Baltimore faith leaders working against hate crimes in new interfaith council.
In February, a sign celebrating immigrants, Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community was vandalized with hate speech at Maryland Presbyterian Church. More than 200 people packed the church a week later for a “unity rally” denouncing hate organized by Pastor David Norse Thomas.
This month, faith leaders are taking that rally one step further with the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Baltimore, which launched Thursday with a summit on safety and security for faith-based institutions.
The coalition is a partnership of Baltimore County leaders “to make Baltimore County a place where all truly feel at home and are safe and able to worship in freedom,” Norse Thomas said.
Norse Thomas is one of the coalition’s initial organizers, along with Zainab Chaudry, Maryland outreach coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin.
The pastor said seeing people come together for the rally, “it became clear that there was a need, and that there was a real hunger for inter-religious conversation and cooperation. And also, that there was just so much fear and a desire to be able to respond in a positive way.”
After a sign declaring love for LGBTQ, immigrant and Muslim communities was vandalized with hate speech, Maryland Presbyterian Church Pastor David Norse Thomas says the church is doubling down on its mission of acceptance.
Zainab Chaudry, whose outreach office is based in Catonsville, said she wants the Interfaith Coalition to be a safe space for people to come together and discuss that fear of rising bias incidents — from the mosque attacks in New Zealand, to the synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh, to incidents like what happened at Maryland Presbyterian Church.
“Whenever there’s an attack on one faith community, it’s an attack on all faith communities,” Chaudry said.
T.J. Smith, spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski, spoke on his behalf at the meeting and presented the organizers with an executive proclamation.
“We believe there’s strength in numbers,” Smith said. “And the more we’re all together as a community, the more we can fight and drive out hate.”
About 50 faith leaders attended the launch summit on Thursday, which included workshops on grant applications for security at faith institutions, bystander intervention training and safety advice from Baltimore County Police.
Kit Bonson of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition led a bystander intervention training workshop in which participants acted out scenarios of people being harassed in public – a woman in a hijab being harassed on public transportation, for example, or a Latino man being yelled at for speaking Spanish. In each scenario, participants came up with ways bystanders could intervene to de-escalate the situation and support the person being attacked.
Later, Col. Steve Hlavach and three other members of the Baltimore County Police Department spoke to the faith leaders about safety measures they can take to protect their institutions — like keeping entrances well-maintained and visible, designating a security committee and coming up with an emergency crisis plan.
Marge Joseph, a member of United Evangelical Church in Canton, said as much as her church does not want to talk about safety risks, she attended the summit because “we felt like it was important to do our due diligence.”
Baltimore County's places of worship are wrestling with how to be welcoming while keeping congregants safe, amid a national discussion after the Parkland, Fla. shooting about how to protect "soft targets."
The Rev. Kay Albury, pastor at St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Turner Station, Dundalk’s historically African-American community, attended because she wanted to learn how to get security grants for her small church to install things like top-tier surveillance technology. She said she worries about safety because of “the climate of the world today,” with violence and “intentional domestic terrorism” in headline after headline.
Albury said she looks forward to being a part of the Interfaith Coalition, a movement she said hopes will continue to grow in order to connect diverse faith communities.