By Bob Allen
Southern Baptist church planters in Baltimore say they weren’t surprised when peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Gray turned violent, because they have witnessed firsthand the conditions breeding anger among the city’s African-American youth.
“I want you to know how deeply concerned we are about the city of Baltimore,” Will McRaney, executive missional strategist of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network said in a video message. “Our churches are rallying in support. We’ve been praying for the city for some time, so it’s really not surprising to us that we’re encountering this level of evil.”
Joel Kurz, a church planter who moved to Baltimore in 2008 to launch the Garden Church, which officially constituted in 2012, said he was struck by the divide in the neighborhood where the church’s core group began in a discussion group on life and spirituality at a brew pub.
“We saw there was this huge divide that existed basically between black and white,” Kurz said during a panel discussion on racial reconciliation at an April 25 Unplugged 2015 conference at Freedom Church Baltimore. “Unfortunately in Baltimore, that also looks like rich and poor, which is part of our problem in the city.”
Freedom Church Pastor Michael Crawford, church-multiplication strategist for Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network, also known as the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, was on his way to a conference when fires, looting and arson erupted in the hours after the April 27 funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries while in police custody.
“Satan wants our city, and he can’t have it,” Crawford said in a video message posted online. “I was in the airport on my way to a network meeting in Florida, and I can’t leave. We were born for this hour, and we’re going to fight. This the right way, on our knees.”
Freedom Church, a multi-racial church plant that meets in property that reverted to the Baltimore Baptist Association when the former Hazelwood Baptist Church dissolved, is one of a number church re-starts in Baltimore supported through Send North America, part of a national church-planting strategy of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jesus Our Redeemer Church, located in the Federal Hill neighborhood of South Baltimore, began in February 2014 as a merger of Lee Street Memorial Baptist Church, founded in 1855, and Redeemer City Church, a new church plant that began holding services in Lee Street’s building on Sunday afternoons.
“They had been without a full-time pastor for more than three years,” Brad O’Brien, pastor of Jesus Our Redeemer, said in a video shown at last summer’s SBC annual meeting in Baltimore. “I became convicted that I could not grow a church plant in the building owned by a church that was dying.”
The Village Church, a new church meeting in property that formerly housed the aging membership of Hampden Baptist Church, gathered the night of April 27 to pray for the city. Village Church Pastor Dan Hyun discussed the recent rash of black men killed at the hands of law enforcement at the Unplugged 2015 conference.
“I fear we’re getting to the point where we’re going to see more and more of this happen, and it’s going to shock us less and less,” Hyun said. Asked what he would say to Freddie Gray’s parents, Hyun said, “I would say to them personally that someone cares.”
“We’re a culture that just loves the latest sound bite,” he said. “We love the latest hashtag. So I would just say to his parents: Someone does care. We’re praying. We’re doing what we can.”
Maryland/Delaware Baptists launched Love Baltimore, an online campaign encouraging Southern Baptists to pray and donate money to help restore and rebuild the community.
“There are some deep-seated needs that exist there,” McRaney said. We’re trying to express our love for the city in practical ways and with the gospel of Jesus Christ, both of which are very important.”
“This is the reason we exist — for times like this,” McRaney said. “Not just the planting of churches and the caring for pastors and equipping them, but it’s times like this when can pull together and see God’s Kingdom advance in the midst of some difficulties and challenges the city is facing.”
Crawford said a lot of people are wondering what they can do to help Baltimore recover.
“The first thing is, you can really pray — not Facebook that you’re praying, not Twitter that you’re praying, not have a sentiment that you’re praying, but like really pray,” he said in a video message. “We believe that if we the people of God call on God that he will heal our land.”
“The second way you can help is in not being divided,” he said. “Most of us probably need to get off of Twitter and Facebook and get on our faces, and be careful of the potential divisive rhetoric.”
Crawford said another way to help is through financial gifts.
“Long after the cameras and the SWAT teams and the police are gone, the people will still be here and we need to rebuild, and the church needs to drive the bus and not sit on the side and watch it pass by,” he said. “So we need your prayers and we need your resources.”
“The last thing that some of you may need to do is you may actually need to get on a bus or in your car or on a plane and come join a local church, like for good,” Crawford appealed. “This could be a call for some of you to move permanently to Baltimore; permanently plant your roots like many of us have done, and fall in love with a city that Jesus is deeply in love with.”
“We believe that God is great,” Crawford said. “We believe that God is doing great things, and there is an opportunity, a window of a lifetime, for us to step into and let our light shine. My invitation to you is to respond to that window. We’ve got one chance to do this. Let’s do this.”