Freddie Gray

Obituary of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland haunted by religion ghosts

Obituary of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland haunted by religion ghosts

There’s sad, sad news today in the world of politics: the death of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.

The Associated Press obituary — which will be the one many thousands of Americans read — captures key highlights of Cummings’ prominent life.

Yes, those highlights include clashing with President Donald Trump:

BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a sharecropper’s son who rose to become a civil rights champion and the chairman of one of the U.S. House committees leading an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, died Thursday of complications from longstanding health problems. He was 68.

Cummings was a formidable orator who advocated for the poor in his black-majority district , which encompasses a large portion of Baltimore and more well-to-do suburbs.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings led investigations of the president’s government dealings, including probes in 2019 relating to Trump’s family members serving in the White House.

But read the full AP report, and it’s clear that something is missing.

Holy ghosts, anyone?

AP offers hints of a potential religious influence in Cummings’ life, including here:

It steeled Cummings to prove that counselor wrong. He became not only a lawyer, but one of the most powerful orators in the statehouse, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become the first black House speaker pro tem. He would begin his comments slowly, developing his theme and raising the emotional heat until it became like a sermon from the pulpit.

Hmmmmm. Why might Cummings’ oratory have resembled a sermon?

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Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

The Baltimore Sun is no longer the dead-tree-pulp newspaper that lands in my front yard each morning. Thus, logically enough, there has been a sharp decline in the number of Sun stories that show up here on GetReligion.

Also, the newspaper's website features a numbing array of intrusive auto-cue forms of advertising, so sane readers would only go there when there are no other options. However, my many Charm City-area friends still let me know, from time to time, when something interesting shows up.

In this case, the Sun recently offered an in-depth profile of Alicia White, the only female officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the infamous case that still hangs over life in Baltimore like smoke from burning urban neighborhoods. This was a big story for one simple reason, as stated in the headline: "Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White, charged in Freddie Gray case, becomes the first to speak out."

The surprise in this story is that it truly explores the human side of this woman, as well as the legal and political angles of the story. As is often the case among public servants in Baltimore's African-American community, that led the reporters into spiritual territory.

Right from the get-go, the story stresses that this case has had painful consequences for White as a person and as an officer.

For the past 18 months, her co-defendants either went to trial or were called to the stand to testify while she awaited her own trial. Out of public view, White spent much of the time grappling with crippling anxiety, and at one point was rushed to a hospital. The stress led her and her fiance to call off their engagement, and she spent months unemployed. Then, in July, all charges were dropped.

In addition to the interview material from White, it's clear that the Sun team did extensive background work in the community, digging into her life and work. That's where her educational background and church ties show up.

In other words, her Christian faith was and is part of her identity and, in the past, it affected her actions. Thus, it's part of the story.

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Looking for pastors on Baltimore front lines and, back at church, on their knees

Looking for pastors on Baltimore front lines and, back at church, on their knees

As you would imagine, I am receiving quite a few emails from friends and readers who are asking variations on this question: What is going on in Baltimore?

A few personal comments: First of all, I have very little experience covering politics and the police beat, the two subjects that, for better and for worse, are currently at the heart of the coverage of this story. Second, I live on the Baltimore beltway south of downtown (in a blue-collar, interracial suburb with roots back to Colonial times) and I am not an expert on urban life in this complex city. I do know that -- as some journalists are noting -- there is a special poignancy to seeing smoke and flames rising from neighborhoods that still haven't recovered from the 1968 riots after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like many locals, I spent hours yesterday watching the news and trying to keep up with the social-media hooks in this story. As of this morning, talk radio is full -- as it was yesterday -- of reports of another wave of "purge" notices calling for more violence this afternoon. True?

Of course, I have been watching and listening as a religion-beat specialist and there has been much to note. Another question people keep asking me is why embattled Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't call for a curfew LAST night. Well, the locals can tell you that Baltimore is a city that doesn't have massive resources and they were stretched to the total limit last night. There weren't enough police and firefighters to go around, on a night with about 140 car fires and major action in neighborhoods in the west and east. Could a curfew have been enforced?

So who was there to respond, until the National Guard and back-up firefighters rolled in from outside of town? If you watched CNN, Fox and other networks last night, you know the answer to that -- clergy and activists from black churches, that's who.

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Baltimore Sun, before the fire began falling, talks to (a few) black pastors about Freddie Gray

Baltimore Sun, before the fire began falling, talks to (a few) black pastors about Freddie Gray

It's time to give a salute to The Baltimore Sun for trying to do a timely, highly relevant religion-beat story in the midst the civic meltdown ignited by the still mysterious death of Freddie Gray. If you have a television, a computer or a smartphone (or all of the above) you know that the situation here in Charm City is only getting more complex by the hour.

This past weekend's story -- "What's the role of the church in troubled times? Pastors disagree" -- reminded me of some of the work I did in a seminary classroom in Denver while watching the coverage of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. Facing a classroom that was half Anglo and half African-American, I challenged the white students to find out what black, primarily urban pastors were preaching about the riots and I asked the black students to do the same with white, primarily suburban, pastors.

The results? White pastors (with only one exception) ignored the riots in the pulpit. Black pastors all preached about the riots and, here's the key part, their takes on the spiritual lessons to be drawn from that cable-TV madness were diverse and often unpredictable. The major theme: The riots showed the sins of all people in all corners of a broken society. Repent! There is enough sin here to convict us all. Repent!

So when I saw the Sun headline, I hoped that this kind of complex content would emerge in the reporting. The African-American church is a complex institution and almost impossible to label, especially in terms of politics. There are plenty of economically progressive and morally conservative black churches. There are all progressive, all the time black churches that are solidly in the religious left. There are nondenominational black megachurches that may as well be part of the religious right. You get the picture.

So who ended up in the Sun, talking about the sobering lessons to be learned in the Freddie Gray case, in a story published just before the protests turned violent?

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