It’s no secret that Baltimore faces multifaceted challenges with respect to healing relationships between police and local communities. On May 3, Baylor University hosted an event called, “Violence, Faith, and Policing in Baltimore” to address these challenges and discuss unique opportunities for reconciliation in Baltimore. Reverend Dr. Sheridan Todd Yeary, Senior Pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore posed this question to other panel members at the event: “What is God calling us to do in this moment to heal this environment that calls for creative policing?” Then he posited: “There are going to be challenges, but if we have a shared aspirational vision, then faith and community policing [can be part of the solution].” There is something essential about the role of faith in captivating imaginations and catalyzing innovative thinking to address complex challenges.
Faith leaders in Baltimore need to come together to support the police in cultivating positive relationships with the residents of Baltimore neighborhoods. The advancement of public justice requires government, as well as civil society organizations — faith communities, neighborhood groups, civic associations — to work together towards community restoration. Rather than providing definitive, empirical findings on the role of faith-based organizations in partnering with both local community members and police, the event is a part of a much bigger conversation that is only starting to unfold.
Police Commissioner Davis recounted the months following Freddie Gray’s death as a time when he took a posture of openness and sought to partner with faith and community leaders. Commissioner Davis was and still is asking, “How [can we] involve the faith community in a creative way?” Commissioner Davis further explained: “We [the people of Baltimore] had to endure the criminal trials of six police officers. … The City still is very anxious … [in one incident of unrest] I knew I needed some help and I called Pastor Yeary and he was there in minutes…” Commissioner Davis thoughtfully reflected that the police response in Baltimore had shifted from “imposing its will” on communities to “improving its will” within communities.
Police Commissioner Davis noted that a both/and, all-hands-on-deck approach to restoring trust between police and communities in Baltimore is necessary. Instead of asking whether the federal government or faith communities should be the ones collaborating with police officers to restore goodwill between law enforcement and the community, Commissioner Davis highlighted the importance of intervention from both faith communities and the Department of Justice.
Over the last several decades, the gap has widened between communities and the police department. Now the Baltimore Police Department, according to Davis, is constantly asking, “How do we police communities consistent with their values and not our values?” He explained, there is a “philosophical agreement that we have to police differently, which [involves] the faith community.” There are 2,000 churches in Baltimore that already serve as vital resources for community restoration. Commissioner Davis also explained that Baltimore is also “the forty-first or forty-second city to enter into consent decree with the Department of Justice. Sometimes when you are stuck, you need a helping hand from an external source, whether from the faith community or the DOJ.”
We need to have the proper context for understanding the right role and responsibilities of police in relationship with other community partners. Rev. Yeary emphasized that one way we can do this is by discussing openly what the environment is like in Baltimore neighborhoods. When we understand the structural and environmental factors underlying these challenges, we can better address the symptoms of broken relationships between police and community members. Filled with hope and reflections on creative ways faith leaders, neighborhood members, and police could come together, Yeary urged, “Let’s talk from a creative aspirational place, not as if helplessness has become our new norm.”
Archbishop Lori’s words echoed the same sentiment, emphasizing the importance of his relationships with Commissioner Davis and his “ecumenical and interfaith colleagues in Baltimore.” These panelists acknowledge that the pursuit of public justice requires governmental actors to form partnerships with faith-based and community groups.
However, the faith community needs to ask how they can contribute. Archbishop Lori described how, “In 2015 when the unrest took place, [it] pulled back the curtain on deep systemic problems that have been allowed to flourish in Baltimore.” Yet love emerged amidst the chaos as neighbors came out with their brooms and tools to begin rebuilding the community, literally and metaphorically. Lori explained, “Having faith communities in every neighborhood is a readymade source of strength that needs to be built upon as we think about social construction.”
Baltimore has a large and flourishing Catholic civil society presence with the third largest Catholic Charities in U.S., although Baltimore is nowhere near the third largest city. With respect to the many Catholic providers in the city, from St. Vincent DePaul to Catholic hospitals, Archbishop Lori noted, “We have been working very hard not to be siloed, but to create a network for people, if you need one social service, you probably need three. Community health, behavioral health, [everything]. Caroline House is doing job training to get folks trained as nursing assistants. The oldest Catholic high school in the nation, St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, as people come out of jail, the high school has really been helping in a program to reintroduce them to society by renovating the school, very real and close to the ground.”
Archbishop Lori continued to emphasize how local faith communities are so imperative, and how they are directly connected to their freedom to serve on a distinctive, faith basis. Faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities and other Catholic providers have been working hard to create a network of people. Archbishop Lori’s vision for Baltimore is not for more these organizations to be “siloed,” but to be deeply connected with the community in order to provide social services. “If you need one [social service] you probably need three,” he reasons. Faith communities and organizations are “close to the ground” as Archbishop Lori puts it. The importance of local communities cannot be overstated.
On a similar note, Dr. Johnson underscored the role partnerships across difference can have in community restoration in Baltimore, “If we are ever going to tackle challenges ahead of us it has to be private/public and sacred/secular.” Rev. Yeary discussed how different groups in different spheres of life — families, neighborhoods, faith communities, governmental actors — can all come together as willing participants to contribute their unique resources to community restoration. We may not have answers, but we can be willing to participate in restorative action to help our city. From the police department, to faith communities, to community members and even the DOJ, there is a place at the table for unlikely partnerships in a city that isn’t just seeking to “Do More,” but to B’More.
-Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Strategic Engagement for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of CPJ.