This story originally appeared on April 29, 2015 at thinkprogress.org
By Erica Hellerstein
“Everybody knows I’m the preacher on the block,” Rev. Michael Parker chuckled, sitting in a rickety chair in the downstairs of Ames Methodist Church in Baltimore, his clerical collar peeking out of the front of a yellow Hollister sweatshirt.
The 31-year-old Reverend, now a pastor at a Methodist Church in Bel-Air, Maryland, grew up with Freddie Gray in Sandtown-Winchester, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Baltimore where more than 50 percent of households earn less than $25,000 a year and nearly one-third of families live below the poverty line. After Gray’s recent death — from severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody — Parker found that many grieving Sandtown residents needed an outlet for prayer and a forum to talk. So he sprung into action, organizing a prayer vigil and running a mediation group out of his house, which drew police officers, pastors, and community leaders together for a “fruitful time of sharing.”
“When everything happened and Freddie ended up passing, my biggest concern was that I had not heard any clergy persons just calling the community to prayer,” Parker remarked. “And I’m one that believes in the power and importance of prayer, even when prayer just means that you sit there and you have nothing that you can say.”
Following a tense evening of protests, ThinkProgress sat down with Parker at the Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore, a large brick building in Sandtown down the street from his childhood home. He shared his memories of Freddie Gray, discussed the roots of the community’s response to Gray’s death, and next steps for reform. An excerpt of the conversation is featured below:
ThinkProgress: We’ve been talking to community members in Baltimore about how they’ve been responding to Gray’s death and the protests. Could you talk a little bit about what you and other members of the clergy have been doing, as well as any plans you have?
Parker: We’ve just been doing a lot of grassroots stuff just trying to run interference and mediation, reaching out to some of the young guys in the neighborhood and hearing what they have to say. On Friday morning, in my home, we had a small gathering with some of the guys in the neighborhood, and we just talked. And tried to get a grip on what was what before all of this came about. It was a very productive, very fruitful time of sharing. Just doing that, reaching out, and trying to connect. So yesterday when everything started going and they put a call in for clergy to come out, I jumped into gear.
This is my community. So I inevitably serve. Everybody knows I’m the preacher on the block. The opportunity to be a presence and just operating out of the ministry of presence more than anything. We don’t have any answers, we don’t. My gut says it will get worse before it will get better. But just the matter of just being here and seeing people. It has been a lot to process, to contend with. Freddie grew up about four or five houses from me. We ran around together. His older brother who is deceased as well was one of my closest friends growing up.
ThinkProgress: A lot of media attention has been focused on the rioting, looting, and protests. Are there any positive outcomes you’d like to highlight?
Parker: One thing this has done that I’ve experienced is that it has really brought the community together. I’ve seen people outside that I haven’t seen in years. So even in the midst of this it’s like a family reunion. Just being able to hug my people. Just being able to do that has been a blessing.
It’s amazing because the gang members are getting such a bad rap and there are so many of them that are really on our side and are hoping for change and for better. And they actually escorted the clergy down North Avenue and back up last night. They had us covered around the back. They were in front of us, they were alongside us, they pulled up their cars and said ‘put the bottles away! The preachers are getting ready to pray.’ I went up to one guy, grabbed him and just said ‘boy I love you.’ And I describe this as the best insult I ever heard, he said ‘boy I love your dumb a** too,’ with water streaming down his face. And we sat in this sanctuary down with them last night, with about 20 gang members and all of these preachers, and we just talked. And we just talked and they talked and we talked, and we heard them all say ‘you are our burden. We’re covering you, we’re protecting you. We’re not trying to tear stuff up or destroy stuff.’
Just hearing that was so encouraging, and hearing how articulate these young guys are. It’s been heavy. It has been very heavy. And I think about, I have an absolutely beautiful 1-year-old niece, and she’s growing up here now. And I think about her. And I think about the legacy that we’re leaving for her. And will the community be safe enough that my sister feels like she can go to the same school that we went to? Will she be okay to play outside?
ThinkProgress: How has the mood changed since last night? Some people we’ve talked to have said the energy is now ‘how do we change the energy?’ What do you think?
Parker: It’s charm city. It is what we do. Baltimore is a very unique place. I tell the world we are the masters of making lemonade out of lemons, in Baltimore. So it is a much different tone today than it was yesterday.
ThinkProgress: Do you think last night was a necessary catharsis?
Parker: People are just tired of being tired. They’re tired of feeling like they’re not being listened to, they don’t have any value, things like that.
ThinkProgress: We’ve talked about your role in the community as a member of the clergy. But you also talked to members of the police force, like the police commissioner, can you talk a little more about the conversations you had? What did you learn?
Parker: They’ve been very informative. They’ve shared information that had not yet been publicized. And they’ve really, they came at us as sponges. They wanted to listen. It was initiated on our end. They were more than willing to meet with us and heard us out. And we offered points of advice.
ThinkProgress: Did you learn anything from their perspective that was instructive, that you hadn’t thought about?
Parker: I did. I was totally ignorant, I was one of the community residents that was pissed off that these officers were home with pay. I did not feel that was right, and even though there’s no proof that they are guilty or not or whatever the case may be, to me that wasn’t enough. And I learned there’s a state law that prohibits officers from being suspended without pay until actually being charged. I did not know that, that was an eye-opener for me. Because all we see is you sent them home and you’re paying them. We don’t know that your hands are tied. A lot of the residents here don’t know that. It was helpful. It was refreshing to be able to pray with them.
It’s just a bad situation but we’re hoping for the best.
ThinkProgress: A week from now where do you see Baltimore? What do you think will be going on?
Parker: My gut says people will still be out here a week from now. There’s supposed to be announcement of preliminary findings on Friday, so my suspicion is that will heighten things yet again. My gut says there’s not going to be a criminal prosecution for any of them but it’s good to know that Commissioner Batts is thoroughly following through not just on the criminal side but the administrative side as well. We’ll see.
ThinkProgress: You grew up in the community and it’s still very close to your heart. And so as you’ve been watching these other situations unfold in other parts of the country, did you ever think ‘this could happen here?’
Parker: Absolutely. I kind of just felt like it was just a matter of time. This city has been above 212 degrees for quite a long time with the cap on. It’s sad that it was in Freddy’s name but it was just a matter of time. People are just outraged, broken. They don’t have access to everyday necessities. A lot of people in this community rely on corner stores and things like that where prices are three and four times what those of us pay who go elsewhere. It’s been a bad situation, especially in this area, Sandtown is leading the state of Maryland in incarcerations. Over 17 million dollars is pumped into the community annually for that purpose, and not enough resources are being put into building stronger community centers, stronger schools. When you don’t have those things in place, you set the community up for where we are right now.
ThinkProgress: What do you think are some of the things that distinguish Baltimore from other cities where similar incidents have emerged, problems that are unique to this place?
Parker: We’re a much larger landscape than like Ferguson, so the hard thing with a city like this is it’s hard to pocket it, it’s hard to contain it. Which is why we saw what we saw last night everywhere. That I think is one of the biggest things.
ThinkProgress: Anything else you’d like to add?
Parker: I would say that while it is a nightmare with your eyes open, this community has not given up hope, we are not hopeless. We are not desolate. We don’t feel like we can’t recover. This a community that has recovered time and time and time again. And while it may take us some time to get our footing back, we will stand strong again. Sandtown people are committed to that. We love this place. And you can only understand it if you’re from here. And we’re here for the long haul. To roll our sleeves up and together work alongside each other. To do what we gotta do to build our community up. So we are not hopeless.