It is the third night of the curfew in Baltimore City, and all I can hear are helicopters hovering in the area. That’s right – I live in Baltimore City. In fact, I live less than 2 miles from Mondawmin Mall, the epicenter of the riots that broke out just four days ago. I am no stranger to this mall or to this neighborhood. I may not have been born here, but, from the age of 5, I was raised in Baltimore City. In the last couple days following the riots, I have found myself exponentially aware my perspective and the environments that I find myself in. You see, I work in one of the counties surrounding the city, in an office that is predominantly white and upper class. These people with whom I work on a daily basis share very little in common with me, other than a passion for medicine and the health of children. I work in a pediatric group practice. They go to the harbor for entertainment. They attend sporting events and concerts in the city. But they do not live here. And the majority of them have never been profiled by a police officer, or a store manager, or a random stranger walking down the sidewalk past them. They don’t know what it means to be black in America. And furthermore, they have no idea what it means to be black in Baltimore City. And so, when I walked into work on Tuesday, after watching the riots unfold, listening to the sounds of helicopters and sirens whine on well into the night, after crying and praying over the city I call home for 25 years, I didn’t expect anything. Most of them don’t know or remember that I live in Baltimore. The ones who did were kind enough to call or text me the night before to make sure that me and my family were safe and okay. But, by and large, they seemed unaffected by the events that unfolded. To them, Baltimore became another Ferguson, another New York, another South Carolina, where another black man was unfairly treated by law enforcement and “it’s just so sad.” I walked in carrying the weight of the city’s pain on my shoulders, and I was the only one who really truly understood it.
Never before in my short 30 years of walking this earth have I been more willing and more adamant about being the voice of truth to those who don’t want to understand, don’t have to understand, or who are trying and yet still fail to understand. I have been blessed to have some really meaningful and intentional conversations with people about the truth that lies beneath the riots. I have been able to articulate for those who are outside looking in what is really going on in the city, and I have been encouraged by those interactions. I have chosen to remain calm or removed from certain controversial conversations with the people that I work with simply because it can make for a hostile or uncomfortable work environment. But this is something that I have not been able to stay out of, and it is something that I refuse to be passive about. I have a connection to this city and these people that they do not have. And, because of it, there are others who have a slightly better understanding. I am glad to know people who are willing to listen and have the hard conversations and seek to understand, instead of labeling them “thugs” and “criminals” and write them off, along with the rest of the city. And these are some of the conversations that I hope and pray are being engaged across the country as we continue to wrestle with the issue of race in America
The reason my family moved from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Baltimore was my father’s call to pastor a church in the heart of the city. I grew up with the kids who lived around the church, got to know them and their families, and learned a lot about what it really meant to live in an inner city environment. The seemingly insurmountable struggles and obstacles these people face because the system has failed them in multiple ways are astounding. One of my best friends, whom I have known from the age of 7 or so, at one point did not anticipate living beyond the age of 17 or 18, purely based on his surroundings and what he had seen mirrored in front of him in his neighborhood. Such a profound and deep-seated sense of hopelessness and despair is typical for a youth living in Baltimore. Martin Luther King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I go one step further to say that it is the language of the unseen. It is easy to ignore them when they are not on your radar. It’s easy to dismiss them when they protest and possibly inconvenience you because they believe that their cause is just. That’s the basis of civil disobedience. But you cannot ignore them when they start to seek and destroy. I don’t condone this outlet for their anger, but I understand it, and I understand that we have failed our youth. And, while we continue to come together and fight against the injustices that have prevailed for far too long, I hope and pray that we learn to fight for one another, instead of with one another. I pray that our government leaders and those public servants who were elected to act in the best interest of the city and her residents will do just that. I pray that the sense of unity and comradery that we have found against a police force that has appeared to do everything but “protect and serve” our communities, will continue and propel us forward to repair, rebuild, and grow in ways that they will know why Baltimore is called “Charm City.” And I will continue to pray for my brothers and sisters across the country who join us in the fight in their own respective neighborhoods. WE ARE ONE.
Keep the faith.