Letter to Baltimore

7.27.16    Preached at Massanetta Springs Bible Conference

I live in the city of Baltimore.  We are known for our beautiful inner harbor.  We are known for our crabs.   And now we are known for rioting.  I was in Baltimore last year when people’s frustrations and pain and anger just boiled over.  One day a young black man died after having been  handcuffed by the police.  It was like turning up the burner on the stove, and after his funeral, the pot just boiled over.  Some people with black skin had had enough of being treated like second class citizens, of living in poverty for generations, of the lack of sustainable jobs and recreational opportunities for youth in our city.  The anger and disappointment at not being listened to or really cared about by police or city leaders or the people who live in the wealthier sections of the city just boiled over and angry residents took it out on the local pharmacies and corner stores, breaking windows, setting fires, stealing.  Now the whole world can see that many people experience Baltimore as a place where hope seems to be locked up, inaccessible, out of reach.

But I don’t want you to think that is all there is to Baltimore.  I want you to know that Baltimore is full of boys and girls and men and women just like you.  People with skin of all colors.  People who enjoy the cool breeze on a summer evening, people who play video games and basketball, people who walk their dogs and paint their bedrooms pink, people who want to work as pharmacists or accountants or musicians or deli owners, people who love to dance, grill hamburgers outside and cheer for the Orioles.

Tonight I want you to imagine with me…  imagine we are writing a letter to Baltimore, I mean to all of Baltimore—to black and white and brown,  to the boys and girls who live there, to the grandparents and great grandparents, and to everyone in between.  Imagine we are writing a letter to encourage the people of Baltimore to find a way to unlock hope.

This letter will be a lot like the letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the people of Israel who were living in a hopeless situation.  They had been kidnapped from their own homes and carried away to the foreign country of Babylon.  They were prisoners, really, stuck in a prison without walls, unable to get the next camel caravan to go home.  They felt powerless, hopeless and abandoned by God.  So Jeremiah wrote them a letter of hope, trying to encourage them.  Jeremiah reminded them that this imprisonment would not last forever.  Neither would it end next week.  “While it does last,” he wrote, “you had better settle in and make a home for yourself.  Plant your gardens and enjoy the vegetables, have babies and teach them to walk and talk.  When those babies grow up, marry them off and look for grandchildren to come.   Do what you can to care for the city where you are, because that will help everyone who lives there and things will go better for you.  I know you are at the bottom today, and you feel powerless.  But you do have power.  You have the power to invest your sweat, your energy, your wisdom, your joy, and your commitment to look out for your neighbor.  Prisoners though you are, you can make an uncomfortable place better, and the well-being of the whole community will improve.”  Jeremiah’s letter was a message from God to the people of Israel living in a place where hope was locked up.

So here is our letter to the people of Baltimore…Dear Baltimore, dear children and grandparents, teenagers and young adults, parents, aunts, uncles of Baltimore, Maryland:  “You are loved by God.  It does not matter which street you live on.  It does not matter who lives next door.  It does not matter even if the house next door is boarded up.  It does not matter whether your family has a car or depends on the bus.  It does not matter what language you speak or what color your skin is.  You are loved by God and God has plans for your future, a future of peace and not disaster.       People of Baltimore, I know that some of you feel imprisoned by an unjust system and some of you feel like the ones who maintain the prisons, either consciously or unconsciously.  You all share one city.  The well-being of neighborhoods where drug deals are too commonplace must be of concern to neighborhoods filled with trees and brightly colored flowers.  The children in public and private school systems need the same opportunities to learn skills and to develop their minds and bodies.  Stay committed to your city.  Put down some roots.  Plant a garden.  If you don’t have any earth, use containers on your porch or along the sidewalk.  If someone steals your tomato plant, plant another one.  Share your produce with a neighbor.  Encourage her to plant a garden too!

Don’t let your environment control you.  You have power over your environment.  Work with your neighbors to insist on a healthy, peaceful, positive place to live.  Raise your children to learn about art, culture, and nature, taking advantage of programs and museums and parks and libraries in Baltimore.  Fill your children and grandchildren with love, with pride in their city, with hope and not despair about the future.  You have the power to decide how you will respond to the conditions around you, and to be the change you want to see in your city, to borrow from Ghandi.

God knows your concerns for safety, for family unity, for healthy food, for trash free streets, for stable jobs, for removal of drug dealers.  And God has given you resources within yourself, among your neighbors, in your city leaders, in your churches.  The more you use those resources, the more you unlock hope for your city.  You can invite your city council members or your local police officer to stop by for a sandwich and a cold soda.  Get to know them and let them get to know you and your neighborhood.  You will start to increase trust and understanding.  You can reach out to people who live in a different neighborhood.  Plan a cookout together.  Meet at an outdoor movie night.  Visit one another’s churches or synagogues or mosques.  Hang out on the corner together, taking the drug dealers’ spots.  You will find that you are breaking barriers and building bridges.

Baltimore, it will take time.  You can’t erase the images of rioting overnight.  You can’t wave a magic wand and fix an unjust system where people are treated differently based on the color of their skin or the neighborhood where they grew up.  Neither can you sit around waiting for someone else to fix it all.  I hope you will make a commitment to be in it for the long haul.  To plant your gardens, to raise your children and grandchildren, and to seek the well being of all who live in your city.  As you do, you are unlocking hope, freeing prisoners, changing environments, breaking down walls.  You can do it, Baltimore.  You are loved by God.  You do have power.  You can unlock hope.  Don’t you ever forget it!”

With love from your brothers and sisters at Massanetta.

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