By Barbara Michelman
When rioting broke out in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, Md., on Monday, April 27, after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in police custody, Rev. Christian Hall was one of the pastors who received word to attend a meeting of faith-based leaders in the city. The group of clergy came together to pray and to conduct a strategic planning session. But once assembled, the group quickly realized that it “had to go to ‘Ground Zero’ immediately,” said Hall, pastor of Kingdom Restoration Center, located in Baltimore.
“All the clergy assembled said, ‘let’s go and bring peace and order to this situation and offer some leadership,’” he said.
This decision lead to over 250 clergy marching through the affected neighborhoods. “Police were able to talk to us as leaders, and they also sought comfort and safety with us being there on the front lines while the situation was going on.”
At one point, Hall said, the entire group of clergy dropped to its knees to begin praying—right in front of police. This action, Hall said, led to more peaceful demonstrations—and to police being able to do its work to attempt to restore order and safety.
“We led the police to cars on fire. We led them through the crowds,” he said. And these actions, according to Hall, led to some looters to stop what they were doing and join the peaceful demonstrations with the clergy, which was “an amazing sight to see.”
Hall and the other clergy members even met with gang members to try to understand their feelings and frustrations. Unlike what was reported in some media stories, not all gang members organized the mass riots, nor were all gang members engaged in rioting and looting. He recalled one gang member “explaining so well that they, too, wanted peaceful demonstrations—and that the looting and rioting were the result of a group of frustrated young men.”
Hall acknowledged the criminal activities of individuals who took advantage of an extremely sensitive and frustrating situation by resorting to rioting and looting. He stressed the need for training young men and women—on how to demonstrate to not only get effective messages out, but to also affect change.
“Back in the time when Dr. King was marching, during the time of Malcolm X, individuals had to be trained to demonstrate. Had Baltimore youth received instructions in effective demonstrations, in peaceful marches, in effectively voicing their opinions, I think things may have had a different spin. Of course there are always those who will take advantage, but clergy come together and said: ‘We have to show them another way.’”
No one, Hall said, “foresaw this situation getting out of hand. But when there is frustration, anything can come out of frustration.”
“In our inner city we’re looking at a very frustrated young generation, who have watched similar things happen in other cities (like Ferguson) because justice was not served,” he said. “Now it’s come home. So what do you do with all that frustration over no justice? To me, it all goes back again to needing strong leadership to channel that frustration. We can get the results we need in the right manner.”
Baltimore, Hall said, is “no different from any other inner city in any other state. We have our ups and downs. This was just a very heightened, frustrating situation. Riots happen because people want to be heard. Like a voice crying in the wilderness: I need to be heard. I need justice.”
Hall’s greatest concern is “what happens when the newscasters, the police helicopters, emergency assistance goes away and everyone goes back to ‘normal?’ When things have settled down, which I don’t believe will be any time soon, we’ll start to see the true leaders, those who are truly committed, those who love the city, those who want to try to engage our young people, those who want to organize counseling sessions.”
Hall’s church members planned to be out on Saturday, May 2, helping to clean up a looted pharmacy. “We don’t expect media and cameras to be there. This is when you see the real commitment when the cameras are away. My prayer is that people are not just in this for the publicity—that they are committed to helping the city.”
Hall said that he, like other faith leaders, would just “keep on doing what we are doing: Help businesses get back on their feet.”
“My hope and prayer is for real commitment and real leadership to rebuild.”