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Concern for Baltimore inspires prayer circle at Westminster church

People held hands while a man softly strummed a guitar. Others closed their eyes and swayed gently to the rhythm of their prayers before the wooden cross on a hill behind Crossroads Community Church in Westminster.

More than 35 people had gathered at the church at 5 p.m. Tuesday, bringing with them their anger, their confusion and their questions about the violent events in Baltimore on Monday. Together, they offered them up to God.

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"It's prayer that will guide us through," intoned Lorrene Munoz, the church youth leader who had organized the prayer circle. "Prayer will provide all the answers we are looking for, that Baltimore is looking for, that the nation is looking for."

On Monday night, unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, 25 — who died on April 19, a week after he was injured while being arrested by Baltimore police — turned violent. Twenty police officers were injured, 235 arrests were made and 144 vehicles were set on fire that night.

At the prayer circle, a diverse crowd of almost every age group and ethnicity had gathered in response to Monday night's riots. They held hands and formed the shape of a heart as they shared their feelings and the prayers that Munoz called them to.

Munoz is the youth leader at Crossroads Restoration Church in Westminster, but she said she often coordinates with the youth ministry and Crossroads Community Church. It was at about 1 p.m. Tuesday when she realized that God was calling her to do something, that the youths she worked with needed her to do something.

"I wanted any youth that feel the need to express themselves to come and express themselves in a positive way, because they are expressing it in a negative way," she said. "It's a lot of emotions. There's confusion, there's anger, there's fear; you have to give them an opportunity to speak."

Ultimately, she drew people from other congregations who needed a place to heal.

One of them was Sumer Ledley, a member of Hampstead Baptist Church and a senior at North Carroll High School. She had heard of the prayer circle from a friend and knew she had to attend.

"As I saw everything on the news and on social media, I built up all this anger and confusion. I saw the hate that's been on the police officers over the past few months," she said. "My dad is a Baltimore County police officer. So, I don't understand. My dad is not a corrupt, racist man."

Confusion was common among Ledley's peers at schools as well. She said that while many students joked about the looting, it was impossible to completely ignore the reality that these were things happening in their own backyard.

"We were talking about it at lunch today, trying to figure things out," Ledley said. "There's that joking about it, but then there is a lot of confusion — Baltimore is our home. Even though we grew up in Carroll County, Baltimore is part of our childhood. I was going to go to the Inner Harbor this Friday for my 18th birthday, that's what like all I wanted to do — that's part of us."

After the prayer circle, where she was able to voice her feelings about her father and the city, Ledley said she felt a weight had lifted.

Talking things through, praying things through that is the only way Tori Kaskel believes people can handle the kind of anger being expressed in Baltimore. A member of Crossroads Community Church, she said it was beautiful to see young people attend and be given a safe place to express their frustration.

"I think there is a temptation to hide behind social media, or hide behind a wall and not talk about stuff," she said. "I think there is power in talking about things and working through it, whether it is talking out anger, or talking out love you have to … get to a place where you are open and honest with your feelings."

Susi Wood, another member of Crossroads Community, came to the prayer circle after having worked as a nurse at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore on Saturday night.

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"I have friends that are cops and I also have friends that are living in those communities that are kind of the poorest and most downtrodden in Baltimore, so on either side there is just so much anger," she said. "I think especially for the kids, they feel the anger and they feel this tension, and they don't know what to do or how to fix it."

Anger and confusion both seemed common among youth in both Baltimore and Carroll to Amber McConnell, another Crossroads Community member at the prayer circle. But she suspects there is another root to the rage that some are feeling.

"Underneath a lot of this is an undercurrent of fear — fear of not being heard, fear of not being seen," she said. "It's all this fear that is resounding so if we can come together and say that Christ is perfect love and that his perfect love will drown out fear."

Woods will be returning to Johns Hopkins for another shift Wednesday — as essential staff she can even receive a police escort to the hospital if necessary, she said. After the prayer circle, however, she is hopeful that love can set the stage and create the space for justice.

"Even though there has been so much destruction, there's going to be a lot of healing from it," she said. "There is probably going to be a lot more focus on what is going wrong: You can't just let people live in these situations. It's everybody's responsibility to be aware of the horrible things that people have to deal with on a daily basis. It's not something you can turn a blind eye to and I think it is time for people to step up and create unity."

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