Public Square

“The Only Hope Here Is the Church”: One Pastor’s Fight to Restore Baltimore

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The first Baltimore officer involved in the Freddie Gray case faces trial for second-degree homicide. A conviction may bring justice, but it does not promise healing.

Memories of the April riots are still fresh, and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement proves wounds are still deep. In Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar describes it, not as “a slight sprain in the ankle that we’ll be able to walk off by morning,” but “a violently shattered bone that will have America limping forward on crutches for months to come, maybe even years.”

But one pastor is bringing hope to the city of Baltimore, and not in the way you’d expect.

Rod Hairston, pastor of Messiah Community Church and former Baltimore Ravens chaplain, said when the riots started, he felt disconnected in the suburbs from what was happening in the city. Along with other pastors, he decided to take to the streets to begin the healing process.

Hairston believes the riots and looting not only came from a place of distrust in police, but a sense of economic hopelessness. Abdul-Jabber explains,

Baltimore protestors weren’t just expressing their anger over the treatment of Freddie Gray; they were expressing their frustration over living in economic circumstances that makes them seem less than human to those in power. Worse, they have little hope that these circumstances will change.

Hairston believes the economic piece of the equation must be addressed in Baltimore’s healing process. This is why he is working with Jobs for Life, a non-profit that partners with local churches to provide economic opportunity in tandem with the gospel. The program consists of eight weeks of biblically-based training, mentoring, and a community of support to connect the unemployed to meaningful work.

In a Jobs for Life podcast, the non-profit’s CEO David Spickard interviews Hairston as they drive through Baltimore, visiting the scenes of the riots. They discuss racial injustice and lack of understanding from those outside the black community. The conversation soon turned to economics.

Hairston mentioned many of the blue-collar jobs that once held together Baltimore’s economy are no longer there. In 1970, about one third of Baltimore’s labor force held manufacturing jobs. By 2000, that number dropped to 7 percent. Today, boarded up row houses line the streets where construction and development once endured.

For some, the problem is lack of opportunity. For others, they’ve lost the will to work. The economic issue is also a spiritual one. Spickard reflects on the spiritual factors at play,

Gangs, drugs, violence, prostitution – and fear – are trademarks here now. As children, they learned to survive in a place absent of safety. In their search for love and acceptance, they find anything to help them survive (emphasis added).

Without their own power and control, the members of these communities watch outsiders attempt to create order for them. It feels oppressive, yet in their helplessness they surrender control. The internal feelings of shame, uselessness, and despair eroded their hope over time.

Though Hairston admits the work can be overwhelming, he’s confident that Baltimore—like so many other broken cities—has only one hope: the church.

Listen to the full podcast here.

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