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Baltimore Pastor of Diverse Church Located Just Blocks From Rioting Says White Christians Need to Acknowledge Systemic Racism

This piece originall appeared in The Christian Post.

Joel Kurz of The Garden Church in Central/West Baltimore Tells CP Causes Behind Protest, Rioting Are 'Complex'

(Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg) Members of the community make heart gestures with their hands in front of a line of police officers in riot gear, near a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Md., on April 28, 2015.

The pastor of a youthful and racially-diverse congregation located just a few blocks from the CVS pharmacy set on fire by rioters amid otherwise peaceful protests in Baltimore says it's time for white Christians to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in America and to listen to those who are angry and hurting in order to help find meaningful solutions.

"There are deep systemic issues. There is no surface issue that's really the cause. There's some deep stuff that's been going on that's been going on for a lot of years," Joel Kurz, lead pastor of The Garden Church in Central/West Baltimore, told The Christian Post on Wednesday.

Some of those "deep systemic issues" are believed to have been at play when Baltimore police officers chased and arrested Freddie Gray and placed him inside a van on April 12. Gray, who was arrested for having a switchblade-like knife in his possession, was admitted to a hospital less than two hours later, and was dead by the end of the week. The 25-year-old died at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center where he had received surgery for his severely injured spinal cord and crushed voice box — injuries sustained while he was in police custody, according to The Baltimore Sun. Protesters had already taken to the streets the day before Gray's death, and when news of his passing came with no information on what might have befallen Gray during his arrest, their numbers swelled.

(Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg) Members of the community work to clean up a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Md.,on April 28, 2015, after looters targeted the store and rioters set fire to it.

After days of peaceful protests, violence erupted. On Monday, April 27, some took to looting, targeting stores like a 7-Eleven and CVS in West Baltimore. Looters helped themselves to a variety of items — like toilet paper and napkins. In addition to looting stores, setting fires and destroying residents' and police vehicles, rioters had also targeted a $16 million low-income senior center run by a church. By the end of it all, 15 officers had been injured, nearly 202 people arrested, and 144 vehicles and 19 structures set on fire, according to CNN.

The CVS pharmacy, a reportedly highly relied upon asset for the area's senior citizens, was in a state of ruin Tuesday when residents poured into the streets to clean up the mess caused by their neighbors, many of whom appeared to be youths based on photos and videos that captured the chaos. The violence was roundly condemned by the mayor, the police chief, and community leaders and residents — with many Baltimoreans turning out to ongoing protests with the specific intent to prevent troublemakers from disrupting the demonstrations with violence and therefore provoking police, many of whom were clad in riot gear.

Needless to say, the events unfolding in Baltimore have captured the nation's attention. Pastor Kurz, who helped plant The Garden Church in Baltimore seven years ago, cautioned outsiders and long-distance observers from taking a simplistic approach to what he believes is an otherwise complicated situation.

Some of Baltimore City's complexity is revealed among residents of Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park in West Baltimore, to be where Gray lived. Baltimore's population of 620,961 people, 29 percent of whom are white and 64 percent are black, live in nine regions encompassing more than 200 neighborhoods.

In Gray's neighborhood, residents face "extraordinary challenges around educational attainment, housing, and addiction," according to statistics compiled by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative. The public policy think-tanks, both of which advocate for prison reform, report that 52 percent of the residents in Gray's neighborhood that are between the ages of 16-64 are unemployed, have a median household income of $24,000 (compared to $40,803 for the entire city), and have the third-highest incarceration rate among all of Baltimore. One out of every four people is on public assistance, more than double the general city average; 34 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED; and one out of every three houses is vacant or abandoned (based on 2012 findings).

Another startling statistic came to light Tuesday, when Baltimore City Public Schools kept schools closed as a safety precaution after the previous night's rioting. That decision affected nearly 85,000 students, 82.7 percent of whom are African-American, 8 percent white and 7.4 percent Hispanic/Latino. A whopping 84 percent of school children in Baltimore come from low-income households and qualify for free or reduced-meals. Activists and community members immediately sprung into action, organizing collections and distribution of food on Tuesday to make sure children's needs were met.

Pastor Kurz and some of his Garden Church members were also busy on Tuesday, preparing 200 lunches as part of the community-wide effort. "With everything going on it's very likely that kids were not eating throughout the day. We just wanted to make sure that before the day was over, kids, at least the few that we could get to in our own area right there, had the opportunity to eat something," Kurz told CP.

Kurz, who spoke via phone with CP on Wednesday, shared what he has learned from his neighbors, congregation members, and his own observations while living in Baltimore for the past seven years. In the interview, transcribed below, the Southern Baptist pastor also reveals his prayers for his city and some advice for Christians looking on and who may not be to sure what to make of the situation. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

CP: How old is The Garden Church and what does its surrounding community look like?

Kurz: We've been here since 2008. We moved into the neighborhood ... we actually live in the neighborhood where the rioting took place. The CVS that burned, that's sort of like right on the edge of our neighborhood, it kinda borders our neighborhood. So that's where we're at. The neighborhood itself consists of predominantly generationally impoverished communities as well as working class mostly African-American males. At the same time though, we're only a few blocks from a very affluent neighborhood, the Maryland Institute of Cultural Arts (Maryland Institute College of Art) is there. So it's a very mixed area to some degree, at least within the close proximity of each other.

However, with that said though — this is partly why we actually moved here in 2008 — there's always been a lot of tension in this area, racial tension as well as economic ... economic tension actually more so than racial tension although unfortunately, that also looks like race as well.

(Photo: Twitter/JoelKurz) Joel Kurz, pastor at The Garden Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

CP: What does your faith community look like? What kind of age groups and ethnicities are represented?

Kurz: We are predominantly young, a lot of 20- and 30-somethings, older folks. We've got a number of students as well as people from the neighborhood. … I usually describe it this way: we're made up of lifelong Baltimoreans as well as city transplants, people kinda moving through. Racially, we are about half-white, half-black (with) a few others in the mix, but mostly African-American and Caucasian split right down the middle.

CP: You mentioned that The Garden Church is located not too far from ground zero, the CVS that was burned down.

Kurz: We're about eight-10 blocks from that CVS.

CP: How has The Garden Church been affected by the protests and disorder in Baltimore?

Kurz: We've really been just trying to serve as a church. There has been an emotional impact. I mean of course Freddie Gray, his neighborhood is just one neighborhood over, in Sandtown. One of our members know the family, so there has been an emotional impact with some, and all of us as far as just dealing with the situation.

But really for the most part, our church members have responded very well. They're serving, coming together, they've been down at ground zero, if you would, serving in various ways. Even during the riots, we had people down there. We had one guy who actually stood in front of a gas station and didn't allow looters to loot it. He stood them off basically, which is pretty remarkable. So it's been positive.

CP: What's your take on what's going on right now?

Kurz: It's complex. There is... the more we live in any area that has issues, the more complex we realize that the problem actually is. First of all, there is the national tension that has been built up around police brutality, so that of course has been brewing here. However, at the same time, that's kinda been going on ever since I've lived here. It's been going on for many years before I ever moved here, you know. People living in the neighborhood tell me that this is the same stuff that catapulted the 1968 riots in our city. This is old tension. This is why the kids were so quick to react in the way that they did. It's because it's been brewing for a very long time.

There's been distrust between the police and the community residents for many years. I think when it comes down to the actual events, I feel like in some ways the community around us and many of the communities in Baltimore — not just simply the neighborhood where the looting took place, but all over — it's a community that has no voice, that feels like they have no control. And then when kids get out of school and police are in riot gear and they're being told to get off the buses and public transportation's shut down and rioting begins, I feel like in many ways the looting is just simply a grasp at control. I think for a brief moment these youths have an opportunity to feel power. So when they break a window or steal something, they're just simply feeling that and it's intoxicating. There are deep systemic issues. There is no surface issue that's really the cause. There's some deep stuff that's been going on that's been going on for a lot of years.

CP: What is your prayer for your city?

Kurz: The first prayer is that people's hearts would be softened to the Gospel during all of this. You know, historically, revivals have been birthed out of tragedy and my prayer is that our city would realize that there is no ultimate hope in the things we put our hope in, whether that is authority or whether that is violence and that there is only hope in the message of Christ. So I'm praying that hearts would be softened to the Gospel through this, that churches would also preach the Gospel as well. The prosperity gospel is really thick in Baltimore and we need churches to get back to the basics of who we are, who God is, who Christ is.

Then of course, peace, that riots won't continue. On a more surface level, whether convictions do or do not come in this police case, whatever the outcome may be, I think we need to pray for peace, that our citizens would respond well and would not resort to rioting and looting once again.

CP: How would you like Christians on the outside who are looking in to respond to what is going on in Baltimore right now? What should they be doing?

Kurz: I think the Church as a whole needs to have very deep and meaningful conversations on race. I think, honestly speaking as a white guy, a lot white people in white churches don't want to believe that race is still an issue and don't really want to talk about it. And I think we need to. We need to talk about systemic racism that still exists in our country. We need to be open to that.

I think we also need to listen. Sometimes, we have more answers than we do listening ears, and I think we need to listen. We need to listen to the voices of those that are hurting, the voices of those that are angry, so that we can actually come up with some meaningful answers and some real solutions, as opposed to just running with our impressions.

This piece originall appeared in The Christian Post.

Follow Nicola Menzie on Twitter at @NAMenzie and The Christian Post at @ChristianPost.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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