BALTIMORE – The bell tower of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church soars above North Fremont Avenue, at the corner of Pennsylvania and across the wide street from a battered building housing the Wonderland Liquor store and bar, and a small corner grocery, which sit beneath boarded up windows that once looked into apartments.
It’s already warm at 10 a.m., and two aging members of the Knights of Columbus take shelter in a car, waiting to escort Archbishop William E. Lori, into the church. The Archbishop has come with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to worship at St. Peter Claver, located in the heart of the West Baltimore neighborhood torn by riots and demonstrations less than a week before, over the killing of Freddie Gray, for which six officers are charged with crimes ranging from misconduct in office to manslaughter and second degree murder.
The Knights say St. Peter Claver has been their church since they were young boys, and that until the 1960s, it was the only church that allowed African-Americans to worship in its sanctuary.
As Governor Hogan arrived and exited his motorcade, and mounted the exterior steps of the red brick Romanesque church, with three towers with arched windows and green and beige adornments, a black man, Shawn – a truck driver who grew up in the neighborhood – called out his name and the two exchanged greetings.
Shawn said he remembers a different west Baltimore when he was growing up, where the city and even the police department ran athletic and after school programs for local kids, and where a neighbor would call you out and threaten to tell your mom if you acted up. He praised Hogan as someone he voted for, despite being a “true blue Democrat,” saying Hogan remembers the people who knew him “when.” He had warm words for the former mayor, Sheila Dixon, who left office in a corruption scandal in 2009, and the former police commissioner, felled in a corruption scandal for which he went to prison in 2003, but who Shawn said knew and walked this neighborhood, and took the time to talk to the young men selling dope on the corner, “as opposed to, ‘get up against the wall!’” – which he demonstrated by throwing both hands behind his back.
Shawn, like many of those who gathered at North and Pennsylvania Avenues in the week since Gray’s funeral, had no kind words for the former Baltimore mayor and governor, Martin O’Malley, whose zero tolerance policies many black residents blame for the deteriorating relationship between the police and black citizens. The current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also got the cold shoulder from resident. Rawlings-Blake on Sunday morning announced via Twitter that a nearly weeklong curfew was finally over. She later held a press conference at Mondawmin Mall, where the first sparks of violent outbursts against police began last Monday, saying it was time for the city to come together.
As the service inside the ornate and beautifully preserved Catholic Church began, Archbishop William E. Lori and the Knights marched into the sanctuary to the civil rights anthem, “We shall overcome.” When the governor and Archbishop were announced, the large multi racial crowd – larger and more diverse than usual, an usher noted – applauded vigorously.
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Hogan had a day earlier called for Sunday to be a statewide day of prayer for peace and reconciliation, following a week of turmoil in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and burial. And Lori said before the service that prayer had the power to heal the city.
“Freddie Gray was your neighbor,” Lori said from the pulpit. “He was not just a symbol, but a person … May Freddie rest in peace.”
Lori referred only briefly to the case pending against the six officers, saying, “we know that [Gray’s] arrest and the manner of his death has struck a cord in Baltimore and beyond. We do not know the outcome of the case but we do know that Freddie Gray’s death has brought to the surface what we in the church call structural sin,” which Lori characterized as indifference, to the poverty, abandoned row houses, the plague of drugs in the community and mistrust between civic officials. “When we see this going on decade after decade we must acknowledge the right of the people to make their voices heard publicly,” he said, “but not to do so in a way that creates more injustice.”
“When I came into the city on Monday it was burning,” Hogan said after the service. “But since then I’ve seen incredible acts of kindness. I’ve seen neighbors helping neighbors. I’ve seen a community that cares about each other. It’s a great way to end the week.” Hogan called Sunday “a day of reconciliation and peace,” saying he was glad to see the curfew end so that the city and its residents can “get back to normal.” And he added that businesses, particularly small “mom and pop” and minority owned businesses had lost millions of dollars over the previous week, with some people losing everything.
Hogan said the statewide state of emergency could not be lifted until all of the 1,000 outside police officers and 3,000 National Guardsmen brought in to restore order had safely left the state.
And he said he didn’t want to “get into the case” pending against the six officers, saying that while it would be necessary to address the underlying issues of a lack of trust between Baltimore’s African-American communities and police, “today, it’s about keeping the city safe.”
Hogan closed his remarks to the press by noting that he had visited devastated home and business owners, local residents and churches like St. Peter Claver, and police officers injured in clashes with rock throwing protesters.
“I got prayers for everybody,” he said.