After unrest erupted in Baltimore following the death of 25 year-old Freddie Gray, Catholics stepped up to restore their communities and pray for peace and justice in their neighborhoods. “The community, to me, is not those people that come in and sell drugs. It’s the people that come out and volunteer to help clean up,” volunteer Ray Kelly told CNA. Kelly is a member of the parish council at St. Peter Claver Church in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, just blocks away from where violent riots took place the night of April 27. The historically black parish was a bulwark for the neighborhood in the time of need, providing food and comfort to residents in need. “The Church is built on charity, the Church is the refuge for the poor,” Kelly said. Calls for prayer and action were a response to the arrest and death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray. On April 12, Gray, an African-American, was arrested after running from the police and was charged with possessing an illegal switchblade knife. Later, the state’s attorney for the city said Gray actually carried a legal pocket knife. The police shackled Gray’s legs and placed him in a transport van. Upon arriving at the police station 30 minutes later, Gray was taken to the local trauma center with injuries to his voice box, three broken vertebrae in his neck and a spinal cord that was 80 percent severed. Gray later slipped into a coma and passed away on April 19 from the injuries to his spinal cord. The Baltimore State Attorney's office later ruled that Gray’s death was a homicide, and the six officers involved with the arrest now each face charges of manslaughter and one count of second degree depraved-heart murder. Communities around the country have since protested the treatment and death of Gray and have urged that attention be given to broader social problems of racism, police brutality, lack of public programming and support in urban areas, employment discrimination and other issues. On the weekend of April 25 and the following Monday night, tensions came to a head in Baltimore. Violence broke out as some protesters engaged in looting and property destruction, prompting the activation of the Maryland National Guard and the institution of a city-wide curfew. Many local residents responded differently, however. On May 3, citizens gathered in prayer all over Baltimore, including a peaceful demonstration in front of City Hall. The Archdiocese of Baltimore and local dioceses also joined in prayer for the city and for the communities most affected by the challenges facing the city. On May 3, Archbishop William Lori celebrated Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood in West Baltimore where Gray was arrested. First and foremost, the person of Freddie Gray should not be lost amidst the riots and protests, emphasized Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori. “Freddie Gray was not merely a symbol but a real person who was beset by challenges that face countless young people in this city every day,” Archbishop Lori said in his Sunday homily at St. Peter Claver. “We should pray that he enjoy the happiness of life eternal. It was for him that Christ died on the Cross and rose from the tomb, just as Jesus died and rose for each one of us.” The riots on the night of April 27 in Sandtown drew national attention as stores were looted and destroyed, a raging inferno blazed in what had been a senior home, and protesters clashed with police. However, the efforts of the community to unite peacefully and clean up must not be ignored, residents insisted. St. Peter Claver provided a locus point for action. Twenty-nine year old volunteer Greer Dorsey knew she would be at the church at the first opportunity. “When your spirit is led to do something, and you know that it’s from God, then that’s what you’re going to do,” she told CNA. “On TV we were seeing the looting and the fires and stuff, all I could say was ‘Yeah, I have to go to work tomorrow, but after that I’ll be down in my church. I’ll be getting stuff done. I’ll be in the neighborhood helping people getting stuff done. Because I’m not going to sit at home on Facebook and be scared.’” Volunteers flocked to the church parking lot on Wednesday afternoon to help run the food bank for local residents, as the neighborhood stores were either looted or closed, and transportation to other areas was limited. “We had to still engage the community in some way to let them know that within ourselves we still had some kind of support,” said Ray Kelly, a parishioner and head of the No Boundaries Coalition, a resident-led initiative to rebuild the communities of Central West Baltimore. “No one is seeing that we gave food to 450 people today, we didn’t have any police, we didn’t have any incidents,” he explained. “When I’m asked what do I think about Sandtown, I consider family. Because there are plenty of people when I’m tired, I can sit on their steps…we do embrace each other like that.” “There are good people here,” Dorsey stressed when asked what is most misunderstood about the neighborhood. Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities of Maryland, told CNA that he also saw a lot of good people helping one another in the neighborhoods around St. Peter Claver and in other parishes and communities in Baltimore. Their witness and response, he said, was “inspiring.” While touring the city after the initial protests on April 28, McCarthy said he saw local religious leaders and community members preventing looting and joining together to pray and stand between protesters and police. “I actually think things would have been much worse without the interventions of religious leaders and the ministers as well as the neighbors doing the right thing,” he said. Msgr. Rich Bozzelli, pastor of St. Bernadine’s Catholic Church in West Baltimore, joined with other neighbors and parishioners to help clean up some of the shops affected by the looting and protests. “Baltimore is a fabulous city, and the witness you’re seeing of the churches, the communities coming together to clean up, to really try to calm the place down I think that’s the true Baltimore that everyone really believes in,” he told EWTN News Nightly. St. Bernadine’s also hosted a revival prayer service April 27, 28 and 29, which local teens said was helpful for them to see and attend. At least 100 people attended the first night of the service — in which parishioners and neighbors gathered together in prayer and song for peace and justice — with nearly as many returning for the second and third nights. Keyon Smith, a junior at St. Frances Academy who attended the revival, told CNA that it was encouraging to see his classmates and members of the parish come together for the event. “It seems like with everything going on in Baltimore, everyone is breaking apart, but we should come together and realize that we matter, as a person and as a human being.” Devin Phelps, a senior at St. Frances Academy who also attended, said he thought of the revival “as a restoration.” “I actually think the service was to restore peace and to get everyone’s mind to get back on track,” he reflected. “Just to make sure everyone is focused and not skeptical about the situation.” Phelps said he hoped he would see better structure in his own neighborhood and justice for the people of Baltimore come as a response to the uprising. Despite citizens rallying to clean up after the riots, Archbishop Lori acknowledged systemic injustices in Baltimore that need to be promptly addressed through prayer, dialogue, and action. “Anybody who drives around the city of Baltimore, even when there are not disturbances, whether it’s West Baltimore or East Baltimore, you see how far we have to go. The needs are huge,” the archbishop told CNA. In his Sunday homily, he preached that Gray’s tragedy points to a larger “social sin” or “structural sin” in the city. “When we see loss of life, abandoned row houses, lack of jobs, failing schools, drugs, insecure family situations, mistrust between communities and civic officials, and we see this going on decade after decade, then we must acknowledge the right of people who see no way out to make their voices heard, to lift up their frustration and anger publicly — yet to do so in a way that does not create more injustice and more destruction,” he said. Catholics cannot return to “business as usual” once the national spotlight is off Baltimore, he stressed. “We need to be connected as branches to the Vine so we will remain in the Lord and we will remain together,” he said. “We need to allow the Father of mercies to cut away from us whatever is in our hearts that will make it harder to have those constructive conversations and engage in those joint efforts that will make a real and lasting difference in our community.”
Catholic News Agency was founded in 2004, in response to Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a “New Evangelization." It is an apostolate of EWTN News.