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© Leslie Butler MacFadyen

In Baltimore, Unitarian Universalists look for ways to help

Joining vigils for Freddie Gray, packing lunches for school children, learning from black community’s distress.
By Kenny Wiley

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As protests of police brutality continued to grow in Baltimore, Md., in the days leading up to the funeral of Freddie Gray, Unitarian Universalists in the greater Baltimore area and beyond joined protests and vigils supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Baltimore, UUs also mobilized to make lunches for school children when the city announced it would keep schools closed on April 28. They have planned a candlelight vigil at First Unitarian Church for May 1*, and the UU Unity Weekend—which will draw UUs from six nearby congregations to Baltimore—will include educational, service, and witness opportunities. UUs are likely to participate in protest marches during the day on May 1 and 2, as well.

The Rev. David Carl Olson, lead minister of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, attended the April 27 funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black man whose severe spinal injury April 12 and subsequent death April 19 while in police custody have sparked widespread protests, property damage, and general unrest.

Olson said he attended Gray’s funeral because it has become clear to him that his white skin and economic status afford him an unearned “different way of being” compared to young black people in Baltimore. “I went to express support. It’s important for me to listen, to not look away from the problem but hear the pain of the community and find ways to be helpful,” Olson said. (See also Olson’s statement, “In Baltimore, My Liberation Is Bound up with Yours.”)

Unitarian Universalists in Madison, Wisc.; Denver, Colo.; Oakland, Calif.; and elsewhere attended solidarity rallies this week to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore.

Kerridwen Henry, a member of the UU Congregation of Columbia, Md., who was instrumental in putting up a “Black Lives Matter” banner at her mostly white, 450-member congregation earlier in the year, hesitated about attending Gray’s funeral, saying she worried as a white person about encroaching on genuine grief and frustration. She decided to go, and focused on sending love to the Gray family. Approximately 2,300 people attended the funeral.

“There was powerful, loving determination among [those] at the funeral” to support Gray’s family and to address the conditions protesters have been challenging since August 2014, Henry said. “No one person or media outlet can twist that truth away.”

First Unitarian Church in Baltimore opened its doors April 28 to help prepare lunches for children in Baltimore City Schools, after a state of emergency closed all schools for the day. Leslie Butler MacFadyen, a black UU from Cherry Hill, N.J., and one of the leading organizers of the Ferguson National Response Network, led the effort, which provided 2,100 lunches or snacks from three sites in the city.

Adrian L.H. Graham, a Baltimore UU who lives in the neighborhood where many storefronts were boarded up on Tuesday morning, was among those who gathered at the church ready to assist. Rapidly evolving plans took the lunch preparations elsewhere. Some UUs moved on to help with protest support efforts at other sites, but Graham, a black man, stayed behind and played several spirituals on the piano, providing “a moment of inspiration and hope” for those in the building. He ended with the classic UU hymn “Spirit of Life,” and those present sang along heartily.

Butler MacFadyen challenged notions that the Black Lives Matter movement consists of black people aimlessly, and violently, protesting. “It is incorrect to think that while people are protesting police violence there isn’t a lot of work being done to address the many issues that plague the black community,” Butler MacFadyen said. “Protests all week in Baltimore were without incident, and Saturday was no different, until the protests entered white populated areas where the protesters were screamed at with insults.”

The Rev. John Crestwell, associate minister at the UU Church of Annapolis, Md., posted an impassioned video on Facebook Tuesday calling for UUs and others to take a deeper look at underlying issues of injustice and to respond with a dedication “to love, to compassion, and understanding.”

Crestwell, who is black, described the property damage and unrest as “the response from the disenfranchised.” “They are poor, they are black, they are white, and they’ve lost hope. These men and women have been neglected for far too long.”

In Austin, Tex., UU seminarian Erin Walter is leading a campaign in support of Texas Senate Bill 338, which would assign independent prosecutors to cases involving police violence. Walter says the bill is important because, “while prosecutors typically have no trouble getting indictments in civilian cases, police officers are almost never prosecuted.”

Walter, who is white, also spoke to the helplessness felt by many who are moved to assist the Black Lives Matter movement but aren’t sure how to help. “The problems can seem too big, the questions too painful, the answers too complicated. But there is hope. And there are real, concrete actions Texans—and Americans—can take.”

Back in Baltimore, Olson said more actions are on the way, but that he envisions his congregation playing a supportive role. “We are looking to participate, not lead.”

“Lots of people, UUs and otherwise, are asking—in Baltimore and nationally—how they can help, and that’s a great impulse,” he said. “We must first connect with young black leaders wherever we are. And then we can learn how to be supportive, whether that’s by helping raise money or get supplies, or even using our churches as meeting sites.”

“First we must grapple with the different realities facing many young black people in this country,” Olson said. “It’s stunning, but real.”

Photograph (above): Volunteers distribute some of the 2,100 lunches they provided to Baltimore elementary school children after the city closed schools in a state of emergency on April 28 (© Leslie Butler MacFadyen).

Correction 4.30.15: An earlier version of this story said First Unitarian Church is holding a candlelight vigil on April 30; the vigil will be Friday evening, May 1. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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