By FERN SHEN and ELIZABETH SUMAN
What can religion do to fight violence in Baltimore?
An interfaith group of well over a thousand people came together last night to answer that question — an array of religious leaders and citizens of all ages and races, wearing saris and sweatshirts, blowing the shofar and chanting Vedic calls, reading from the Bible and from the Koran.
The size and diversity of the crowd assembled in the cavernous Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for the Baltimore Interfaith Coalition’s “Vigil Against Violence” — among them mayor-to-be- Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — made the moment feel as historic as speakers said it was.
“We have not seen the likes of this size of interfaith gathering since the civil rights movement,” said Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
The event was organized by the Baltimore Interfaith Coalition, a group of religious and civic leaders who joined forces in 2009, the program said, “to bring hope to a hurting city.” The latest homicide statistics bear witness to that pain.
Baltimore City reported 238 murders in 2009, upping the number of homicides by four since 2008. These numbers are below those reached regularly in the 1980s, when the death toll topped 300. Still, Baltimore’s current murder rate is the second-highest in the United States in a city with a population over 500,000, second only to Detroit.
Several of last night’s speakers said combatting violence must start with a change in attitudes. Rabbi Stephen Fink chastised Baltimoreans who live close to each other but don’t interact or feel a connection to each other. “Residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods are looked upon as statistics,” said Fink, Rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom.
Sutton said complacency or resignation about Baltimore’s street violence has to end: “This is the year where Baltimore says ‘enough.’” “Anyone who has been killed is my brother,” Sutton said.
Other speakers stressed that people need to take action to stop violence, not just talk about it. As Heber M. Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, put it: “Be a thermostat not a thermometer.”
We’re at a crossroads, we have two choices, Brown said, “you can pat yourself on the back for a nice quaint prayer vigil . . . or we can be headlights. . . and choose a better way.” Brown urged his audience to adopt a school or mentor a young person.
The call-to-action comes at a potent political juncture for Baltimore, as the new administration of City Council President Rawlings-Blake takes charge of the violence-plagued city. Rawlings-Blake, standing with police department brass, bowed her head as the crowd prayed for her and other civic leaders.
Among the civic and religious groups represented in the Coalition are: Johns Hopkins University, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.
Everyone left on a rousing note, with the whole crowd holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Meanwhile, outside, all their obstacles remained, including deep skepticism and cynicism from a crime-weary city.
“Oh goody, another vigil!” a commenter on the Baltimore Crime blog wrote. “Just what this city needs! How about a vigil for tougher prison sentences for violent criminals?”
And on the Baltimore Police Department’s Twitter feed, the reason for the vigil’s existence was inescapable. Posted at 9:35pm, as the participants headed home:
“Shooting-1900 Blk Aisquith St- Adult male shot.”