Baltimore turns to religious institutions for prayer and peace

Baltimore turns to religious institutions for prayer and peace

BALTIMORE — In a pair of gestures Sunday that suggested that this riot-scarred city was staggering toward normalcy, the National Guard began to pull its troops, and the mayor lifted a curfew that, after several days of relative calm, had come under mounting criticism. “Effectively immediately, I have rescinded my

BALTIMORE — In a pair of gestures Sunday that suggested that this riot-scarred city was staggering toward normalcy, the National Guard began to pull its troops, and the mayor lifted a curfew that, after several days of relative calm, had come under mounting criticism.

“Effectively immediately, I have rescinded my order instituting a citywide curfew,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Sunday, after Baltimore had lived under a fifth consecutive night of restrictions that were imposed in the wake of violent unrest connected to the death of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries he suffered while in police custody. “My goal has always been to not have the curfew in place a single day longer than was necessary.”

Gov. Larry Hogan later said that he supported Rawlings-Blake’s decision, and he announced that the guard had started to reduce its force here.

“The mayor and I both talked and agreed that we think it’s time to get the community back to normal again,” said Hogan, who expected the military’s pullout to be complete by sometime Wednesday. “It’s been a very hard week, but we’ve kept everybody safe.”

The deployment of thousands of soldiers and the curfew, which was enforced with few exceptions between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., had been central to the peace strategy that Hogan and Rawlings-Blake stitched together in the hours after riots and looting erupted here April 27.

And as elected officials dialed back their approach to maintaining order in Maryland’s largest city, many thousands of people turned toward Baltimore’s religious institutions on what Hogan described as a “day of prayer and peace.”

“Every Sunday is important, but this Sunday is especially important as a moment for prayer and peace,” said the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, William E. Lori, who added, “We’re here to do exactly that: to pray for peace, for justice and for reconciliation.”

But at other gatherings across Baltimore, there were also plain signals of the divisions that appeared likely to endure.

At the Empowerment Temple, a predominantly African-American megachurch, the Rev. Jamal Bryant broached a number of subjects that underscored the controversy that is likely to shadow the criminal cases against the six police officers who were charged Friday in connection with Gray’s death.

Bryant reminded his congregants that the charges against the officers, all of whom have been released on bond, did not equate to convictions. He cited the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager in Florida who was shot by a Hispanic man, George Zimmerman. Although Zimmerman later faced prosecution, he was ultimately acquitted.

“George Zimmerman went to court, and right now he’s at Disney World,” Bryant said. “So right now we’ve got to pray.”

Bryant has been a central figure in the drama that has engulfed the city over the past several weeks. He delivered the eulogy for Gray and publicly exhorted black residents to work to improve the city in the wake of his death. His church also raised the money to cover Gray’s funeral costs.

On Sunday, the pastor pointedly criticized the governor, accusing him of helping to smother a number of bills introduced earlier this year that supporters, including Rawlings-Blake, said would have increased police accountability in Maryland. Bryant also asked rhetorically whether the governor would have sent troops into Baltimore if the mayor had been white.

“They’re trying to offer a subliminal message that we don’t know how to govern, that we don’t know how to deal policy, that we don’t know how to put stuff into control,” he shouted as the congregants shouted and clapped their assent.

At a quieter moment, Bryant asked that prayers be offered for the families of the six police officers who have been charged in Gray’s death. And he asked those assembled to embrace one another and “tell them that this is going to be a better week for our city.”

The service at Bethel A.M.E. Church also concentrated heavily on politics while two former Baltimore mayors, Sheila Dixon and Martin O’Malley, sat among the churchgoers.

There, the Rev. Frank Reid III roused the congregation to its feet with a sermon about voter registration and exercising political muscle to reform the justice system and the police. He described last year’s election of Marilyn J. Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, who pursued charges against the officers in Gray’s case, as evidence that government can change.

“The process will work if you work it,” said Reid, who had shed his clerical collar for a T-shirt that read “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

Other congregations in this wounded city sought solace through sacraments and sometimes somber conversations. Near Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore, for instance, the church’s associate rector facilitated a forum for a few dozen parishioners to discuss the events of the past week.

And at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, where Lori spoke to a racially mixed crowd that included Hogan, the archbishop sought to frame Gray and his April 19 death in terms of the church and the broader community.

“Freddie Gray was your neighbor, and his family members continue to be your neighbors,” the archbishop said. “On this Sunday following his funeral, we remember him. Freddie Gray was not merely a symbol, but a real person. He was beset by the challenges that face many, many young people in this city every day.”

A protest outside City Hall on Sunday afternoon carried a decidedly religious bent, and two men carried large wooden crosses along the edge of the crowd. An older man walked slowly though the crowd with a portrait of Jesus Christ, and a group of nuns gathered in the shade before the demonstration began.

It drew people from an array of religious backgrounds, including Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, Maryland, who led the crowd through a command from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

“Just because there’s no more curfew, does that mean we have justice?” the rabbi asked the crowd, which roared “No!”

At the same rally, Bryant asked his audience to clasp hands with others and to raise them.

“We are declaring victory,” he said, “victory over a corrupt police department.”

Elsewhere in the city, Baltimore residents heard the news that the curfew had been lifted, and prepared to resume the more familiar rhythms of their lives. Employees at bars and restaurants, in particular, rejoiced, and offered specials and discounts to attract customers. De Kleine Duivel, a Belgian beer and cocktail bar, staged an all-day happy hour.

In the hours before sundown, businessmen like Liam Flynn, who owns an ale house, prepared for Sunday night crowds.

“I think people will come out to celebrate,” he said. “I’m very happy it ended because a lot of businesses and residents were getting pretty mad about it and getting involved in civil disobedience to push the issue of lifting it.”

In Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, a group of mostly white protesters held a silent demonstration Saturday night to draw attention to what many here said was unequal enforcement of the curfew across the city. Other critics noted that the curfew had harmed the economic fortunes of businesses that were otherwise untouched by the tumult.

But when Rawlings-Blake announced the end of the curfew, she defended her decision last week to order the restrictions that appeared to help quell the violence but led to many of the hundreds of arrests here in recent days.

“My No. 1 priority in instituting a curfew was to ensure the public peace, safety, health, and welfare of Baltimore citizens,” she said. “It was not an easy decision, but one I felt was necessary to help our city restore calm.”

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