In just a few days, the United Church of Christ’s General Synod will begin in Baltimore, Maryland. Thousands of folks from across our denomination will gather together to ask for God’s blessing on our biennial meeting. We will meet with mission partners from around the world; we will reconnect with old friends; we will praise God together as one congregation. We will do all of this from the beautiful confines of the Baltimore Convention Center in the Inner Harbor, a revitalized section of Baltimore that includes new hotels, waterfront restaurants, and Camden Yards, one of the best baseball parks in the nation.
Baltimore has a rich and diverse history. The area was inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years before English settlers began arriving four hundred years ago. Maryland was a bustling colony, including a large Catholic community (a community that is still quite active in Baltimore). Waves of German immigration in the 18th and 19th centuries brought Lutheran and Evangelical Protestants, as well as a sizable Jewish community. As recently as 100 years ago, in fact, as many as 1 in 4 people in Baltimore spoke German, and the public schools taught in both English and German. Throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, Baltimore was also home to one of the most vibrant African-American communities in the nation. In more recent years, the area around the Inner Harbor has seen a revitalization effort near today’s Convention Center.
The city does, however, have a more painful history than it might appear from our view at General Synod. As the largest city in Maryland, Baltimore was part of a sinful history of slavery in this country — a history that continued even up to and including the Civil War. The population of Baltimore peaked in 1950, as middle-class whites left the city for the suburbs. Racial tensions between working class whites and African-Americans flared. Like many American cities, the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. forever changed the city. In the 1970s, desegregation of public schools faced push-back from working class whites. West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died in 2015, witnessed riots just two years ago and has yet to recover. And so far in 2017, gun violence has spiked to a rate of 1 homicide and 3 seriously wounded by gun violence per day.
Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, former head of the NAACP’s Baltimore Chapter, describes his city this way:
“Baltimore has always been a tale of two cities. There’s always been the well-to-do Baltimore and other Baltimore. But there’s also the tale of West Baltimore—how it used to be—set against how it is now. Poverty and struggle have always been a part of the story.
The question is, do we have the political will to move forward?”
What role does the United Church of Christ have in helping Baltimore to move forward? We have congregations in and around Baltimore that are predominantly African-American and congregations that are predominantly European-American. We have church members who are community activists and church members who work for the police department. The Central Atlantic Conference – which stretches across New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, DC, Virginia, and West Virginia – is headquartered where the city of Baltimore ends and suburban Catonsville begins. There are vital and vibrant churches in the Chesapeake Association (where Baltimore is located), and there are congregations that are struggling in any number of ways. In other words, the UCC presence in Baltimore is an awful lot like the UCC presence across the country. Put another way, asking ourselves what role we might have in helping Baltimore move forward is really a question of what role we have in helping the United States to move forward.
As the city of Baltimore welcomes us in the coming days, what will we notice? There is the possibility that, as General Synod unfolds at the Convention Center, we might not go much beyond the revitalized, gentrified, frustrating, and beautiful Inner Harbor. Synod could come and go without really engaging the city of Baltimore in depth. If so, I think we’d be missing out on the opportunity to have a lively conversation with not one, but two cities. The tale of these two cities – of beauty and chaos – is really a tale of one nation. Are we ready to hear that story, and to respond?
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.