian history. Why not enlist our Blessed Mother’s help again? So a Rosary for justice and peace in Baltimore. I would be so grateful to anyone who encounters this interview in any way and can give me 15 minutes in prayer. What a difference that would make.
I think we need to do this together as a community: to pray, to support one another and to have the courage to go out in the community, to clean up and to be a force for order and understanding.
Thirdly, I can tell you that we are ready and willing to get to the table and be ready and willing to work for a better day.
Thank you so much, Archbishop Lori. Is there anything else you would like to highlight as the last word?
I’ve been in Baltimore now for three years, starting my fourth. I love the city very, very deeply. I love the archdiocese very, very deeply. This breaks my heart, but it gives me redoubled determination to do what can be done as a Church to do things better. Baltimore is a beautiful city; it has wonderful people; it has a heart. It is struggling to make progress, and I hope the people continue to do so.
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.