Voices from Baltimore: Clergy, Community Leaders Bridge Gaps

Decades of neglect giving way to new vision, greater investment

(Image: www.jta.org)

When Freddie Gray died after being in police custody–the reasons for his arrest are still unclear–something snapped in Baltimore. Frustration, anger, perhaps desperation boiled over, and soon images of police in riot gear filled our screens.

Exactly what caused the unrest may remain just out of reach for those of us who don’t live there, so BlackEnterprise.com spoke with three Baltimore residents: two members of the clergy who are also community leaders, Rev. C. Anthony Hunt and Glenna Huber, an Episcopal priest; and Shannen Coleman Siciliano, an independent education and nonprofit consultant who taught second grade in Baltimore for five years, two with Teach for America. She has also worked with two community-based nonprofits in the city: BUILD, or Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development; and Child First Authority, whose mission is to develop youth by reforming and strengthening schools. It was founded by BUILD but is a separate organization.

Siciliano says the city’s turmoil in April reflected decades of neglect: “We’re seeing a reflection of disinvestment of resources, time, and money. Baltimore does not have the property tax base to support its schools the way wealthier, suburban jurisdictions do. That’s one issue. But we also have a 50% unemployment rate in our communities.”

Seeing the disinvestment in the city’s schools as part of a larger problem, Siciliano says, “I don’t think that the issues we see in education are separate from the issues we see in the community. In order to impact education, we need to impact the city.”

To fill some of the gaps, churches and other community-based organizations have stepped in. One is Epworth Chapel United Methodist Church, which is technically outside the city, but its pastor, Rev. Hunt, says the community his church serves encounters the “same kinds of complexities as the city churches.” His church has worked with local elementary, middle schools, and high schools providing tutoring, financial support, and practical needs like hats and gloves for students in the winter.

[Related: President Obama Launches My Brother’s Keeper Alliance]

“Our approach is to close the gaps that have been identified by the school leaders. It’s based on what the school needs. We don’t have an agenda. It’s not a religious endeavor for us,” says Hunt, also a professor of systematic and practical theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, and an adjunct faculty member at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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