Standing Side by Side in Baltimore

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Drawing the Circle Wide Enough to Allow Everyone to Stand Side by Side

By Barbara Michelman

In addition to serving as the pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Baltimore, Md., Rev. Bonnie McCubbin is also training to become a volunteer city police chaplain. Clergy who complete the requisite training are then able to conduct ride alongs with police officers and serve as a bridge between law enforcement and the community. The program also supports police officers as they experience a great deal of job-related stress, stress that often spills over into their personal or family lives.

The Rev. Bonnie McCubbin, right.

The Rev. Bonnie McCubbin, right.

The rioting and looting that erupted in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods of West Baltimore on April 27, after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody, “proved how necessary this program is,” McCubbin said. “It’s needed now more than ever.”

The weekend before the riots, while Gray’s death was under investigation and tensions were rising in his local community, McCubbin spent much time in prayer. That Sunday she spent 40 minutes writing a prayer that came to her in a dream the night before. She shared the prayer on her church’s blog. (As of Friday, May 8, the multiple prayers written by McCubbin have been shared or ”liked” on the church’s website by nearly 800 individuals.) After the riots, McCubbin was contacted from clergy as far away as Michigan asking her permission to use the prayer in an upcoming worship service.

McCubbin’s need to help, to be that community connection, is as strong as her desire for people to understand that the Baltimore portrayed on 24-hour cable news channels is not the Baltimore she knows so well—even the Baltimore that experienced the riots.

“Baltimore has a unique context—people don’t understand longstanding racial and socio-economic tensions that have existed for some time,” she said. “From my perspective, the tensions go back generations—back to right after the Civil War and the beginning of 20th century.”

Legal racism existed well into the 20th century via laws that “blocked off specific neighborhoods from certain races, laws which prohibited minorities such as blacks from moving into certain communities.” That law was not overturned until the mid-60s or early 70s,” she said. “It’s only been a generation or two that have grown up in a system that wasn’t legally sanctioned to be racist.”

The riots that erupted were “not just about Freddie Gray. They were also about class structure, about keeping certain people poor,” McCubbin stressed. “Certain people have privilege. We don’t acknowledge that enough. We try to make it about race, but it’s also about class.”

McCubbin shared the “good things happening in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods of West Baltimore that haven’t been covered—anywhere near the degree to which the riots have been.” She’s been using her social media channels, where she connects and interacts with a diverse group of friends and family, to share real stories from the community.

“Social media, “ she said, “is wonderful in connecting folks.”

McCubbin was effusive in sharing positive personal experiences she had in the Sandtown-Winchester area the day after the riots. She answered the call of Rev. Twanda Prioleau of John Wesley UMC in Baltimore City to show up and help with her church’s feeding program and youth center. City schools were closed the day after the riots, and neighborhood UMC churches were asked, by Baltimore-Washington Conference Bishop Marcus Matthews, to stay open and be a resource to its local community.

“So many people were out cleaning up the streets, but Rev. Prioleau’s church needed help with the kids who needed to talk, have a safe place to go, or a meal to eat. So I went there.”

But McCubbin said that no one came to the church because “folks were too afraid to leave their homes.” After a few hours, the decision was made to shift John Wesley UMC’s feeding program to Metropolitan UMC, the Rev. Eric King’s church. Volunteers started “coming from all over. People who heard about it on social media showed up with carloads of food,” she said.

Other volunteers made lunches and snack bags, but still very few neighbors ventured out of their homes,” she said. Undeterred, teams of clergy and lay leaders ended up “taking over 500 bags of food, going door to door in the neighborhoods handing out food.

“We wanted to share the love with folks. We were thanked because the food was so needed. Local stores had been looted and closed, so residents were unable to get out and go to the store.”

McCubbin shared a poignant story of a brother and sister who showed up at Metropolitan UMC for a pizza lunch. “Someone paid for boxes of pizzas; I don’t even know who—it was another blessing,” she said. During her lunch and conversation with the two siblings, McCubbin said that an ambulance drove by the building with its sirens blaring.

“As soon as the children heard the sirens, they froze; they began to freak out,” she said. “The sound of the sirens reminded them of the night before. They were so scared, we just hugged them and reassured them that they were safe.”

That type of trauma, McCubbin said, doesn’t dissipate over night. “It will be with those children for months, maybe years.”

McCubbin cited the importance of the Church as a rallying point in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester and ministers such as Rev. Rodney Hudson of Ames UMC, whom she described as “the core—through and through.”

“Rev. Hudson has been in the neighborhood for seven years. He walked us through the neighborhoods, and he had gang members walking up and saying, ‘Thank you for coming, thank you for caring for our neighborhood.’” Clergy, she said, were protected and respected. “It was beautiful.”

“People would see us, and they would ask for prayer, ask us to be a ministry of presence. We weren’t doing anything, but we didn’t have to. We also didn’t need to say anything. Our presence was welcomed because we showed support. I didn’t have any ‘magic words’ to say, but being a ministry of presence is the key.”

On the walk back to Ames, and on the way back to Metropolitan, McCubbin and two other female clergy asked Rev. Hudson, “Before we break up, can we pray for you? You’ve been in the midst of this for days. We formed a circle around him and began to pray. At the end of the prayer, a middle-aged man asked if he could join. Then two more woman came up, then a reporter asked to join the circle.”

The experience reminded McCubbin of Mark Miller’s song “Draw the Circle Wide” and the song’s lyrics “draw it wider still, no one stands alone we stand side by side.”

While McCubbin stressed, “God has not forsaken or abandoned this city,” she acknowledged that people from all over the region, as well as across the nation, “don’t know what to do.” But going back to her point about the power of social media, she said that “people see our actions and our social media posts and it makes a difference. Through our stories and our posts, they see people like Rev. Prioleau, Rev. Hudson, and Rev. King and how they are supporting the community.”

McCubbin also praised the “dozens of prayer meetings and vigils taking place everywhere. Being able to gather and praise God and know that God is there. That’s so important.”

But she expressed concern over what happens when the news cameras turn off. “These are communities that have been impoverished for generations. Long-term partnerships are really important. So is building bridges between people who have not been in community before now,” she said.

“We’re all kind people with many, many differences, but we are united in our humanity and in our faith.”

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