Nearly a year after violent riots erupted in West Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, religious leaders from across the city have banded together for a pilgrimage to Rome which they hope will help them to build bridges in their community.

“One of the things that any community like Baltimore needs are leaders who will build bridges, build bridges over partisan divides, socio-economic divides, and faith divides so that those who are in need can experience a climate of trust,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told CNA March 2.

Archbishop Lori was one of nine religious leaders from the city who journeyed to Rome for a Feb. 29-March 3 pilgrimage, which included a brief meeting with Pope Francis.

The leaders included not only Archbishop Lori and Baltimore’s auxiliary bishop Denis Madden, but also representatives from the city’s Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities. They were joined by the head of Baltimore’s Catholic Charities, Bill McCarthy.

Archbishop Lori said the group's main goal in making the pilgrimage was not only to pray and to get to know each other better, but also “to symbolize that it’s very possible to come across all kinds of lines, to find common ground and to work together for the common good.”

He said the pilgrimage was largely intended to cement the relationships of the leaders, who have worked together closely since violent riots lit up the city last April after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, an African American, died April 19, 2015, one week after he sustained serious back and neck injuries while being transported following an arrest by Baltimore police.

West Baltimore erupted in anger after the youth’s death, and the city quickly became the site of mass protests and some violent riots. The National Guard was called in to quell the violent rioters, some of whom set fire to cars and buildings, leading to injuries.

As religious leaders in the community “we grieved together as Baltimore boiled over last April, but we’ve also recognized for a long, long time that the city is facing very deep and systemic problems, and we’re all involved in one way or another in dealing with them,” Archbishop Lori said.

Indeed, after last year’s riots many Baltimore residents traced the city’s anger and frustration to problems rooted in high rates of unemployment, drug abuse, poor housing and education, racism, policing tactics, and child hunger.

While progress has certainly been made and many people have stepped up to the plate, he stressed that “there’s a long way to go.”

Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities Baltimore, said the situation of West Baltimore is still much like it was during its 1968 riots, with a poverty rate of 40 percent, an unemployment rate of 60 percent, an ex-offender rate of 70 percent, and a school absentee rate of 50 percent.

He asked where hope is found for people living with those statistics, and said the religious community’s job “is to walk with and work with the people and to help restore hope. When hope is restored, it gives you a platform to bring around true systemic and sustainable change in communities.”

Part of the change Catholic Charities has sought to bring about in the past year has focused on their direct work and service in Baltimore, as well as how different religious communities can work together in order to have a greater impact on the lives of people in the city.

McCarthy explained that after last year’s riots, Catholic Charities took a step back to reflect on how they can 'up their game' in fighting poverty and unemployment in the area.

The result was a plan focused on the four key areas of sustenance, work, violence, and youth, he said, noting that currently much of West Baltimore “is in food deficit.”

With the demand placed on the area’s three food pantries jumping from 60 to 500 families a week, the organization decided to expand the pantries, opening new ones and allocating fresh resources to keep them replenished.

In addition to a few new, strategically placed pantries, case managers were also placed inside each, because the ultimate goal “is that people don’t need the pantries,” McCarthy said.

So far the case managers have intervened in 150 cases regarding issues of employment, healthcare, and safe housing.

McCarthy explained that as part of their goal of increasing the employment rate,  Catholic Charities has teamed up with several local groups in opening a new workforce development center. Additionally, they have formed partnerships in a cohort providing automobile technical training.

“There are jobs out there, there’s a dearth of mechanics in a community, and (it) pays a living wage,” he said, explaining that the goal for the first year was to train 70 men and women in the field, “and we already have jobs lined up for the first 50.”

The workforce development center also does job placements, soft skills training and employment retention work in order to make sure that once placed in work, people stay, he said.

In order to fight the high rates of violence and killings in the city — in 2015 there was on average more than one murder a day, according to McCarthy — Catholic Charities Baltimore has begun working with the health department and the No Boundaries coalition as well as other organizations in the Sandtown community to create a Safe Streets program.

McCarthy described the program as “an evidence-based practice of violence interruption” which treats violence as a public-health issue. The first official Safe Streets program went into effect Dec. 1, 2015.

While the issue of violence and murder in Baltimore has been generally “avoided or ignored” in the past, McCarthy explained that even if unemployment and poverty are overcome, “if we don’t address the violence and if we don’t address the killings in the community, then we’re just building something on a foundation of sand.”

Dr.  Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., Senior Pastor of Union Baptist Church of Baltimore, joined in the pilgrimage to Rome. He told CNA that his community has been very active in the same areas, and has teamed up with other religious communities to make sure families in the West Baltimore area have access to basic needs, as well as basic technologies.

One of the problems lower-income families in areas such as West Baltimore face is that they don’t have access to the internet, Hathaway said, explaining that in today’s day and age, “that is very discriminatory.”

As both ecumenical leaders and as a local community,  the group has been working hard “to  bridge the gap between the police department and youth in that community,” he said.

Union Baptist Church caught part of Freddie Gray’s flight on its surveillance camera the night of his arrest. The tape was then used as part of the official investigation of the incident by the state attorney’s office, as well as by the Baltimore City Police Department.

“So we were right there,” he said, noting that one of the things each of the religious leaders in the area saw after the incident was that “families were under severe stress, and that people were feeling severe trauma.”

As a result they began to converse together in order to provide the support services that were needed, as well as to increase the hope of the community, Hathaway said, explaining that the pilgrimage was intended to do just that.

In addition to providing education, healthcare, and food services, Hathaway said one of the main things families in the community need “is to see themselves as part of a global world … that’s what this trip allowed them to do.”

“It allows them to say yes, my local pastor or my local priest or my local imam, they went to Rome, they met with Pope Francis,  they returned to let us know that we’re still important and still significant.”

As part of their visit to Rome, the group was able to meet Pope Francis briefly after his March 2 General Audience.

Archbishop Lori said Francis was very warm and friendly, and especially interested in the nature of the group, as well as what brought them to Rome.

“I think he was happy that we had chosen the year of mercy as an opportunity to come over and to seek healing and mercy in a culture that can be very hard and very merciless.”

Hathaway called his handshake with the Pope “amazing,” adding that Francis’ smile and the firmness of his grip left him with the feeling “that yes, we can do this together.  And I believe as people in the ecumenical faith community, we realized that we can do it together.”

Hathaway believes the group will return to Baltimore stronger than they were before, and voiced his hope that their collaboration will continue to grow.

On April 25, two days before the one year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s funeral and the day before the city’s local elections, the group will hold an interreligious prayer vigil.

“So we’re going to at least try to launch in the community an ecumenical prayer movement,” Hathaway said, explaining that the next step will likely be a project aimed at raising the hopes and aspirations of people who live in public housing, “which is severely distressed in our communities.”