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As Baltimore grapples with police-community relations, Columbia pastor returns to Ferguson

As Baltimore grapples head on with its own fraught police-community relations, the Rev. David Anderson is in Ferguson, on a trip scheduled long ago to check in on the progress of the discussions he facilitated there.

The first photo could have been taken in Baltimore last week.

In the shot, a stone-faced police officer stares straight ahead, eyes fixed resolutely on some point far off in the distance rather than looking at the protesters not three feet from his face, yelling in frustration.

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Their expressions mirror the outrage that has rippled through Baltimore since Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man, died April 19 after his spine was broken in police custody.

But the picture was taken in Ferguson, Mo., after the death of Michael Brown, and it has a companion.

In the second image, the mood has changed. The officer's smiling, hands resting upon the shoulders of two of those same protesters.

It's a feel-good before-and-after, and one the Rev. David Anderson likes to show when he's talking about bridge-building.

Anderson, the senior pastor at Columbia's Bridgeway Community Church, traveled to Ferguson last November to help mend relationships and jumpstart conversations among police and protesters, as well as politicians, business owners and church leaders.

Now, as Baltimore grapples head on with its own fraught police-community relations, Anderson is in Ferguson, on a trip scheduled long ago to check in on the progress of the discussions he facilitated there.

"It's ironic that we have the Tale of Two Cities," Anderson said last week. "I'm going over there now and Baltimore is boiling over."

Ferguson to Baltimore

Anderson, who founded Bridgeway in 1992 and has seen its congregation grow from a small group holding services at members' houses to a mega-church that attracts some 4,000 worshippers every Sunday, has also established himself in the realm of race relations in America.

He's the host of "Real Talk with Dr. David Anderson," a radio show that covers topics of religion, race and relationships. It's the most listened-to Christian radio show on the East Coast and the second most popular nationwide.

He drew parallels and distinctions between Baltimore and Ferguson on a recent Thursday afternoon, during Real Talk's three-minute commercial breaks.

A key difference between Baltimore and Ferguson, he said, is demographics.

"You have a city that has a reflection of the community" in Baltimore, Anderson said. "You've got black officers and black city leaders, and people of color who are in leadership, whereas in Ferguson you don't have that. [There,] you have basically a white power base of authority, and then a black populace primarily."

Nevertheless, the psychographics – emotions and attitudes – of the two cities are similar, he said.

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"People feel hopeless, people feel frustrated, people feel like there's an injustice between the law enforcement and the way the community is being cared for," he said. "Those similarities are the same. Some of the solutions have to be the same, as well."

Building bridges

For his workshops in Ferguson, Anderson used a teaching he's developed called the ARCH of Hope, which addresses feelings of apathy, rage, conflict and hopelessness by encouraging action, reconciliation, community and hope.

Anderson focused on improving relationships between community and police by setting both short-term goals – refusing to make personal threats, improving access into and out of neighborhoods and ensuring clear communication from police in real-time during a crisis – as well as long-term ones (eliminating citations and quotas, working with the community to establish guidelines on policing, requiring body cameras for police officers, reviewing accountability standards for officers and encouraging warnings rather than a "shoot first" policy when dealing with potential suspects).

Janise Fonseca, a spokeswoman for the church who accompanied Anderson on his first Ferguson trip, recalled the pastor's determination to bridge divides.

As the police were meeting with church and business leaders, she remembered, protesters got word of the talks and asked to join. At first, the atmosphere was tense.

Then, Fonseca said, Anderson told both police and protesters they were there to "hear each other.

"The spirit of the room just changed so drastically," she said. "That was the beginning of the turning point."

As evening approached, Ferguson officials asked Anderson to stay on for another day of talks.

"The police chief of St. Louis County said... he had been to almost 90 meetings since August, and only three were effective. Two of the three were my meetings," he said.

Work to be done at home

Anderson, who will return from Ferguson on Wednesday, believes similar talks could be effective in Baltimore. If the community invites him to lead a workshop, he said, he would "absolutely" oblige, while noting that there are "some great leaders that are already there" that he'd be glad to "partner with and support."

He's already weighed in publicly on the events of the past week, discussing them in an episode of his radio show and posting a Facebook video April 25 on his fan page.

In the video, which has been viewed more than 51,000 times, Anderson discusses two events that night: the posh White House correspondents' dinner with President Barack Obama in Washington, and the riots that broke out in Baltimore after a day of peaceful protesting there.

"Those extremes, neither one of them are terrible, it's just where people are," Anderson said, "and that's what bridge builders do, they build bridges between where some people live and other people live.

"Pray for Baltimore, pray for Ferguson, pray for our country in the areas where injustice has happened for so long," he told followers. "People are just frustrated. It's not an excuse, but it's a reality."

Anderson said last week a key change that should come quickly is for the city to "communicate the facts and communicate them fast." Otherwise, "people fill in the blanks with silence."

Baltimore police concluded their investigation into Gray's death on April 30, and the city's state's attorney, Marilyn Mosby, announced charges against the six officers involved on May 1.

At home, in a county as diverse as Howard, building bridges is extremely important, Anderson said.

"We're in a metropolis, which means people come with different ideologies, different backgrounds, different religions, no religion at all," he said. "That's a melting pot of ideologies. When we have these conversations, it helps us and it helps the people that live here put in perspective what it means to be a unified society.

"There's quiet or there's riot," Anderson added. "Both of them are extremes that will lead to catastrophe."

April 30, as his radio show came to a close, the pastor implored his listeners to learn from tough experiences.

"Don't waste your pain," he advised. "I mean, if you're going to go through it, you'd better get something out of it."

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It's time for Baltimore to do some serious soul-searching, he said: "If we do not pivot then propel toward a better Baltimore, then we are wasting our pain."

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