Doing Church on the Streets of Baltimore

The Rev. Warren Savage, a former gang member, is trying to persuade members of several gangs to direct their energy away from violence. (Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times)
The Rev. Warren Savage, a former gang member, is trying to persuade members of several gangs to direct their energy away from violence. (Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times)

For the past few days, as a rare national media spotlight has shined on this city’s troubles, the Rev. Warren Savage has taken the opportunity to meet with self-described members of the gangs that many residents blame for some of those woes: the Crips, the Bloods and the Black Guerrilla Family.

He has found them on the streets, sat down with them in churches, and talked to them about their anger and their aspirations, urging them to redirect their energy from crime and violent feuding to more productive ends — including tamping down unrest that followed the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody two weeks ago.

In Ferguson, Mo., community leaders seemed unable to come together to stem the violence after the police killing of Michael Brown in August. But in Baltimore, an array of pastors, politicians, community leaders and even gang members have repeatedly taken to the streets to calm crowds, effectively helping the police impose a curfew so far.

Mr. Savage is one of them. By his own telling, he was an early member of a street gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, who engaged in drug trafficking in the early 1980s and spent 15 years in prison.

Now the owner of an upholstery company and volunteer church liaison to troubled youth, he is hoping that shared anger over the death of Mr. Gray will help him advance some gang members’ own efforts to work out a truce and reduce street violence.

“I approach them as an O.G.,” said Mr. Savage, 55, using shorthand for original gangster. “Lots of these kids, you start talking that minister stuff and they look at you funny. They don’t want to hear you preach. They want you to do something.”

Many local politicians, notably Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat whose district includes West Baltimore, have also spent hours walking the city’s blighted neighborhoods to discourage any repeat of Monday’s disorder.

When schools were closed on Tuesday, some teachers came to churches to help feed children who rely on meals they get at school. Ordinary citizens, by the hundreds, have swept up the mess and repeatedly formed lines to create a buffer between police officers in riot gear and angry demonstrators.

Wounded civic pride is part of the motivation. The Empowerment Temple, a big West Baltimore church, responded to Monday’s unrest by offering training in nonviolence.

“We need to show the world what Baltimore is really like,” said the church’s minister, the Rev. Jamal Bryant. “It’s not the violence you saw out there on the streets.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Ron Nixon and Scott Shane

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