From the moment he took the microphone at the 54th annual Interfaith Institute at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, it was clear that keynote speaker Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, meant business. This year’s topic was “When There is No Vision, Community Will Perish.” Connor began by referencing BHC’s former rabbi, Morris Lieberman, who served the congregation from 1937 to 1970.
“Fifty years, six months and five days ago … Rabbi Morris Lieberman stepped to the bima of this congregation on the morning of Rosh Hashana. It was four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., had left four little African-American girls dead and the nation reeling from the incident,” said Connors.
The reverend went on to share highlights of Lieberman’s sermon, in which he recalled his 1949 European visit to Germany. On that visit, Lieberman drove from Munich to Dachau and along the way, passed many churches whose priests, pastors and congregants had remained silent about the trucks, trains and buses that passed the religious sites day after day as they transported Jews to the death camps.
“What did the priests and pastors preach about at Easter and Christmas?” Lieberman asked his congregants. “Did they speak about peace on earth and good will toward men?”
And then, said Connor, Lieberman did something that showed courage. He drew parallels between the churchgoers and clergymen in Nazi Germany and his own Jewish congregation in Baltimore, beseeching them not to remain silent in the face of racism. By doing so, he knew he risked offending them and opening up a controversial topic.
“Our congregation must act as a holy instrument of divine purpose as 20 million Americans suffer in our country because of the Nazi-echoing philosophy of racial superiority,” said Lieberman.
Connor’s keynote address went on to illustrate how more than 50 years after Lieberman’s sermon and the voicing of Martin Luther King’s dream, Baltimore remains a city of staggering inequality. He illuminated his point by reciting statistics that characterize the Baltimore of the 21st century: In Roland Park, the median income is $90,000 while just a few blocks away in Upton, the median income is $13,000; in Roland Park, the 2010 unemployment rate was 3.4 percent, while in Upton, it was 17.5 percent; in Roland Park, no one lives in poverty, but in Upton, 49 percent live below the poverty line; in Roland Park, the average life expectancy is 83, and in Upton it is only 63.
The reverend shared his observation that in 2014, “many of us no longer seem to possess a kind of urgency to do anything about it. Perhaps many of us have lost hope that anything can be done. Or perhaps the sentiment ‘they’re only Jews’ possessed by some of those Christians on the road to Dachau is not too far off from the feeling of many along the road to Baltimore. ‘They’re only poor blacks.’”
Connor explained why in his view, religious leaders and followers should be concerned about and take action to change the growing inequality between rich and poor and African-Americans and whites.
“First, we will never have peace in this country, much less in this world, until we face the fact that race matters in our city, perhaps more than anything else,” he said. “Baltimore was built on racism that we cannot simply choose to leave behind until we have faced the truth of how it still shapes us.”
Religious groups, he pointed out, “are the only institutions possessing deep narratives of liberation from oppression, storied illustrations of justice and the organizational capacity to reach people across current divides.”
Additionally, he continued, “religious communities are the only institutions with enough independence from special interests to have a credible voice of integrity in the public sphere.”
After Connor’s keynote, Dr. Agha S. Kahn, a Pakistani neurosurgeon, Ahmadiyya Muslim and representative of the Ahmadiyya mosque now situated across the street from BHC echoed Connor’s calls for joint action.
“If we don’t act, we will perish,” he said. “It is time to join forces of good against forces of evil.”
Kahn also spoke about the need for people of different faiths to know each other so that their fear of difference will be diminished: “Ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence,” he warned.
Sister Barbara Ann English, past director of the Julie Community Center was the next respondent.
English also discussed the need for unity in advocating for Baltimore’s poor.
“Imagine what would happen if we declared an interfaith day? [We could talk about] what we see as assets and problems in our city. We could take over M&T Stadium and we would collectively discern what we would do together,” she said. “We would develop a plan. Finally, together, we would rock and roll with our city leaders.”
Rev. Ojeda M. Hall, lead organizer of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, stressed that action was needed more than just talk.
“We believe that by us getting together with action is the way things will happen,” she said. “We’ve listened to people in this city. … Their No. 1 concern is jobs — access to high-quality jobs and living wages. … We’ve talked to drug dealers and they’ve told us, ‘We have to feed our families. Give us jobs, and we will stop selling drugs.’”
The morning ended with a performance by BHC Cantor Robbie Solomon. Soloman performed “If I Had a Hammer” by American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, who died earlier this year.