Police chaplain: ‘We all live in same world’

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As of Tuesday night, June 9, there have been 54 murders in Baltimore City since May 1. That’s an average of more than one per day. Most of these murders are gang and drug related, as the gangs and drug lords sort out the massive number of pills that were stolen in the riots in late April as drugstores were ransacked and looted. That number of pills is enough to keep every person in Baltimore high for a year. My heart breaks for my city, and the families of those being murdered. The impact and generational trauma will be felt for years to come.

The current tensions in Baltimore started decades ago as “white flight,” sending former city residents scurrying to the suburbs as new residents who looked different moved in after desegregation. However, the tensions have increased sharply in recent months and weeks. I feel the tension acutely, and have felt personally torn. On the one hand, as a Christian and as a pastor, I am called to serve the least, the last, the lost, and the marginalized in the world.

But on the other hand, I’m also a Baltimore City police chaplain, and I’m called to stand with the officers and their families in this time of need.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the current underlying tensions, it seems that these two roles are diametrically opposed to one another. I feel caught — if I disclose to folks in the neighborhood that I am a police chaplain, it could undermine my ability to do ministry with them, and perhaps even my safety.

If I keep this information hidden, I lose the opportunity to be a bridge and link between the disparate sides. And so I find myself walking a fine line.

A colleague reminded me, Jesus did the same thing — he spent time with the poor and with the tax collectors. Jesus saw that both groups needed to know about God's love, and ministered accordingly. And so, I am using this as my model to go between those who have the power and those who are seeking power.

City of neighborhoods

My church is located about two miles from "Ground Zero" in Baltimore — Penn and North — where most of the riots were centered. Yet, we are a world apart, culturally. Located in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore, the church is in one of the fastest growing areas in the state of Maryland — the hip place where folks want to move. And because of this, and our white privilege, the police and city leadership made sure that the riots didn’t touch our neighborhood. Not all of Baltimore was burning or caught up in the riots.

My neighborhood is predominately white, and the neighborhood of the riots (Sandtown-Winchester) is almost exclusively black. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods — many people are born, raised, live and die within the same few-block radius of their neighborhood — never leaving. 

However, I firmly believe that the only way to change Baltimore is to change people — one person at a time. We do this by getting to know the cultural "other" long before any riots break out.

Last fall, the Rev. Rodney Hudson, pastor of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church, located two blocks from Penn and North, and I were talking. We both were concerned that our youth were not getting a realistic view of Baltimore, and that they only knew what was in their neighborhood. So we planned a youth event, "Cookies and Lights," that was very well attended and attracted attention from other churches who want to participate this year.

In my neighborhood, every Christmas an entire block decorates their houses with an extraordinary amount of lights, in what has been called the "Miracle on 34th Street" — a play of words on the classic Christmas movie, since this event happens on 34th Street.

Our churches gathered in the basement of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church one Friday night near Christmas. When the night began, one church was on one side of the room, the other church on the other side of the room. We mixed up the groups — children and adults, Ames United Methodist Church and Good Shepherd. We played a variety of silly games. After a few games, folks really got into it, and had a lot of fun, laughing and cheering for their "team."

We then began the four-block walk to see the lights, and kept everyone together in a crowd of thousands. The adults watched out for all of "our" kids — not just their own. Afterwards, we returned to the church for cookies and hot chocolate to complete the night. Everyone met a new friend that night, and built relationships. The Ames youth then invited the Good Shepherd youth to Watchnight services.

Relationship building

That night, we began building relationships that crossed boundaries of race, culture, socio-economics, neighborhoods, churches and more. These relationships that began that night impacted my ability to minister in Sandtown-Winchester in the days following the riots.

Without the relationships, I would have had no relational equity built up with which to draw upon and base my prayers. My ability to come into the neighborhood with credibility, as someone here for the long-haul, not as someone swooping in to help because it was the “cool” thing to do at the time, was based on the relationships that were built with the local United Methodist congregation, pastor, and staff in the months before the riots.

Similarly, I have provided pastoral care and counseling to several police officers in the wake of the riots. My ability to do so is directly dependent on the relationships built before the riots broke out. These officers are distraught with pain and grief after the riots. Many are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms.

Frequently, in Baltimore, we like to think about the officers having the "power" but in reality, they are simply humans trying to do their job to the best of their ability. They have spouses, significant others, children, and family at home, too. They struggle to make ends meet and pay their bills. They have to take the stress of the job home with them and try to be a good mom, dad, wife, husband while internalizing the traumatic events. Our officers need prayer and care too.

‘Adopt’ an officer

I have been asked by colleagues what their churches can do to help — either here in Baltimore or at home. One thing that your congregation can do in your own community in the wake of so many news stories on police brutality is to "adopt an officer" and make sure they know that they have the support of a faith community behind them. This officer may never walk through the doors of your church, but knowing that others care about them and their family, and that they have a safe place to go, if needed, can make a big difference in their life.

Adopting an officer is more than providing coffee and donuts though. Many municipalities allow for civilians to go on “ride-alongs” with officers. Go. See firsthand what an officer deals with on a daily basis. Feed their entire shift a home-cooked meal. Make sure they have basic needs at home.

I heard about an officer who was homeless and living in his squad car on the back lot of the police station. A chaplain who found out about it and worked with the commanding officer to find a resolution.

When you adopt an officer, you are investing in that person, and their family. You are building a relationship so that if and when violence breaks out in your city or town, you already have a relationship from which to base your ministry and outreach.

Take pulse of community

Another way your congregation can get involved is to host community forums, town hall meetings, or a lecture series on current events or your local issues. Address them before they fester and grow for decades. The pain expressed in riots doesn't develop overnight. There may be a trigger, but that strong emotion has taken generations to create, and will take generations to heal.

Remember though, don't try to speak for a group you don't represent. Speak authentically for yourself. If you don't fully understand an issue or position, admit it.

If your congregation and community feels called to protest, do it safely. Several groups train communities for nonviolent interaction and protests. Bring these groups into your neighborhood, community and churches for training ahead of time in how to protest in a nonviolent manner.

They will also teach you how to care for basic injuries that are common in riots: teargas in your eyes and handcuff wounds. These groups work with legal aide so that if someone is arrested, you know how to track them and get them out of jail.

The needs of affected communities last longer than the cameras and news. Even if your community isn't affected by riots, you can partner with churches in communities that are affected. VIM teams, food, water, even temporary shelter may be needed for weeks, months, and years afterwards. And the reality is that what the news shows, and what is actually happening, are two very different things.

Pastors and lay leaders, don't be afraid to tackle the tough issues of race, class, educational disparities and other concerns head-on in worship. If we can't tackle them in the church, then where can we address them? There are people of faith on both sides of every issue.

My approach is to tell the stories of what I have seen and heard, and let the stories speak for themselves. Again, if you have a relationship with those in the midst of the violence, you have the ability to get first-hand accounts from both sides that you can share with others.

Ultimately, we as Christians are called to stand at the intersection of all the disparate groups. We are called to bridge the divide between cultures. We are called to serve the poor and the tax collectors, the powerless and those with power. We are called to stand in the gap and help others listen to one another.

We don't have to agree, but we do need to be able to live in the same world together, as humans, imago dei, made in God's image. That is what unites us. We are called to stand together against oppression and injustice, in whatever forms they may present themselves, as we promise in our baptismal liturgy.

We are called to bring forth God's Kingdom on this earth, and to share God's love with everyone — no matter what unites us or separates us. We are called to live like Jesus.

McCubbin is pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Baltimore. She is also a police chaplain.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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