Baltimore churches face issues of riots, racism, love


The Rev. Frank M. Reid III was on a roll now, and some of the hundreds of people packing Bethel A.M.E. Church yesterday morning were on their feet, shouting agreement with their pastor.

"The founders of this country tightened slave laws, even as they wrote, 'Give me liberty or give me death,' Dr. Reid said. "They stole the land from the American Indian. In spite of that, God blessed them anyway. In World War II, Hitler was the threat, but they dropped the bomb on the yellow people of Japan. . . .

"Rodney King is just a symptom of 400 years of racism, sexism and economic exploitation," Dr. Reid concluded, his nearly all-black congregation bursting into applause.

The King verdict and the resulting violence were the subject of sermons throughout metropolitan Baltimore yesterday. The messages from the pulpit came from starkly different perspectives and suggested varying reasons for the startling verdict in the case and the violence.

But several sermons heard yesterday also offered important parallels: calls for justice, understanding, forgiveness and more government attention to the plight of the disaffected.

From the large marble pulpit at the 200-year-old Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore, Monsignor Jeremiah F. Kenney delivered a powerful homily that began with a rich narrative about some of the disciples meeting Jesus Christ after the Resurrection. It was a message of trust and love.

"And then we look at these past few days in our United States," Monsignor Kenney said. The racially mixed audience of 150 Mass celebrants, many in spring pastels, leaned slightly forward in their pews.

"How do we sift through this anger and violence?" he asked. "This was not God's way. His way was to love the world. His teachings revolve around how we can love. But all of this has been crazy -- nuts. How do we understand?

After Mass, Robert Walsh, a computer network analyst for the U.S.Department of Justice, called the jury's verdict in the King case "a joke."

But he also observed: "But the riots are not a personal right either, but a criminal act."

At Douglas Memorial Community Church, a mostly black church in Bolton Hill, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom asked, "How could I speak this morning without lifting up the ugly and terrible hurts that have come to America?" He condemned the violence and the looting, particularly of the Korean community.

"All looting is wrong. You know it's wrong," he said. "We violated the Korean community."

Perspective, though, demands recognition of the differences in the Korean and African-American communities in the United hTC States, he said. Koreans came with a community and with skills. African-Americans came with their community shattered by slavery and lived in a society that until recent times openly opposed development of skills.

At Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, many of the 1,300 church members were out raged by the images from Los Angeles that showed angry black and Latino mobs attacking Korean businesses. Nonetheless, the Rev. Jonathan Song preached a message of understanding.

"What he said is that people have to try to understand the plight of black people, their history in this country," said the Rev. David Gibbon, who preaches English-language services at the church. "The violence should not be interpreted as anger against Koreans, but against the American judicial system."

Dr. Timothy Kim, a Morgan State University professor, and an organist at the Korean Methodist Church of Baltimore, said that while the King verdict provided the spark, the rioting developed from a lack of economic opportunity.

"Though we have improved a lot, for the masses of people economic decency is still denied," he said.

In his sermon at Bethel A.M.E., Dr. Reid said the rioting reflected a broader America.

"Who are the real thugs?" he asked. "Those black and Latino youths who broke into shops? Or those who wear suits and stole billions from the S&Ls;? If those children are thugs, they are doing no more than they've seen the rich and privileged do."

Bethel's congregation seemed to share that sentiment.

"I definitely agree with what Dr. Reid said. It was one of his best sermons," said Lester B. Wallace Sr., a retired school administrator.

A lifelong member of Bethel, Mr. Wallace, 73, said the sermon hithome, even though his family has prospered. Mr. Wallace has two master's degrees, and his wife is a retired school principal with a master's degree. He has two sons, a doctor and a construction firm vice president.

But even amid his own sweet success, Mr. Wallace remains bitter about what he sees as America's racism.

"I served this country in World War II and I couldn't go to graduate school in Maryland because I was black," he said. "I went to a segregated high school that had hand-me-down books."

Many of those obstacles no longer exist. But Mr. Wallace says this country continues to send a more subtle but insidious message to blacks -- especially the dispossessed.

"Our national priorities are with Caucasians," he said. "This is where we give our concern. When you see people riot, you see people who are just frustrated because their pleas are ignored.

Bethel also was the site late Saturday night where 400 people gathered for a prayer vigil.

"What happened to Rodney King in that videotape is what has been happening to African-Americans for the past 400 years," Dr. Reid told the crowd, which included many political leaders. "We hoped the system would work. . . . And it's sad that African-Americans had more faith in America than America had in itself."

At Payne Memorial A.M.E. Church in West Baltimore yesterday, the Rev. Vashti McKenzie said the tragic events following the King verdict created a sense of deja vu.

"We're going back over the same ground," she said. "Didn't we do this before? Didn't we have this same discussion?"

She said that despite riots of the 1960s, conditions that precipitated them -- poverty and hopelessness -- remain unaddressed.

"Look around you" she said. "The scenery has changed, but the human condition remains the same."

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