Q&A: From Ferguson to Baltimore, black America’s faith is tested

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear outside a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 28, 2015. The day after rioters tore through Baltimore, the city's mayor was criticized on Tuesday for a slow police response to some of the worst U.S. urban unrest in years after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he had called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake repeatedly Monday but that she held off calling in the National Guard until three hours after violence first erupted. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Bourg *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WHITE-PRIVILEGE, originally transmitted on April 19, 2016.

WASHINGTON (RNS) In the past week, the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, a black Episcopal priest and religion professor at Baltimore’s Goucher College, joined students as they watched, analyzed and agonized about their city erupting in protest after the death of yet another black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.

On Friday (May 1), the Baltimore state’s attorney criminally charged six officers involved in Gray’s death and declared his arrest was illegal.

"Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God" by Kelly Brown Douglas.

“Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Brown Douglas.

Douglas, author of the new book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” writes about the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in his killing, and the deaths of other unarmed black people that followed.

Douglas talked about violence faced by African-Americans and the black church’s response. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: From your perspective as a theologian, what do the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and other young black people say about our society?

A: They are connected and, in fact, what happened to Trayvon, and now what has happened to Freddie Gray, is really part of a larger history in our society in that we simply have not ever dealt with the issue of race in our society.

There are certain privileges that have been accorded to the white body. One of those privileges has been the ability to be in a free space, and that has not been a privilege that has been accorded to the black body. The black body was introduced in this country as chattel and, as such, was never intended to be in a free space.

We can see throughout history that anytime the black people have enjoyed some measure of increased freedom from the time of emancipation, through Reconstruction, through the civil rights movement, there has been an intense backlash.

Q: Some critics say the black church has become irrelevant to the youth on the streets protesting these deaths. Do you agree?

A: Yes and no. The black church has a role to play and it always has. It’s been that institution that has been a resource of survival as well as resistance and liberation struggles for the black community. The black underclass has been abandoned and the black church has to take some responsibility for that. Too many black people are continuing to be disproportionately victims of intense poverty and entrapped in the inner cities. Not only has our wider society not adequately responded to them but so too has not the religious community. And black youths do feel disaffected from the black church.

Q: You’re in Baltimore. Do you see anything different in how black congregations and their leaders have responded, compared to other cases where black men have died at the hands of the police?

A: What we have seen in Baltimore in particular is that the black community did indeed respond to the black church presence; the black church has been the center of refuge for people within the community that has been most affected by what has gone on by the protests of Freddie Gray.

One of the things in the media was looped images of the rioters. But the image that they weren’t looping continuously was of the black clergy who marched through those neighborhoods on that very night of the riots. Some knelt and prayed, and people respected that and people went home.

Q: You write about the “inherent absurdity in black faith.” What do you mean?

A: There is this certain absurdity of how do you believe in the hope and the justice of God, how do you have any hope in the face of what I call crucifying realities. The paradox of that in Christianity is the cross itself. How do we believe in justice and the kingdom that God promises when you have a crucified savior? And it is because of the cross that black people are able to believe, because they know that the God that died on that cross is one that knows their very suffering.

What’s so very powerful to me is that in the face of the death of his son, Trayvon Martin’s father could say, “My faith is unshattered.” How do you have an unshattered faith in the face of the death of your son? That is what black faith has always been about.

The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas is the author of "Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God." Photo courtesy of Goucher College.

The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas is the author of “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.” Photo courtesy of Goucher College.

Q: What’s next for churches in Baltimore and across the country?

A: There has to be a conversation that trickles down on every level of our communities in churches locally, in churches nationally, about the injustice that plays out racially. We have to have this conversation so we can begin to change the systems and structures that create the kinds of conditions in which people are forced to live. The church has to take the lead, not follow. It has to begin to be that critical conscience of our country.

Q: Your book will be released on Mother’s Day, and you’re the mother of a 22-year-old son and college student. Do you speak as both a theologian and a mother?

A: Oh, definitely. As President Obama said once, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I do have a son and he does look like Trayvon. When my son leaves my home, I tell him you must be aware of how you’re perceived and if the police ever stop you — even if you think that that stop is for no other reason than the fact that you are black — I tell him: “I don’t care if they tell you to get on your knees. You get on your knees because in that moment of humiliation you can save your life.”


About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • Great article, great points!

    Our hearts go out to all the poor and disadvantaged youth in our nation and around the globe.

    What are church leaders of any race doing for those that are poor and disadvantaged? What are they doing for the next generation that is wasting away on drugs? What are they doing to prevent pregnancies of unwed mothers?
    What about people like Creflo Dollar who want to dream big for a $65 million Jet for world missions, when their own youth are wasting away? — Would Jesus care more about world missions than taking care of your own brothers and sisters who are in need, in your own backyard?

    What chance does a child have when it is the product of a single mother with no father figure to discipline and lovingly nurture growth?

    When are people going to stand up for the poor and give them a sense of purpose and direction in life, give them opportunities to succeed in life?

  • R.I.P Freddie Gray, R.I.P Eric Garner.

    May God comfort and protect you.
    May God shower you and others like you with immense blessings in the after life — blessings that you did not receive in this life.

  • There are certain privileges that have been accorded to the white body. One of those privileges has been the ability to be in a free space, and that has not been a privilege that has been accorded to the black body. The black body was introduced in this country as chattel and, as such, was never intended to be in a free space.

    Does Adelle Banks put any critical intelligence at all into these interviews, or is it jonathanmerritism all the way down? Trayvon Martin ended up dead because he attacked a local resident (going out of his way to march 75 yards up an alley way to do that) and had the man on the ground practicing his MMA moves on him. Nobody knows what precisely caused Gray’s injuries. None of this has anything to do with black bodies and white bodies. You practice ground-and-pound on Mrs. Louella Washington, she’s likely to shoot you too if she has a gun.

  • It is true that black America’s faith is being tested in all these police-related tragedies. And I agree with the Baltimore Prosecuter’s decision to press charges against the bad cops.

    But I keep wondering about how well the faith of former policeman’s Darren Wilson’s family is holding up too, if at all.

    I don’t see the media taking time to ask out loud how it feels to have your livelihood, your working-hard chosen career, your public reputation, totally and UNJUSTLY destroyed by hotheads, demagogues and even politicians of another race. Or how it feels to have a family member in that situation.

    Not even a simple apology was publicly given to Wilson or his family — nor even to the minority store clerk who was bullied and robbed on nationally-broadcast video. Guess CNN and NBC (and some other media outlets too!) ***just don’t wanna talk abou it.***

    By the way, I wonder how that store clerk’s faith is holding up these days? How about his family?

  • This whole issue is more pointedly a Black issue today, and Blacks need to discuss with each other how to fix what they perceive is wrong.
    It cannot still be about white discrimination and slavery. The advantages of equality have been accorded the Blacks over the past 5 decades that no other minority has been given so abundantly. What does looting and arson and street riots accomplish? More animosity, not more understanding. Are no Blacks guilty of any crime at all? Are all white policemen racists, or is that just what Blacks want to believe?
    Let the Blacks judge their behaviors as American citizens in recent times, without using the white man as the eternal foible.

  • No, people perceiving have to stop looking at society with a funhouse mirror and advocating courses of action which serve their amour propre and not the pursuit of justice and order. (You can start with the author of this post, who brings up Trayvon Martin for the umpteenth time even though he was shot to death assaulting a local resident, and had no good reason to assault that man).

    The blunt truth is that the marginal utility of police services varies quite jaggedly over the fabric of a metropolitan settlement and the neighborhoods which need cops the most are least equipped to pay for them. The same might be said to be true of the foster care system, but that’s much less pricy. You need county-level government coterminous with the boundaries of the metropolitan settlement and you need the police force and child protective operated by that government, not by fragmented municipal authorities, who ought to be maintaining the parks and picking up garbage.


    “Baltimore state’s attorney criminally charged six officers involved in Gray’s death and declared his arrest was illegal.”




    THE CHURCHES DO NOTHING but talk people down. “We are not worthy”
    Nonsense! Blacks are totally worthy and capable of running everything!
    CITIES NEED AFRICAN AMERICANS like this amazing woman to get into positions of power.
    She needs to run for president!
    Let the cops take notice and start behaving.