The Garden Church: Lamenting Racial Unrest

By Sharon Mager

BALTIMORE, Md. — “Be our refuge. Comfort and console us. Protect us from our forgetfulness when George Floyd’s name becomes a distant memory. Be living water for his family members. Cause them to worship you. O Lord, teach them to love you. Teach them to proclaim that the Lord does indeed preserve the faithful, but will abundantly repay the one who acts in pride. Strengthen them and us. Let our hearts take courage as we wait for you” (a portion of a lament by Stephanie Greer).

Joel Kurz, the pastor of The Garden Church in Baltimore, Maryland, knows the heartbeat of the city. After all, he and his wife Jess moved their family to West Baltimore in 2008 to start a church, knowing he had to be a part of the community and understanding that being a white man in the predominantly African-American poverty-stricken areas of Upton, Madison Park, Druid Heights, and Marble Hill was not going to be an advantage.

Kurz is entrenched, living life together with the community. He knows there has been no trust between police and citizens since he arrived. He has been stopped by police and profiled as a drug dealer (a white man driving through “that” part of town).

When the Freddie Gray crisis hit in 2015, Kurz, along with other Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware pastors, and staff, hit the streets, checking on local business owners and families and serving cheesesteak subs. With George Floyd’s death, the response has been unfortunately curtailed. Even now, many pastors, including Tally Wilgis, the pastor of Captivate Church and Baltimore Baptist Association’s Director of Missions; Larry Lin, the associate pastor of Village Church in Baltimore; and Jeremy Dickson, the pastor of Freedom Church, Baltimore, have been out showing love and encouragement to peaceful protesters. But hands-on ministry isn’t the same today as it was five years ago.

“Part of the problem is the pandemic,” Kurz acknowledged. “In 2015, we were out there giving out food. There was a lot going on. Now there is not a lot of organizational work we can do which our city understands to be safe.”

The Garden Church did a virtual lament service on May 31. Kurz asked members to share on the death of George Floyd and the history of racism and judicial disparities.

“We let members express themselves,” he said. “The pieces they wrote were beautiful. We led the church through the laments, one after the other with a time of silence in between. It was a way to express our sorrow before God together, which is the purpose of lament. Laments have been our most fruitful moments together as a church right now.”

“Hear our cry, O Lord! Attend unto our prayers. From the ends of the earth do we cry out to you. When our heart is overwhelmed, lead us to the rock that is higher than us. O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Be our strength today and forevermore. You are our peace. Remind us who you are, for where else can we go? Remind us of your goodness. Remind us of your mercy. You do good always” (a portion of a lament by Jody Haygood).

“We lament the racism in America, which started long before the United States became a nation — racism, which was present when our country was founded and remains present today. Racism —  an evil which denies, minimizes, and ignores the image of God in others for power and greed” (a portion of a lament by Andrew Secrist).

“As we come out of this, I think maybe there are two things to consider, particularly for white pastors,” said Kurz. “Weep with those who weep and refrain from being quick to correct. It’s easy to say the death of George Floyd is tragic but looting is not the right answer. There might be truth in that but it’s not the proper response. We, as white folks, need to speak with other white folks, family members who might have blind spots, who might have seeds of racism in their hearts. That should be where we spend the bulk of our energy at this time.

“Also coming out of this, as white folks, we should seek to educate ourselves continually. When things like this happen, everyone is speaking about racism, but then the media goes on to the next story, and we forget George Floyd’s name.”

So, the bigger question is, what do we do between situations, between the national crises?

That should look like more intentional relationships with people of other ethnicities, learning black history from African-Americans, exploring the depths of racism and what it is.

“We need to prepare ourselves and our congregations so that we’re not just going along with the ebb and flow of the media, but going along with the Bible — people rooted in the Scripture who are anti-racist all the time, and not just now,” said Kurz. “Not just when there’s a national crisis.”

“As our hearts are burdened with the injustice we see in the world, may our hearts long for the day when you will come and set all things right. Jesus, we thank you for making a way for us to be in right standing before the Father. Lord, we long for the day that we will be in your presence. Lord, may we not lose sight of the hope we have in you. As we wait for your return, may we not miss opportunities to point family, friends, and neighbors to a hope that is found in no other name but yours, Jesus. Would you give us the boldness to advocate and speak out for justice on this side of eternity? Even so, come, Lord Jesus! All this I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen” (a portion of a lament by Alton Haynes).