What I Saw in Baltimore

Looking for Christians praying for their city, Anika Smith finds a war zone — with Christians.

By Anika Smith Published on April 28, 2015

I reached the city at sunset, surprised by how little traffic there was. Living in D.C., Baltimore has become my getaway city, the place I go to be around people who don’t always think in terms of politics and power. On my way in, I scanned the radio for reports of the riots and heard a report from a CBS reporter who was attacked and mugged by a group of kids. He ended up in the hospital.

The story here is Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from a spinal injury while in police custody. According to reports, Gray was taken into custody because he ran from police. Gray’s funeral was yesterday, and his family asked that it be a day of peace.

Instead, it was a day of chaos and darkness. Demonstrations gave way to riots and looting, and the hope that one man’s death might spark reform and reconciliation fell away as teenagers lashed out at all signs of authority. They were reckless and lawless, and the city trembled. I knew that Christians in the city would be praying and reached out to some friends to find them.

I drove first to Freedom Church Baltimore, where a pastor friend of my pastor had opened up a night of prayer for the city. The church was in Rosedale, on the other side of Pulaski Highway, a low brick building with a white spire, surrounded by green grass. The parking lot was nearly empty and open to the sky. I had just missed a group of about 20 pray-ers, one of whom was leaving as I pulled in. It felt like he was eyeing me, but maybe he was just wondering who was taking the later shift for prayer.

God’s With the Broken

I went inside and met Pastor Michael Crawford in the narthex about why he opened up his church during the riots. He said that his kids were in Baltimore City College High School when a shooting threat came in earlier that day. They were fine, but he saw the TV screens as he was about to board a plane to a meeting when he and “got more and more uncomfortable about leaving my city.”

Crawford told me, “My hope is the hope of the Scriptures, that God is real, He really made us, He really loves this city, He really loves everybody in this city, He’s with the broken and the hurt and the young and the old. He’s pro-police officer and He’s pro-protestor. And so my hope is that God will hear us tonight and, first of all, bring peace. And then we can begin the process of reconciliation.”

We went into the sanctuary, which was filled with banners announcing a conference the church had just hosted. People were already praying, but we gathered together to share our prayers for the city aloud.

I left the church after a sweet time of quiet intercession and realized that the sanctuary was just that, a place set aside for peace and safety. I prayed for peace to travel south as reports came in of journalists being beaten by gangs of kids —The Daily Caller’s young reporters got attacked. I had a flight the next day to see my mom for her 65th birthday, and as I drove past Clinton Park her voice was in my head, telling me to stay safe, and I listened.

Sort of. I drove to another church that I heard was open for prayer tonight, Village Church in Hampden. Hampden is a primarily white, gentrified neighborhood that should be safe, I figured. I drove around nearly empty streets and had a shock as a white van with six heavily armed police jumped — it looked like they erupted — into a 7-11. I kept driving and passed an older couple spraying down a tire that had been on fire. It smelled like a speedway, exhilarating and carcinogenic.

I arrived at the church minutes later to find it dark and empty. The doors were locked.

It was after 9:30. The mayor had declared a state of emergency only a few short hours before, but sirens were everywhere. I drove down Fleet Street, two blocks north of Fells Point, and saw a group of 10 high schoolers emerge triumphant from a liquor store. They looked happy and nonchalant, but probably not cool with me taking a picture of them on my iPhone.

This Wasn’t Baltimore

I drove past and found parking a few blocks away. No visible activity on the street, so I got out, slipping my phone into my back pocket and carrying just my keys, held in my hands in case I got unlucky.

The smoke was heavier than it looked — you had to blink a few times to focus. Choppers overhead and omnidirectional sirens told my ears this wasn’t Baltimore. This was a war zone. Across the street, a small elderly woman slowly walked the same direction I was walking — toward the action — when a young girl came to her and yelled at her to go back inside. “Baltimore_riots_fire_smokeYou can’t be out here!”

It sounded like she knew her. It also sounded like a warning for those of us who were perfectly ambulatory but didn’t want any facial lacerations in family photos this week. A few pedestrians scurried past, and I got out my phone to take a quick shot and a short “look at the smoke!” video. The fire was two blocks away . . .

A young man ran by like a shot, carrying four boxes stacked high, maybe shoes. He was excited. I was not. I got back into my car and drove north to Federal and saw the police barricade standing across the street and people darting in and out of cars and doorways, and thick hostility. Now the warning voice in my head was louder than the sirens. I decided it was time to go home and looked for a place with Wifi to file my story on the churches praying for the city.

The Starbucks near Camden Yard was closed, although everything was calm there. Same with the Safeway in the same shopping complex. I figured a fast food restaurant might be a good bet, but McDonalds a few miles away was closed, too. All of Baltimore now seemed closed for business. I drove away about ten miles down the BW Parkway heard the radio report on the Southern Baptist church’s senior living center fire. It was all I could do to pray.

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