Baltimore Truly Can “Be More” With Faith, Police and Community Collaboration

Baltimore Truly Can “Be More” With Faith, Police and Community Collaboration

Chelsea Langston Bombino, May 11, 2017

 “What is God calling us to do in this moment to heal this environment that calls for creative policing? There are going to be challenges, but if we have a shared aspirational vision, then faith and community policing [can be part of the solution].” These words, spoken by the Reverend Dr. Sheridan Todd Yeary, Senior Pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, capture something essential about the role of faith in captivating imaginations and catalyzing innovative thinking to address complex challenges. Rev. Dr. Yeary’s comments were specifically in reference to the multifaceted challenges and unique opportunities the city of Baltimore is facing with respect to healing relationships between police and local communities.

Rev. Dr. Yeary was a participant in a timely event on Capitol Hill on May 3 hosted by Baylor University, and co-sponsored by George W. Truett Theological Seminary,DeMatha Catholic High School, and The Religious Freedom Research Project. This event, called: “Violence, Faith, and Policing in Baltimore” featured an interactive “panel conversation on the collaborative role of faith-based organizations and law enforcement in engaging violent crime in communities.” The panel featured Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis of Baltimore, and Rev. Dr. Yeary. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Byron Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University and the Founding Director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Rather than providing definitive, empirical findings on the role of faith-based organizations in partnering with both local community members and police, the event was framed as the beginning of a much bigger conversation that is only starting to unfold. Dr. Yeary discussed the importance of faith leaders in Baltimore coming together to support the police in cultivating positive relationships with residents of Baltimore neighborhoods. This event encapsulated the important message that the advancement of public justice requires government, as well as civil society organizations – faith communities, neighborhood groups, civic associations – to work together towards community restoration.

For example, Police Commissioner Davis recounted the months following Freddie Gray’s deathas a time when he took a posture of openness and sought to partner with faith and community leaders. Commissioner Davis was and still is asking, “How [can we] involve the faith community in a creative way?” Commissioner Davis further explained: “We [the people of Baltimore] had to endure the criminal trials of six police officers …. The City still is very anxious… [in one incident of unrest] I knew I needed some help and I called Pastor Yeary and he was there in minutes…” Commissioner Davis thoughtfully discussed how the police response in Baltimore had shifted from “imposing its will” with communities to “improving its will” with communities.

Especially striking were Police Commissioner Davis’ comments on a both/and, all-hands-on-deck approach to restoring trust between police and communities in Baltimore. Davis’ comments reflected a public justice framework in exploring how both government and nongovernmental institutions play a role in addressing the difficult and multi-layered issues. Rather than frame the question of whether the federal government or faith communities should be the ones collaborating with police officers in this work, Commissioner Davis highlighted the importance of intervention from both faith communities and the Department of Justice. Davis noted that over the last several decades, the gap had widened between communities and the police department, and now the Baltimore Police Department is constantly asking the question: “How do we police communities consistent with their values and not our values?” Moreover, Davis explained, there is a “philosophical agreement that we have to police differently,  which [involves] the faith community.” Davis noted there were 2,000 churches in Baltimore that already serve as vital resources for community restoration. In the very next breath, Commissioner Davis explained that Baltimore was also “the forty-first or forty-second city to enter into consent decree with the Department of Justice. Sometimes when you are stuck, you need a helping hand from an external source, whether from the faith community or the DOJ.”

Rev. Yeary likewise emphasized the necessity of having the proper context for understanding the right roles and responsibilities of police in relationship with other community partners by discussing openly what is happening in the environment in Baltimore neighborhoods. Only when we understand the structural and environmental factors, Yeary posited, “Maybe then we could understand the need for policing.” Filled with hope and reflections on creative ways faith leaders, neighborhood members, and police could come together, Yeary urged, “Let’s talk from a creative aspirational place, not as if helplessness has become our new norm.”

Archbishop Lori’s words echoed the same sentiment, emphasizing the importance of his relationships with Commissioner Davis and his “ecumenical and interfaith colleagues in Baltimore.”  Again, this event highlighted that the pursuit of public justice requires an approach by which both governmental actors form partnerships with faith-based and community groups.

Archbishop Lori underscored the necessity of the faith community to ask how they can contribute. He went on, “In 2015 when the unrest took place, [this event] pulled back curtain on deep systemic problems that have been allowed to flourish in Baltimore.” Yet, Archbishop Lori emphasized the love that emerged amidst the chaos as neighbors came out with their brooms and tools to begin community rebuilding, literally and metaphysically. Lori explained, “Having faith communities in every neighborhood is a readymade source of strength that needs to be built upon as we think about social construction.”

The Archbishop noted that Baltimore has a large and flourishing Catholic civil society presence with the third largest Catholic Charities in US, although Baltimore is nowhere near the third largest city. With respect to the many Catholic providers in the city, from St Vincent DePaul to Catholic hospitals Archbishop Lori noted, “We have been working very hard not to be siloed, but to create a network for people, if you need one social service, you probably need three. Community health, behavioral health, [everything]. Caroline House is doing job training to get folks trained as nursing assistants. The oldest Catholic high school in the nation, St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, as people come out of jail, the high school has really been helping in a program to reintroduce them to society by renovating the school, very real and close to the ground.” Archbishop Lori continued: “Faith communities are in and of the community, we are close to the ground. Local communities are so important…One of the reasons I’m in a religious liberty fight is not because I’m looking for privilege for my faith community, but because we are looking for freedom to serve.”

On a similar note, Dr. Johnson underscored the role of partnerships across difference can have in community restoration in Baltimore, “If we are ever going to tackle challenges ahead of us it has to be private/public and sacred/secular.” Rev. Yeary underscored a public justice perspective in discussing how different groups in different spheres of life (families, neighborhoods, faith communities, governmental actors) all came together to be willing participants in contributing their unique resources to community restoration,“Willing participants that don’t have answers but [are] willing to do something for a city crying out in pain. We all found out what it means to be in this thing together.” From the police department, to faith communities, to community members and even the DOJ, there is a space at the table for unlikely partnerships in a city that isn’t just about “Do More”, but about B’More.