A black Baltimore Unitarian Universalist marches for Freddie Gray, her city, and her faith.
Charina Austin talks with a fellow Baltimore resident during a May 2, 2015, protest of police brutality in Baltimore (© Kenny Wiley).
The handwritten, cardboard sign tucked under Charina Austin’s right arm reads “STANDING ON THE SIDE OF LOVE.” Charina is a black Unitarian Universalist who lives in the Druid Hill neighborhood of West Baltimore, a ten-minute walk northeast of the Penn North CVS store that burned after 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s funeral April 27, drawing international attention. As we march down Pennsylvania Avenue with 100 other protesters her hands are full with her now-finished drink and sandwich wrapper from Burger King.
Many of us are holding lunch remnants along with our protest signs, because there’s nowhere to put our trash. Coming in to Baltimore, I anticipated the rows of vacant houses, but the garbage on streets, yards, and sidewalks—and so few places to put our trash—feels telling and surprising. As we march, we pass a sign that says, in bold letters, “Keep Baltimore clean.”
We’re half a mile into the march down Penn, and the crowd has swelled in intensity and size. I offer to hold Charina’s lunch wrappers so she can hold up her sign. She accepts, and, her sign raised high in the air, immediately joins the current chant: “Black Lives Matter!”
Charina has a medium-brown complexion and a medium-sized afro, and wears small white earrings. I’d met her the night before at a vigil honoring Freddie Gray’s life just outside First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, Charina’s congregation. After the candlelight pre-curfew vigil, which drew about 65 Unitarian Universalists and other community members, Charina offered to have my friend Melina and me spend most of Saturday with her and attend a rally and march that would head from the intersection of Penn and North toward city hall. And so we find ourselves on Penn.
Charina, 34, moved to West Baltimore in 2011 after spending most of her life around Orlando, Florida. “I live here, and made the choice to do so because I made friends who grew up in places like this,” she says.
Charina’s Baltimore feels as though someone sprinkled southern hospitality on a big northeastern city. Charina nods and says, “What’s up?” to nearly everyone we pass on the street, often getting a “How you doing, sister?” in return. Folks nod and greet me and Melina, too. Personal connections seem to have brought Charina, and thousands of other Baltimore residents, out into the streets to protest racism, police violence, and structural inequality.
It’s by accident that I’d found my way to Baltimore on Saturday, May 2. A friend, the Rev. Scott McNeill, invited me to preach at his installation. Thrilled at the prospect of coming out east and exploring D.C., my friend Melina and I booked tickets from Denver for Friday morning, May 1. Just days later, the unrest and uprising in Baltimore changed the plan.
A quartet of young black women has started a different chant:
“Tell the truth and stop the lies;
Freddie Gray didn’t have to die.”
“Tell the truth and stop the lies;
Freddie Gray didn’t have to die.”
The chant exposes the simple yet revolutionary message that has brought me to Baltimore.
Transfixed by Twitter and Facebook updates as the Baltimore unrest unfolded, I felt pulled by the cries of disgust from local protesters—and nationally prominent Black Lives Matter activists—at the way many mainstream media outlets were covering events. I felt called to go not as an activist, exactly, but as a storyteller, hoping to find a deeper truth. Charina, like the four women leading the chant, has no qualms about telling truths about her life and her city.
As I fall back to take pictures of the march, Charina relays to Melina myriad examples she has witnessed of vicious treatment by police of young black people—not just men, she makes it clear. She conveys these stories, as well as the city’s political and economic disparities, with understated yet palpable conviction and frustration. Charina and others emphasize that Gray’s death from a severed spine in police custody was the galvanizing moment, but the embers of anger that set the Penn North CVS and other establishments ablaze had been smoldering for decades. This is no isolated moment, many leaders declare. “The revolution against racism the city badly needs, and some are willing to die for, has arrived,” one speaker says, to thunderous affirmation.
I expected to see police everywhere. I hadn’t anticipated the noise from helicopters buzzing overhead, unceasing and unyielding. A massive National Guard vehicle, driven by a bored-looking young black man, startles me. We had seen military personnel as we drove into downtown the night before, but viewing this tank up close, with large churches and brilliant blue sky as its backdrop, brings home the reality of West Baltimore’s situation. Many residents seem to pay it no mind as it rumbles by, which I find chilling. Charina shakes her head, glaring at the tank.
“Yeah, it’s exaggerated right now, of course, but the truth is, there are always cops all over this neighborhood unless you need help with something,” Charina exclaims, sipping on her drink and quickening her pace. She says she understands the property damage and anger from a few nights before. “At some point you’ve gotta say ‘enough’ and start using your voice against all this.”
Charina found her physical home in West Baltimore, at the age of 30. Despite knowing some Unitarian Universalists while in her twenties in Florida and having grown up in black Christian churches, she didn’t find a religious community she felt was truly hers until she started attending First Unitarian Church of Baltimore a year later.
She tells me she walked by the marquee outside the church—referred to by members as “First U”—one spring weekday and was pleasantly startled by the title of the upcoming sermon, “Buddha’s Heart.” “I just thought I’d go because it sounded interesting. I went that Sunday even though I didn’t know anyone there, and haven’t stopped going since. Something about the place just felt right.”
The march down Penn grows as we approach city hall. When Charina, Melina, and I first arrived at the march’s starting point, just a few minutes after one o’clock, about fifty people had gathered expectantly, diverse in race and age. Each passing minute brought more folks to the intersection. Three familiar Unitarian Universalist faces joined us. The Rev. David Carl Olson, minister of First U, and the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, program and strategy officer for the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, had on the hard-to-miss yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts. The Rev. Leon Dunkley, associate minister of the nearby UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, settled for Tennessee orange. We exchanged greetings and nods of approval at the energetic, justice-seeking crowd.
Some marchers chant loudly while others merely walk along as we head southeast toward downtown, and the leaders use bullhorns to project their voices. They ask us to speak the names of those whose lives were stolen in the fight against racism and white supremacy. Olson calls out “Viola Liuzzo” and “James Reeb,” the names of two white UU civil rights activists who were killed in Selma in 1965. “Asé,” the growing gathering responds. At one point, someone in the march—mostly black-led and sponsored by the People’s Power Assemblies—starts an “All lives matter!” chant that a young black woman quickly squashes. “All lives do matter, but if you cannot say ‘black lives matter,’ then this is not your movement,” she says to approving roars.
Onlookers in West Baltimore cheer loudly in some areas, while in others people observe impassively. As we pass between taller buildings, the acoustics make our chants and rituals louder, which breeds more boisterous participation. Charina channels the energy, chanting passionately at times, sometimes staring pointedly in cops’ directions as she does so. Two minutes later, during a relative lull, she reaches in her backpack and offers fellow protesters water bottles.
As we near Penn and MLK, Charina tells us about a racist incident at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in which someone had etched “kill black people” prominently in an elevator on November 24, 2014, the night a grand jury announced its decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Throughout the day Charina seldom raises her voice—it has a relaxing quality, like a daytime radio deejay—but the anger at these repeated injustices comes through in her arm and hand gestures and in slight shakes of her head. Multiple times she hotly invokes the stories of neighborhood schools that have been closed due to budget shortfalls and underperformance, as costly helicopters spin above us. “That money could have gone to those schools. All this money they’re spending to occupy our city . . .” Charina points to the sky, her index finger jabbing toward one such helicopter as her sentence trails off.
“I understood the reactions out here,” she continues. “There’s only so long you can oppress people before they fight back. People have used words, but nobody’s listened.” She pauses as the latest chant—“Back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom; all these racist-ass cops, we don’t need ’em, need ’em”—reaches a fever pitch. Protesters are clapping enthusiastically, including those verbally sitting the chant out; car drivers honk support as they wait for the ever-larger gathering to go by.
“You burn a CVS, and look what happens. Even those [who had been] ignoring all this have to look at the problem today. Everyone’s paying attention now,” Charina says.
As she says this, I wonder if she might also be talking about her—our—religious siblings.
After the march ends downtown at city hall, we head over to First U to meet up with Adrian Graham, another black UU in the city, and see what else is going on. First U, too, is home for her—mostly. Charina serves First U as a worship associate and as a member of the religious education committee. She hugs Adrian and others in the building.
But inside these walls, the movement feels important but removed. The big rally is less than a mile away, but it’s as though the revolution is being glimpsed through a window. Charina touches on this later, when we’re back at her West Baltimore house: “I think we do stuff to help with social action, but there’s hesitation about actually going into affected communities.”
I have a notepad out, jotting things down, but we’re both black UUs with similar experiences and hopes, and so the conversation doesn’t feel much like an interview. “We say that thing every Sunday about how diverse we are, and in some ways it’s true.” She counts on her fingers for emphasis—gender, sexual orientation, disability, age—then stops at “race.” “There are few black people in our movement,” she says.
The last few weeks have tested her resolve about being in the Unitarian Universalist church, she says, despite its theology being just what she’s looking for. She doesn’t fully elaborate what she means. But, in spending the day with her, it seems to me she is describing the gulf between her two communities—in West Baltimore and at First Unitarian Church—a chasm that remains despite high aspirations of inclusion and connection.
As the march had neared its conclusion, Charina took another chanting break and dashed excitedly to hug a white friend she’d just spotted. The crowd was at least 200 strong now, but the other UUs had already left. National Guard troops and police in riot gear were all around. One young policeman stared smugly at us; most others looked vaguely disinterested. The friend she saw is someone she knows through an area justice organization, and they chatted animatedly. Charina hugged her again as they parted. Minutes later, at city hall, she spotted a young black man holding a cardboard sign. He had written onto it the text of the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery in 1865: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States . . .” He had underlined “duly convicted,” and that grabbed Charina’s attention. Anger at the ways they felt cops took justice into their own hands—Freddie Gray was dead, without charge, without jury, because he made eye-contact with a cop?—threaded their intense conversation. The duo bumped fists and nodded.
She shook her head slightly as we walked toward First U. “I want even more, but there’s a lot of unity in this city right now,” she said, seemingly unaware that she had just embodied it. “I hope the unity stays when the media and National Guard leaves.”
Throughout the day she expressed frustrations about the ways in which Baltimore has been perceived nationally—in the last two weeks and in the last twenty years. “People want to know why I live here. This is home for me.” She wants more and craves something better—for her city of Baltimore, from her Unitarian Universalist faith, and for her people. It occurred to me, as I watched her greet a white man in a collared green shirt as we passed: if it were up to Charina, “her people” would mean everyone.
An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of UU World (pages 12–14).
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Kenny Wiley is a Denver-based UU World senior editor and program director for congregational engagement at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and Skyd Magazine.
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