By Barbara Michelman
On any given day of the week, month, or year, self-described “teacher and a preacher” Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt is one busy man. He serves as the senior pastor of Epworth Chapel in Baltimore, Md.; he’s a professor of systematic and practical theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore; and he teaches on the adjunct faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He also leads groups of seminary students on civil rights studies of Alabama as well as invites them to participate in cultural competency immersion experiences in inner-city Baltimore neighborhoods like Sandtown, the West Baltimore community that made headlines recently because of the death of yet another black male, Freddie Gray, while in police custody.
On Monday, April 27, the day that Gray’s family held his funeral amidst unanswered questions of how he died, peaceful protests calling for justice turned violent. Rioting and looting broke out. Suddenly National Guard troops joined police to restore order. Charm City morphed into a police state.
Hunt is one of many local faith leaders who came together in the aftermath of the riots to provide immediate support to local community members. They marched peacefully through the affected streets, they prayed with community members, and they worked to provide basic necessities.
“On Tuesday, April 28, after the riots, several of our congregations opened up doors as a safe place for anyone who needed to come and be safe,” he said. He shared that others provided meals for children whose schools were closed, which denied them access to the daily free school breakfast and lunch programs. “Metropolitan UMC served over 1,500 meals on Tuesday, April 28. Other churches like Ames Memorial UMC and John Wesley UMC opened their doors to provide food, water, and other resources.”
Other churches, in partnership with the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, are continuing to provide local residents with basic toiletries and medical supplies. “Three of the places that were burned were three local CVS and Rite Aid drug stores, the only places in their neighborhoods where many people could get their medicines,” he said.
What happened in Baltimore could happen in any inner city across America, Hunt said. That’s why he’s focused on more than short-term relief. He’s determined to help create more collaboration and capacity building on the ground moving forward.
“The issues are more complex than simply racial divides,” he said. “Multiple layers and concerns go back in Baltimore over several decades. Police brutality is a very important issue, but it relates to racial inequality, economic inequality, challenges in education, etc.”
According to Hunt, conversations have started this past week between the broader religious community and social justice-focused organizations over the need to develop partnerships to address multiple layers of marginalization and oppression that exist, which have created inequities across racial economic, gender, racial, and human sexuality lines. “We need to get the Church involved in more partnerships,” he said.
One opportunity for partnership specific to the United Methodist denomination are partnerships between urban and suburban churches throughout the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference that are commited to “substantive, ongoing partnerships with inner-city churches,” he said.
“We know that there are inner-city church buildings in significant disrepair due to a lack of money. How can suburban churches be in a more sustainable relationship with inner-city churches?” he asked, so that both entities may share in ministry.
Hunt used the example of a multiracial group of United Methodist pastors, from across the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference who gathered in the aftermath of the riots to pray as the potential “spark” that could prompt increased interest among suburban churches to be in partnership across racial, socioeconomic, and geographic barriers.
These partnerships, he said, could work to dispel the narrative of what’s happening in local communities—the narrative that’s being conveyed on cable news, in social media, in live streams.
“The church has to help convey a narrative of hope, of possibility and a call for justice. The narrative is more full than what’s being conveyed on TV,” Hunt said. “There are faithful, committed, inclusive people who are on the ground. Those images you see on the 24-hour cable news channels? While they are not necessarily false, they provide a very limited snapshot of what’s really happening. When we “go into each other’s reality, we become culturally competent and sensitive.”
An example Hunt cited is a 10-day cultural competency immersion experience that he created last January for his seminary students in Sandtown, “the community now under the world’s microscope.”
Hunt described that group of 21 seminarians as very ethnically diverse; “white, black, Korean, Mexican American, female, male and from across at least four different denominations–The Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamed of.”
He took his students into the heart of the community, including a local high-poverty, high-needs elementary school, where they saw paint peeling off interior school walls—“the same type of school Freddie Gray may have attended.” While there, the seminary students talked to teachers and administrators and learned that all of the library resources and extracurricular resources were being eliminated.
“My students were troubled by that,” he said.
While other seminaries may create similar immersion experiences for their students, they often are carried out overseas, Hunt said. The cultural immersion experience that he created in Baltimore helped his students “be in relationship with people different than themselves right here at home. We can see it for ourselves, go into each other’s reality. That’s how we become culturally competent and sensitive. My students have sensitivities to the realities of the inner city that other seminary students would never have.”
“Just by sharing our stories and knowing our own faith journeys, we get a glimpse of what the kin-dom of God can be,” he said.
Moving forward, Hunt says that he’s even more hopeful than before. “Pastors and laity were able to be with the children of Baltimore this week (by providing feeding ministries). Why can’t we continue it?”
Hunt has spent much time this past week in planning meetings with faith, civil rights, and community leaders. He’s also been talking with reporters and planning for what comes next.
Our conversation was short, but meaningful. He had to prepare for another call, attend a prayer meeting, prepare a sermon for a Friday meeting where he planned to address all the United Methodist chancellors who were holding their annual meeting in Baltimore, and then to teach seminary classes later on Friday and Saturday.
“Then there’s church on Sunday … and on Monday I’ll get back up and get right back to it.”