ORLANDO, Fla. — As pockets of East and West Baltimore erupted in flames and riots Monday night over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray who died on April 19 after suffering serious injury while in police custody, a diverse coalition of Christian leaders from across the country gathered at First Baptist Orlando church Tuesday to discuss ways in which the church can intervene and prevent these eruptions before they even start.
On Tuesday night, ahead of The Reconciled Church: Healing the Racial Divide Summit set for Wednesday at the Orange County Convention Center, Bishop Harry Jackson, chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Washington, D.C. was busy on stage at the student center building of First Baptist Orlando, convincing the group he had gathered to join him on his mission to get a reconciled church and stand in the gap for change.
They had dinner and watched a WBAL TV 11 report showing clergy marching against the violence in Baltimore and praying in the street, creating a barrier between police and angry agitators.
"I believe that there are people, some of you who are in this room already who have pioneered things that if it were done by more people and your work was multiplied or if it were done in more diversity … it could be a bridge to heal some of the problems that we have. We don't just have a race problem in America, it is class, generational poverty and then race," explained Jackson, after they all watched the video of the Baltimore clergy in silence then cheered their efforts at the end.
Some of those people in the audience with a lot to share were popular Brooklyn, New York, megachurch pastor, A.R. Bernard of the Christian Cultural Center, who played a key role in helping to prevent riots after the death of Eric Garner in Staten, Island, and Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, who helped start a multiracial movement to prevent rioting in Sanford after the Trayvon Martin verdict.
"The impact of the clergy getting involved always takes it to another level. Jesus Himself was tempted by three social institutions in terms of Satan's offer of power — the economic power which was symbolized by turning stones into bread; political power when He was shown all the kingdoms of the world at the moment in time; and religious power when he was taken to the pinnacle of the temple," said Bernard.
"These social institutions are the main institutions that shape and inform culture, so it's no surprise that God would stir the church, which is a pillar of ground, to get involved and begin to take a leading role in what's going to happen socially in our nation, politically in our nation, and spiritually in our nation," he explained.
Bernard further noted that rioting did not occur in New York City after the Eric Garner case because of the relationships established between the clergy and relevant city officials and other community leaders.
"What happened in Ferguson did not happen in New York because the clergy, community leaders, political leaders, came together and collaborated on how to address these issues. Allowing people to express themselves in terms of their concerns, allowing people to protest. But we made it clear that we were not going to overstep those boundaries that were reasonable when it comes to protesting and expressing our concern or even our passion and anger in expressing what's happening in the society," said Bernard.
What's happening in Baltimore, he explained, is a precursor to change.
"Baltimore is among the list of eruptions that precede change, and when these things start happening … it is cyclical, when I look back to 1967, 1968 to the present. In New York City we were experiencing the same eruptions, and they were happening from the West Coast, Watts, to New York in the East Coast, so it's cyclical. Socially, psychologically and spiritually. There has to be adjustments. And these adjustments are usually precipitated by eruptions of anger and protest and even violence," he added.
While the concept of the reconciled church hasn't been clearly defined just yet, Bernard believes it is necessary to examine the idea and establish what exactly that should mean to facilitate understanding and help the church move forward.
"We have to really go through a process of defining our terms. What do we mean by the reconciled church? Christianity, like Jesus said, has blossomed into a great tree with many branches. There are over 330 different branches that claim identity with Christianity and with Christ in different ways; so when you say reconciling the church, we're gonna have to go through a process of determining the language to control the conversation so that we understand what we mean," he said of the concept.
"The definition of terms have to be clearly established and I think that this series of meetings today and tomorrow is going to do that. Because if you can't make the vision plain, how can people read it and run with it?" he asked.
Highlighting his own experience in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death, Hunter said the relationship building process with and between different communities was integral to the success of racial reconciliation efforts.
"We are practicing in our own community, this racial reconciliation network. I am from near Sanford, where the Trayvon Martin case was tried with George Zimmerman. And there was a group of pastors that came together, Sanford Pastors Connecting, black and white linked with law enforcement officials and different government officials so that we could build in our community the relationships to work out the justice issues we need to work out," he said.
"When that decision came down, there were no riots in Sanford because we were in that courtroom everyday as faith leaders and we had the relationships that prevented and stood against the damage that could have been done, especially from outside groups. So following that we have been meeting together. There are many churches in town, predominantly Anglo, that are partnering with predominantly African-American congregations. And we are making sure that we have the relationships we need to do relational reconciliation. Not just the idea," he explained.
"Baltimore and other communities were kinda caught flat-footed. And communities such as Ferguson did not have this preventative step, already close relationships, integrated relationships with both faith leaders, law enforcement officials and public officials. Because we took great pains to build that then the chances of violence in our community — much reduced. But when you have an incident that happens such as in Baltimore or when you have the incident that happened in Ferguson, if you don't already have that network, or are building that network, the results are gonna be much more catastrophic," said Hunter.
The relationship building process, particularly between races, wasn't easy, he noted.
"It is different because in large part our natural social relationships were largely segregated. Not only because of our neighborhoods and because of our business relationships, what was difficult was that nobody [was] taking the initiative. Nobody feels qualified to take the initiative. So a couple of us just said well, let's step up. Let's give it a try," he said.
"The second thing was this, everybody feels ignorant when it comes to each other's communities and we are afraid we are gonna say something offensive or insensitive, and that's because we usually say something offensive and insensitive. So you've got to get over that. And we admit, right up front, 'hey, we're gonna sound like people who have no idea what we're talking about. So let's just be gracious with one another.' And then the third thing that is difficult is that many times the black community is looking at what has been done and wants the white community to recognize the past, and the white community is way too ready to say 'let the past be the past, we are focused on the future,'" he added.
"We've got to listen to each other and the black community needs to say 'you know what, I need you to hear what happened but I'm ready to forgive.' And the white community needs to say 'I want to fix the future together but I really want to understand,' because if this is about a relationship, this is about really knowing one another. Let's have this conversation," he said.
And Bishop Jackson appeared to agree. In his address to the coalition he revealed that a part of the larger plan is to create a book of best practices on the reconciled church and spread that gospel across the country.
"This thing is all tied up … I think it's right that that's really it. It's not gonna be as easy to say well we all just didn't see color. Well, God wouldn't have made us all these colors if He didn't want us to see. But there's a way that we can attack some of these things. And so these best practices, over the next year we want to put together a book and have best practices in it," he said.
"We want to have a social media campaign that would begin to have practitioners who are doing the work talk about what they are doing and say to the rest of the nation (1) there's hope and then (2) come follow us," he continued.
"We could create an atmosphere where our message is heard. Now is the hour for the church to rise up to go up into the gap, to make a prophetic declaration to the nation. And if God keeps His word, I believe he is telling us I can keep America from going up in flames. I can keep people from tearing down their own cities. I can break the power of the spirit of the antichrist which has energized all this confusion. Our God can do it. But [He's saying] you're gonna have to let me lead you in a way to pull it off."