One recent day at the Baltimore clinic where I care for the homeless, I spoke with a patient about the death of Freddie Gray. He prefaced his thoughts—as many people do when they discuss police brutality—with the caveat that there are good police officers, those who honor the law as they work diligently to enforce it in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was injured. He then showed me scars on his body from his encounters with the police over the years—some of which had occurred after he was already in custody. He described how officers would raid his home and take half of his drugs and his money, then charge and arrest him for the remainder. “They’re a necessary evil,” he said. “If they weren’t out there, it would be total chaos.”
This sort of fatalism about urban neighborhoods (spreading to some rural areas and suburbs, as well) isn’t just limited to aging drug dealers. Conservative commentators and liberal do-gooders alike look at Sandtown, the neighborhood that I live in, and shrug their shoulders. The seemingly intractable and intertwined problems of drug abuse, violence, poor education, broken families, and health disparities have endured for decades without budging despite plenty of efforts to help. Police officers justify brutality towards citizens because conditions here are brutal, which only makes the nihilism stronger when people who have never been respected by the law in turn have no reason to respect the law. Many outside observers can only shake their heads in pity that more isn’t being done to help or shake their fists in rage that the police aren’t cracking down harder.
Those of us who have been here for a long time have been hit hard by recent events. There are meetings upon meetings while we try to coordinate efforts to serve our neighbors who have been cut off from grocery stores, pharmacies, and transportation. There has been some low-quality media coverage and some high-quality, but mostly we’ve tried to be slow to speak. We want our efforts now to be in accord with the work we’ve been doing and will do.
Now that the protests are slowing down, the media circus is slowly dissipating, and the helicopters are not circling every single night, we are dealing with the same questions we’ve always faced: Why are things here as bad as they are? What could change the situation? How do we build sustainable institutions that serve the neighborhood and transform the situation? What, if anything, does our faith have to say to the ongoing crisis out of which young men like Freddie Gray emerge and then get churned through the criminal justice system?
When my wife and I bought our house in Sandtown, we were eager to have more space to garden than in our previous rental. There was a tenacious evergreen ground cover covering the front yard, which I assumed we could simply pull up and then start planting our tomatoes. However, during the first spring when the ground softened and I put on my gloves, I made an unfortunately discovery: not only was there a thick layer of garden fabric everywhere, beneath it were rocks and then beneath that was the soil made up mostly of clay and the demolished remains of the house that had once stood there before our house was built ten years prior.
Our front yard was never meant for tomatoes. It was meant for ground cover, and much work had been done to keep it so that the ground cover’s roots would never go deep enough nor allow anything but that hardy creeper to survive. We’re still pulling weeds, creeper roots, and rocks out of the soil two years later.
Similarly, many urban neighborhoods were not set up to be communities where hard work and integrity allowed wealth to accumulate and families to grow; redlining and blockbusting created places where such values aren't paying off after many years. The ugliest presentations of racism may have been pulled out, but it’s clear that we’re still dealing with the after-effects—even now, social mobility is less evident in black men who play by the rules than white men who don't. Even if one chooses to completely ignore the historical foundations of inequitable opportunities in America and tries to eliminate any discussion of race, we are still faced with the fact that millions of kids have grown up and are growing up in places where the economic incentives and social supports don’t favor stable work and families. Sadly, years of complaining on talk radio from the comfort of the suburbs about the need for folks to pull their pants up has also failed to have the impact we would hope.
Do welfare and disability payments trap people in poverty? Sure. There are plenty of means-tested benefits that people lose when they get a better-paying job (which surely discourages some people from working harder) and I’ve evaluated patients without any significant disabilities, that I could discern, who are chasing a monthly check.
What is far more real to most people in Sandtown, though—which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the city—is that jobs that allow one to pay the rent, and perhaps support a family, without a college degree have dwindled precipitously. For every person who might be disincentivized from working by a government handout, I see ten who want to work but can’t find a job that fits their skills (or that allows them to work with their criminal record.) There are long waiting lists for apprenticeships and trade programs belied by some of the highest per-capita spending in the state for city public school students. High taxes in the city discourage all investment except that which is able to make egregious deals with city politicians.
There is often a great deal of talk about opposing a sense of victimhood and entitlement—which most people in my neighborhood would probably agree with—but we must recognize that people are still being victimized by police brutality and other forms of trauma; they are entitled to both the basic necessities of life as well as opportunities to provide those and more for themselves. Individuals are responsible for changes necessary to go from being a harm to the community to being an asset, but bad systems still deserve a fair share of the blame.
It’s easy to see individual sins and their aggregate effect alienating people from one another and from God in Sandtown: shooting another human being or stealing to buy drugs are obvious as are landlords who won’t deal with lead paint or officers who don’t strap prisoners down in the van. The systems that encourage sin may be harder to point a finger at—whether it’s cops who try to silence whistleblowers or drug dealers who burn down the houses of informants, the effects of our sin ripple outward. Those who have followed the debate over same-sex marriage understand very clearly that law and culture ought to work together to promote and preserve families and communities; we should apply the same vigor to strengthening economic policies that make it easier for people not to sin.
One small example of this in our neighborhood is the urban farm one of my friends and mentors started to provide jobs to “returning citizens”: It required the city to help give away land and clear vacant property and some startup capital from a local farming company, but it is based on the church’s understanding of the needs of the people and explicitly tied to the concept that faithful believers can help disciple and encourage people who have been incarcerated for harming others, walking them through the transformative process. As Antoine Bennett, a man who went through such a process and is now an elder at my church often discusses, one’s sense of identity (and the righteous or wicked behavior it produces) is indelibly tied to the opportunities one has to do otherwise. As he puts it,“we are going from ex-cons to icons, menaces to ministers.”
The church—one of the few institutions that urban African-Americans feel like they can rely on—has an enormous role to play. Churches in the inner city have been there for people when the government has disappointed them and other citizens fled for greener pastures in the suburbs; they continue to be a crucial part of organizing and ministering to needs in the community. Any efforts at changing the culture of the inner city will have to intersect with the African-American churches here; learning from those who have weathered the last few decades and built institutions to serve the community.
God was not caught off guard by police brutality,” my pastor recently preached. “He is gonna show up, and when He does, may He have mercy on the police department!” One of the core convictions we in Sandtown hold to is that God’s Kingdom is advancing and that we have been called to take part in that advance. There is a confidence—from those who have been delivered from drug addiction to those who grew up in the county with our proverbial silver spoons—that the present reality and its attendant despair will not always define our neighborhood, and that as we trust in Christ individually, that transformation radiates outwards in service and love to others. God has clearly chosen to work in ways not immediately obvious to us, and we can only assume that He has done so in order that He might be glorified while the vestiges of racism and exclusion, the failed attempts at revitalization, and the nihilism induced by violence might be put to shame.
Churches and Christians divided by race and culture have the opportunity to work together on the front lines of the fight against spiritual darkness and nurture the hope and faith that might prevent more deaths like the one Freddie Gray suffered. By thoughtfully advocating for changes in unjust systems, providing relief in areas of raw need, and empowering people within broken neighborhoods to love one another, the power of the Gospel to deal with individual sin and systemic injustice will be proclaimed to the watching world to the praise of our Father.
Matthew Loftus lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore and works as a family physician. He is a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and is releasing a novel about doctors behaving badly chapter-by-chapter at Trousseau Syndrome.