Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from Baltimore, who have stepped up their longstanding interfaith cooperation since the death of Freddie Gray, will travel to the Vatican next week to meet with Pope Francis and receive his blessing for their work, they said Thursday.
The group includes Archbishop William E. Lori, Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom, the Rev. Frank Reid III of Bethel AME Church and Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. Members plan to leave Baltimore on Monday, meet with Pope Francis after his weekly general audience on Wednesday, and return on Thursday.
"The value of the visit is that the Holy Father will simply pray with us," Lori said Thursday. "It will only take a moment, but he'll ask God to bless our efforts and by extension the efforts of every person of good will to bring about healing and hope in our city."
Fink said the pope will be sending a powerful message of unity just by blessing the coalition.
"To say that I'm excited is a complete understatement," he said.
The group also includes the Rev. Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane, bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Denis Madden, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore; the Rev. Al Hathaway, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church; the Rev. Donald Sterling, pastor of New All Saints Catholic Church; and William McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities in Baltimore.
While in Rome, they plan to meet with Vatican officials and pray together at St. Peter's Basilica and other important spiritual sites. The group plans to stay inside the Vatican at the Casa Santa Marta, where Pope Francis resides.
The Baltimore Interfaith Coalition has gathered on a regular basis for years. Members talk about "the role of faith and faith communities in helping to bring about healing — about the importance of education, about the contributions our congregations are making toward helping young people get good educations, about providing social services," Lori said, and work with city and state officials.
The group has met once a month or more since Gray's death and its aftermath.
"We've been talking about the same issues we always have, but with more urgency," Fink said. "After the unrest of last year, we all felt we don't have any time to waste; we have to redouble our efforts."
Lori, who took over at the archdiocese in 2012, is a relative newcomer to the group, but Hathaway says he has helped remind members that the city's history of interfaith and ecumenical efforts date back as far as the time of John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore, who was making common cause with area rabbis by the early 19th century.
There's power in different faith traditions coming together, Hathaway said.
"Each of our traditions carries a mandate to respond to the needs of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the last, the least and the lost," he said.
"We all believe that every human being was created in the image of God. … We may approach God from different angles, but we all worship the same God, and each of us is committed to making Baltimore a healthier and safer place for all people," he said.
The idea for what Lori calls the pilgrimage dates to December, when the archbishop told Pope Francis about the group and its collective efforts. He later followed up with a request for an audience, and plans came together two weeks ago.
Lori will introduce his colleagues to the pontiff during the brief visit — a prospect they're relishing.
Fink plans to present the pope with some Berger cookies, a container of Old Bay, some of his own mother's baked goods and a copy of a new Reform Jewish prayer book for the High Holy Days.
"This is beyond anything I could have imagined," said Hathaway. "He's an amazing person on the world scene, transforming how people think."
Lori said he doesn't know how much Pope Francis dwells on Baltimore and its problems.
"I do know that the Holy Father consistently says to all of us who are his co-workers that we should be about building bridges," Lori said. "I do know he is concerned about the deep systemic problems that so many residents of Baltimore are beset by. This has all the makings of a wonderful encounter."
Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. His death inspired protests in Baltimore and across the country. On the day of his funeral, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.
Six police officers have been charged in Gray's death. All have pleaded not guilty.
The incident has inspired a broad discussion among leaders, activists and citizens about poverty, housing, education and other concerns in the city.
Lori, the spiritual leader of the region's half-million Catholics, discussed the challenges confronting Baltimore with Pope Francis during their meeting in December.
He said that the pope "listened with great, great attentiveness, offered prayers and showed a great deal of interest in the many efforts going on to address some of the deep and systemic problems in our city."
"I don't know if he was specifically aware of Freddie Gray, though [the name] certainly came up in our conversation," Lori said. "He was indeed aware of the racial unrest in several American cities, including our own."