Literal and Virtual Fences

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When Man Creates Barriers to Equity, Justice, and Two-Way Relationships

By Barbara Michelman 

The Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi has an important message to share about the residents of Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where rioting and looting broke out the evening of Monday, April 27, after Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in police custody, was buried.

“Sandtown is a community that nurtures its residents; it’s a community that grows leaders; it’s a community that loves and protects itself. Folks need to know that. They also need to know that there are challenges, obstacles, and barriers that [are]really hard for residents who live here to overcome.”

The Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi

 

Moore-Koikoi, superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan District, for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, shared a powerful example of a “literal barrier” that separates residents of Sandtown from Bolton Hills, a revitalized, gentrified community that borders Sandtown.

“There’s a fence that goes along North Avenue so that folks who are coming out of Sandtown and going into downtown cannot spill over into Bolton Hills,” she said. “That’s a physical reminder for folks who take public transportation, who drive by. They see that physical reminder that they are gated off, that there are parts of our society that they don’t have access to–that they are literally barred from. It’s hard to see that every day and for that sense of hopelessness to not become part of who we are. We have allowed that to happen.”

Reasonable explanations abound for why the fence was erected, Moore-Koikoi acknowledged, but she added that despite “all kinds of ‘logical reasons,’ none of them make sense for the community of Sandtown-Winchester.”

Moore-Koikoi is one of many clergy who have been a visible, physical presence in the community over the past week. She described one such gathering of United Methodist clergy from across the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, who came together on Wednesday, April 29, two days after the riots broke out, to participate in a peaceful march. When the march was cancelled at the last minute, church leaders were given the choice of attending another meeting of faith-based leaders or being a physical presence marching through the community. “We agreed to do that latter,” she said.

While walking through the neighborhoods, Moore-Koikoi shared that the church leaders came upon an outdoor worship, “so we joined in,” she said. “It was a high praise worship service and the community was there. Everyone was accepting of everyone.”

When the assembled clergy wanted to walk past one of the neighborhood drug stores that had been looted, she said that Sandtown residents urged, “No! Go this way! We have to show you who we are.”

“This way” led the group of clergy to a parade that was about to get started. Moore-Koikoi described majorettes and drum troops who were assembled, as well as folks from all ages: “the elders in the village who served as mentors to the little bitty baby girls.” Folks from across the gender identity spectrum participated—and the community embraced them. The clergy beside me said, ‘They get it. Everyone is here as they are. They are all getting along.’”

So often we portray church leaders as those who bring the light of Jesus Christ to the community, but Moore-Koikoi said that “the light of Jesus Christ is already there. We were joining in that light to be mirrors, to reflect it, to make it brighter. It was evident. We saw Jesus.”

Jesus was among the diverse crowd who gathered, Moore-Koikoi said, a crowd that included people of different faith traditions, agnostics, those antagonistic to the church. Even gang members participated. “They stopped to take selfies with the clergy,” she added. “This is the kind of stuff the media isn’t necessarily portraying.”

As the streets and businesses are cleared of debris, as curfews are lifted, as National Guard troops and police leave the streets, attention naturally turns to what happens next.

Moore-Koikoi said that conversations are definitely needed, especially about confronting the ways that folks perceive “the other.”

She described an ecumenical clergy gathering with Sandtown-Winchester community members, some of whom are in gangs. “One of the clergy members said to a gang member, ‘I want to hear your pain.’” Moore-Koikoi said that the gang member responded, “First of all, it’s not my pain, it’s our pain. Until you recognize that, we cannot move forward.”

“Each of us needs help to see our blind spots,” she said. “We don’t often understand how what we say and do offends the other.”

Moore-Koikoi is advocating for “real, serious work about the ways in which our church system continues to erect gates. How the way we do business perpetuates that gate.”

“We have our more affluent churches who will come into the city to do ministry, but we never invite our inner city churches to come and be in ministry with the suburban churches. We never ask what members of inner city churches can give to members of more affluent suburban churches,” she said.

Each of us has gifts that are needed, Moore-Koikoi stressed, but she said, “If our streets are only fostered to go one way, we are building gates.”

The United Methodist Church’s appointment system, as currently structured, reinforces the building of those gates, she said. “We know that because of financial issues of inner city neighborhoods that it’s harder for those churches to create salary packages that make it possible to appoint the most experienced folks.

Moore-Koikoi wants positive changes to the appointment system so that being assigned to an inner city church is something that is sought after. “We do have tremendously skilled and gifted pastors who really feel called to urban ministry and those who do lobby to be appointed in the city, but how do we [elliminate the]economic sacrifice? How can we make sure that our urban churches are places that are more attractive to clergy?”

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