Faith Without Works: Mayor Catherine Pugh offered prayers but not much else at December vigil

Mayor Catherine Pugh/ Screencap courtesy CharmTV

Right before the end of the year, Mayor Catherine Pugh pulled together an Interfaith Candle Light Vigil to “honor the families impacted by violence in Baltimore City in 2017,” as it read on the online announcement of the event.

Initially planned to take place outside City Hall, the Dec. 28 event was moved indoors to the War Memorial due to frigid temperatures (this may explain the lack of candles at the “candlelight vigil,” as it was promoted).

A metal detector stood at the door, with security checking purses, coats, and bags as attendees filed through.

There is a kind of comfort in ritual, one that is echoed in many religions. You could feel it that night at the vigil—in the call and response between religious leaders and people in the audience, and in the lyrical pacing of the prayers.

“We gather this night with hearts full of hope as we pray for our beloved city of Baltimore,” intoned Archbishop William Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “Hear the prayers that well up from the depth of our hearts. Prayers for justice, prayers for love, prayers for peace.”

If you are someone who prays, what you pray for says a lot about you—whether you come to your chosen higher power on your knees or on your face, bargaining or begging, whether you are active or passive in your quest for change.

As the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.”

No victims’ names were read at the vigil, and you wouldn’t learn of any of the stories of the dead unless you looked out at some of the handmade signs and other memorabilia in the crowd, most visibly, those in the hands of protesters who lined the back of the building with signs that read #Justice4Jim. They were there to honor Jim Forrester, who was killed Dec. 18 outside of the Baltimore Tattoo Museum, where he worked.

There were no details—only prayers, platitudes, and some music.

“I want to remind us that as we continue to work together collaboratively, that we will change the future of Baltimore,” Pugh told the crowd at the beginning of the event. “That this will become the safest city in America.”

“If you could see what I see right here,” she continued, drawing attention to the signs that her own staffers had handed out (white, rectangular placards with words printed on them in bold black lettering). She read them: “optimism, prosperity, faith, decisiveness, courageous, laughter, thriving, colorful, confident.” Other signs, which felt particularly tactless, read “groovy” and “success.” Later, The Baltimore Brew would report that some protesters were not allowed to bring their own handmade signs in.

Pugh acknowledged the leaders on the stage with her, some of the most powerful people in the city: Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, Comptroller Joan Pratt, and various councilmembers. They didn’t speak, but also held signs (Young’s sign: “purposeful.” Davis’: “empower.”)

“They gave us signs, then they took them back,” Minister Carlos Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said with a laugh. “But the sign that I was given had ‘visionary’ on it. And we know from the scriptures—the scriptures teaches us that where there is no vision, the people perish.”

“We standing here at the mic would rather be less on words and more on prayer,” the mayor said, before introducing Bishop Angel L. Núñez of Baltimore’s Bilingual Christian Church.

“We . . . come to repent tonight,” Núñez said, praying in both English and Spanish. “As citizens of the city, we repent for being silent. We repent for not getting involved. We repent for not doing nothing. Because we know, no political leader, no person, no police commissioner can change the course of a city. Only you, oh God.”

Jamal Bryant, of Empowerment Temple, connected the deaths to the need for economic empowerment.

“Mahatma Gandhi told us that the greatest form of violence is poverty,” he prayed. “So 340 people plus have been killed by bullets but thousands are dying from poverty. God, I pray that you not just send grace and angels—send jobs. Send opportunities, send education. I pray that this country will in fact stop declaring war on the poor and declare war on poverty. . . . Thank you Lord that 2018 is going to be a better year. We declare that we will in fact live a full life.”

When there wasn’t prayer, there was music. Davon Fleming, recently eliminated from the NBC reality competition show “The Voice,” performed several selections, as did the ultra-talented children’s choir Singing Sensations (among the selections that the children sang: ‘Let There be Peace on Earth’).

As the almost hour-long event began to wind down and the mayor wished everyone a happy new year, some yelled out the names of their loved ones, and chants emerged from the back of the room—from the same people there to honor Forrester.

Their chants were drowned out by the children singing.

As people filed out, Forrester’s widow, Tina, was surrounded by journalists. She linked her husband’s death, along with the other deaths in the city, to a wage increase for many of the officials who were seated on the stage, set to begin on Jan. 1.

“I’m here to ask the mayor why she’s taking a raise,” she said. “I’m asking why she feels like she needs to take a raise when this community is in such poverty. I want to know why she’s taking a raise when there’s people out here struggling to feed their children.”

Asked if she’d spoken to the mayor personally, Forrester said, “She wants nothing to do with me.”

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